The hot, turbulent summer of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”

Photo: David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images, Graphic: Allison Corr

“Fight The Power” is arguably Public Enemy’s greatest moment. As the theme song for Spike Lee’s classic film Do The Right Thing, it precipitated the Long Island group’s elevation from hip-hop stars and critics’ darling to national consciousness. It also brought a harsh, unforgiving light to its members’ ideas and beliefs. By the end of a long, hot summer in 1989, the group fractured, and the original unit was effectively over.

But “Fight The Power” is more than just Public Enemy’s trial by fire. It’s a glorious, celebratory uprising. Arriving at a time when the next wave of activists was finally emerging from the long shadow of the civil rights movement, it’s “Dancing In The Streets” for the hip-hop generation, a pro-Black agit-rap message meant to inspire social activism and political change. One of the unfortunate legacies of the furor that eventually engulfed “Fight The Power” is that we forgot how joyous and empowering it sounds.

The song was the leading light in a year when America struggled to process the aftereffects of a rising hip-hop nation. In Los Angeles, N.W.A’s classic treatise of street knowledge, Straight Outta Compton, elicited scrutiny from the FBI and law-enforcement groups, thanks to the album track “Fuck The Police.” In Miami, 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Want To Be drew legal scrutiny for obscenity, resulting in court cases that nearly went to the highest federal level. Back in New York, De La Soul was sued by The Turtles for sampling their music on the seminal 3 Feet High And Rising, one of several lawsuits against rap performers that would have a chilling effect on sampling.

Chuck D and a member of the S1Ws on stage in London, 1987.
Chuck D and a member of the S1Ws on stage in London, 1987.
Photo: David Corio/Redferns (Getty Images)

But it was Public Enemy who landed on TV evening news broadcasts, depicted as a symbol of a new and dangerous Black radicalism. Some of this controversy was by design: Its members were provocateurs who challenged society’s portrayal of African Americans and crafted an uncompromising alternative to the middle-class bonhomie of The Cosby Show.

Public Enemy formed out of the ashes of Spectrum City, a local DJ and production crew led by brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee that released a failed 1984 electro single, “Lies/Check Out the Radio,” that bore a faint resemblance to Run-DMC’s “Hard Times.” A 1986 demo spotlighting Chuck D and Flavor Flav and intended for play on their show at college station WBAU-FM, the oscillating wah-wah rhythm of “Public Enemy #1” precipitated the crew’s revival and a Def Jam contract. More than just an ordinary group centered around the voices of Chuck D and street musician-turned-hypeman Flavor Flav, Public Enemy’s founders were conceptualists. DJs Terminator X and Johnny “Juice” Rosado contributed turntable cuts. Eric “Vietnam” Sadler worked on production. Bill Stephney marketed the group through his job as an executive at Def Jam. Spectrum City’s security staff was remade as the Security Of The 1st World, or S1Ws, dancers who executed militaristic steps and brandished plastic Uzis during live performances.

Illustration for article titled The hot, turbulent summer of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”

Public Enemy’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum The Rush Show, impressively fused block-rockin’ 808 beats with Chuck D’s braggadocio rhymes on Black pride and police harassment, but it failed to capture the wider B-boy audience’s imagination. That began to change with a series of increasingly brilliant singles—“Rebel Without A Pause,” “Bring The Noise,” “Don’t Believe The Hype”—that adopted the swinging funk rhythms percolating among like-minded groups like Eric B. & Rakim and Boogie Down Productions. It all led to the group’s landmark 1988 album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, where Chuck D’s stentorian baritone, Flavor Flav’s crazily antic ad-libs, and thematic focus on Black power and self-improvement took full flight.

Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s blunt language mirrored the political tempests swirling through New York in the late ’80s. They aligned with controversial Nation Of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is both admired for his work in Black communities and despised for his bigoted anti-Semitic comments. Chuck D and Professor Griff, the latter who led the S1Ws, gave combative media interviews. In particular, Griff’s press comments that compared gay men and lesbians to “Sodom and Gomorrah” and resuscitated toxic Jewish stereotypes created an uncomfortable undercurrent to Public Enemy’s slow-yet-steady rise. (The group’s harsh depiction of women on tracks like “Sophisticated Bitch” and “She Watch Channel Zero?!” was also problematic.)

Longtime journalist, scholar, and author Jeff Chang depicted these events in his award-winning 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a history of hip-hop through a social-activist lens. “Although Chuck knew how to press white liberal pundits’ panic buttons, he never seemed to question the basic humanity of those with whom he disagreed,” Chang explained to The A.V. Club. “He wanted to provoke, not silence the opposition. In fact, he seemed to want to spar with them. He seemed to be saying, ‘You can’t ignore me. You can’t dismiss me.’ Griff’s conspiracies seemed designed to shut down any kind of discussion.”

Nevertheless, Public Enemy’s albums doubled as a kind of musical journalism. Chuck D’s brief mention of Joanne Chesimard, now known as Assata Shakur, in “Rebel Without A Pause” would send thousands of curious kids scurrying to the library, eager to learn more. They fueled a renaissance among youth to learn more about Black history and culture.

Chuck D wrote “Fight The Power” while Public Enemy opened on Run-DMC’s 1988 tour. Its title pays homage to The Isley Brothers’ 1975 top-10 hit, which represented a final gasp of conscious funk before Black music transitioned to lovelorn disco and quiet storm. A memorable line from The Isleys’ “Fight The Power” found Ronald Isley growling, “When I rolled with the punches, I got knocked on the ground / With all this bullshit going down.” Public Enemy responded with its own expletive-laden words. “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain,” Chuck D rapped. Flavor Flav added a rejoinder: “Motherfuck him and John Wayne!” It’s hard to describe how much those words meant to a generation used to being force-fed a galaxy of mostly white pop icons at the expense of Black ones. (The open racism of stars like Wayne—whose bigoted views recently re-aired on social media—didn’t help.)

The music of “Fight The Power,” produced by the Shocklee brothers, Chuck D (a.k.a. Carl Ryder, born Carlton Ridenhour), and Sadler—who would soon call themselves The Bomb Squad—was an inspired frenzy of samples. ( counts 21 in all.) There are the clipped chants of the Wailers singing “I” from “I Shot The Sheriff,” Aaron Hall crooning “Teddy’s Jam,” and James Brown’s iconic “Funky Drummer” pulsing underneath.

“Fight The Power” dropped in June 1989. Unlike today, when songs miraculously appear near the top of the charts after days of heavy streaming playback, most hits back then were built through weeks and months of radio and video airplay. The first Spike Lee-directed video represented a kind of soft opening: a collage of clips from his soon-to-be-released Do The Right Thing. A second Spike Lee video turned up the heat by depicting a victory parade through the streets of Brooklyn, and marchers carrying signs decorated with photographs of Black heroes like Marcus Garvey, Jackie Robinson, and Harriet Tubman. The stage on which Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Griff, and the S1Ws danced matched their iconic B-boy logo with a photograph of Malcolm X. Near the video’s end, Flavor Flav led the crowd in chants of “Don’t Believe The Hype.”

Eric Harvey, a journalist and professor at Grand Valley State University, opines that Lee’s “Fight The Power” visuals serve as a rejoinder to the media’s portrayal of Black America. He’s currently working on a book about hip-hop’s fraught relationship with the media, Who Got The Camera?: Rap, TV, And The Rise Of Reality. “The 1980s were an abysmal time for representation of Black stories on television news, whose reporters were eager to mimic Reagan’s racist ‘war on crime’ for ratings,” he told us via email. “So when Chuck D told Spin’s John Leland in 1988 that rap was ‘Black America’s television station’ (later amended to ‘CNN’), he was not saying that PE should be regarded as journalists on par with [The New York] Times, but that they served an important role in telling stories rooted in lived experience to Black audiences that the press and primetime were ignoring. In this sense, reportage is not the ‘objectivity’-obsessed model that took hold post-Watergate, but a narrativized refraction of lived experience delivered with the energy and urgency of the late-19th century’s tabloid press.”

Demonstrators attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with a symbolic coffin on the “Day Of Outrage,” August 31, 1989.
Demonstrators attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge with a symbolic coffin on the “Day Of Outrage,” August 31, 1989.
Photo: Allan Tannenbaum (Getty Images)

More than just “another summer,” 1989 proved a tinderbox. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a black teen named Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of white youths. A subsequent “Day Of Outrage” march against racism over the Brooklyn Bridge ended in a clash between protesters and police. In Virginia Beach, riot cops tried to curtail an annual festival popular among Black residents, resulting in more violence. Later reports of the event alleged that the revelers chanted, “Fight the power!”

It’s ironic, then, that Public Enemy’s status as folk heroes was undercut by a conservative newspaper. Earlier that May, the Washington Times published an interview with Professor Griff in which he blamed Jewish people for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” As Public Enemy’s star rose during the summer, so did the backlash to Griff’s incendiary anti-Semitic comments, until the controversy reached fever pitch. Struggling to respond, Chuck D suspended Griff, then kicked him out, then reincorporated him into the group. Chuck gave interviews asserting that the group was breaking up as a protest of the music industry; days later, he sent out a press release stating that it was still together. His bizarre equivocations only elicited more criticism.

Chang compares Public Enemy’s wayward drift to the debate over N.W.A’s “Fuck The Police,” which he calls “a classic rock-and-roll controversy.” “Both groups illustrated the power of a new generation of Black musicians to disrupt social norms, particularly around questions of race,” he explains. “Public Enemy’s controversy was perhaps much more complicated and perhaps more dismaying to true believers. It touched directly on what was happening in New York’s racial politics—it summoned all the pain and fervor of the rising tensions between Black and Jewish communities, two communities that historically had been strong allies in civil rights and deeply divided foes around public education—and this happened at the same moment when anti-Black violence in the city was reaching a peak with the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst.”

In the aftermath, Stephney left the group, while Hank Shocklee—by now a top producer and remixer responsible for major hits like Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison”—distanced himself. He worked on Public Enemy’s 1990 album, Fear Of Black Planet, before leaving altogether. Griff, for his part, finally wore out his welcome after he nearly sabotaged a European tour with fellow Def Jam act 3rd Bass; label co-founder Russell Simmons finally banned him from its offices, according to Stacy Gueraseva’s company biography, Def Jam, Inc. The group itself was banned from Canada’s MuchMusic station for several weeks, and some retailers threatened to pull its records from shelves.

Yet the fracas also brought unintended benefits. “Fight The Power” never charted on the Billboard Hot 100. As was the case for most of Public Enemy’s career, radio largely shunned it. (The group didn’t earn substantial radio airplay until the 1991 single “Can’t Truss It.”) But it topped The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll, beating Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” by one vote. In 1990, Fear Of A Black Planet—with “Welcome To The Terrordome,” Chuck D’s incendiary response to the maelstrom that engulfed him, at its center—peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard top-albums chart. No matter how bruised, Public Enemy had emerged as the biggest hip-hop group in America.

Today, Public Enemy is a byword for a time when young people of all colors—Black youth as well as their allies—utilized hip-hop as an agent to effect social change. Even as the rap industry has long since emphasized the politics of pleasure over civil rights and activism, those “Fight The Power” years remain a treasured period of growth. Chuck D has evolved into one of the genre’s best elder statesmen, a crucial link between its Golden Age past and its post-streaming present. Professor Griff has apologized for his prior bigotry, and occasionally appears with Public Enemy on its frequent tours. But Public Enemy has also become a symbol of how the power of collective energy—the hip-hop crew as a team out to remake the world—has been lost, and diminished by the specter of personal brands and social media celebrity.

“At least in the U.S., pop musicians—with maybe one or two exceptions, Beyoncé and Kendrick—don’t possess the same mobilizing force they once did,” says Chang. “We live in an age of celebrity power that is individualized and managed and protected by invisible armies of labor. The power of [Public Enemy] was that it was a group [that] could harness such a diversity of personalities and strengths. I wish we had more of that kind of beautiful, volatile, and authentic diversity and chemistry. But now everyone knows that pop is about artifice and seems to prefer that the product be polished and finished and not reveal its seams or edges. Disagreeing is for trolls.”