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"Fight The Power": 7 Facts Behind Public Enemy's Anthem | GRAMMY Hall Of Fame
Public Enemy's Flavor Flav and Chuck D come in hard right from the first words of the group's culture-shifting hip-hop anthem, namechecking the year of its creation as the social, racial, and political backdrop for the bold rebuke to come. What follows is one of music's most potent musical statements of any era or genre — a sound and a fury that landed "Fight The Power" in its rightful spot in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as part of the class of 2018.
The song's inception began when director Spike Lee approached Public Enemy about penning an anthem for his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing. Chuck D got right to work on a flight to Europe for a tour with Run D.M.C., during which he wrote most of the lyrics that, when set to a punchy Bomb Squad (Public Enemy's production team) track, became a fixture not only of music history but American culture.
More than an outpour of outrage, "Fight The Power" captured the urgency of racial tensions happening in both Lee's film and in the real neighborhoods of New York, in addition to announcing the group's refusal to be ignored.
Landmark moments like this one are no mistake. Here are seven insights into "Fight The Power" you might not have known.
1. Isley Inspiration
According to Chuck D, the song was inspired by the Isley Brothers' song of the same name that was released as a single in 1975. The message behind both songs is similar and the Isleys even went as far as to call racial oppression "bulls***," a bold move at the time that didn't stop the song from hitting No. 1 on the R&B singles chart. But Public Enemy's refresh dealt with abuse of authority on a whole new level of directness.
As Chuck D explained to Rolling Stone, "The challenge was, could we make something entirely different that said the same thing in another genre?"
Public Enemy were more than up to that challenge, but it's quite possible their anthem would have at least had a different hook were it not for the Isley Brothers' bravery.
2. Keep On Fighting
In June 1989 "Fight The Power" was released as a single from the soundtrack for Do The Right Thing, hitting No. 1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. Public Enemy also included a different version of the song on their third studio album, 1990's Fear Of A Black Planet, a release that eventually sold over 2 million copies and cemented the group as voice of the hip-hop movement. The song has been widely used ever since as a protest anthem against social injustice far beyond the confines of Brooklyn, prompting Chuck D to call it "the most important record that Public Enemy have done."
3. Favor Flav's GRAMMY Moment
"Fight The Power" was nominated for Best Rap Performance for the 32nd GRAMMY Awards, though the trophy was ultimately awarded to Young MC's "Bust A Move." Never one to be outdone, Flavor Flav jumped onstage with Young MC uninvited, crashing his acceptance speech. "I'd like to thank Flavor Flav for breaking up the monotony of my acceptance speech,” Young MC noted.
For all his antics, Flav's role in Public Enemy was a deceptively brilliant one. The Roots' Questlove said it best when he placed "Fight The Power" at No. 8 on his Top 50 Hip-Hop Songs Of All Time list.
"Flavor Flav's bats***" crazy stance was used as bait (I fell for it) to attract the unaware. Once trapped inside, Chuck D's baptist preacher rapid-fire scream was the nail in the coffin. The best sweet and sour combo in hip-hop. Actually, the original contrary duo in hip-hop," wrote Quest.
4. Sax Appeal
"I wanted to have a sax in the record but I didn't want it in a smooth, melodic fashion," producer Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad said, "I wanted someone to play it almost like a weapon, and Branford [Marsalis] was the guy."
Indeed, Marsalis wields his sax in a most unusual way on "Fight The Power," thanks largely to Shocklee's inventive guidance.
"Hank did something that I'll never forget," said Marsalis. "He made me do one funky solo, one jazz solo and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo. And I said, 'Which one them are you going to use?' And he said, 'All three of them motherf***ers,' and he threw all three up. And the s*** was killer. You had this Wall of Sound come in and the saxophones came in, and it was a Wall of Sound to accompany a Wall of Sound."
5. Not Their King
Perhaps the most explosive and controversial moment in the entire song comes when Chuck D's denounces Elvis Presley. "Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant s*** to me you see," he snarls at the top of the third verse, before calling him a "straight-up racist." Later, Chuck D clarified the intent of the lyric was not to directly attack Presley personally, but rather to point out the gross inequity in the way our culture picks its heroes.
"Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else," Chuck D said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014. "It's not that Elvis was not a talented dude and incredible in his way, but I didn't like the way that he was talked about all the time, and the pioneers [of rock and roll], especially at that time, weren't talked about at all. When people said 'rock & roll' or 'the King,' it was all 'Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, one trillion fans can't be wrong' type of s***."
6. What About John Wayne?
Later on in the same verse Flavor Flav chimes in, addressing John Wayne with a similar detest as Presley. Evidently the intention of the lyric, while symbolic to a degree, was much more direct.
In that same 2014 interview, Chuck D said, "But as far as 'motherf*** him and John Wayne' ... yeah, f*** John Wayne to this minute [laughs]. John Wayne is 'Mr. Kill All the Indians and Everybody Else Who's Not Full-Blooded American.' The lyric was assassinating [Presley's and Wayne's] iconic status so everybody doesn't feel that way."
7. Bomb Squad Explosion
No anthem can be truly effective without being equal parts concept and feeling. For all its lyrical bombast, the hammer of "Fight The Power"'s message is swung by its beat. The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's producer collective led by brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, employed a myriad of samples, including Trouble Funk, the Dramatics and James Brown, and pushed the tempo 10 or so BPMs (beats per minute) faster than the common rap songs of the era, creating the perfect sonic vehicle for the song's social message.
The Bomb Squad's dense, meticulous and masterful production is further proof that all the right pieces must be in place for a song like "Fight The Power" to have a seismic, sustaining impact.