The Pop Song Pantheon, Vol. 4
"Fight the Power" by Public Enemy (1989)
In the wake of Flavor Flav's ongoing move toward outright television buffoonery, and Chuck D.'s progressive mellowing, away from hip-hop reactionary and toward campus-friendly public intellectual, it may be hard for some listeners to recall what excitement this group generated back in the day. They were the first hip-hop concert I attended, at age 16. I got waved down with a metal detector, man! (That moment was less, I realized even then, a necessary precaution than it was cartoonish old-fashioned racist zeal from the local police...) This song, is of course, the theme to Spike Lee's incendiary film, Do the Right Thing (the last good American movie of the 1980s, confronting as it did the repressed effects of Tawana Brawley's accusations, the Howard Beach incident, Michael Stewart's murder, and Bernard Goetz's vigilante action, among black and white Americans in New York) and the track reverberates throughout the mounting tension of that movie's narrative. Even separated from its crucial contextual place in Lee's film, though, the song still has legs. Chuck D's lyrics were angry and inventive, and the group's production team (the fabled "Bomb Squad") were virtuosic in the cacophonic textures they crafted out of beats and disembodied samples. Play it loud.