Riot on the Set: How Public Enemy Crafted the Anthem ‘Fight the Power’
“We needed an anthem,” Spike Lee said. “When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting. I wanted Public Enemy.”
The director may have asked for an anthem for his 1989 chronicle of big-city racial tensions, but what he got was a salvo. A quarter of a century has passed since Radio Raheem’s boom box served as a megaphone to a generation, spreading Public Enemy’s rap reveille over and over again in the movie, but “Fight the Power” has not lost an ounce of its revolutionary power or poignancy. Chuck D’s lyrics praising freedom of speech and people uniting while decrying racist icons still sound just as vital as anything Pete Seeger wrote, and production team the Bomb Squad’s ultra-modern collage of funk and noise for the track has never been replicated. The fact that Public Enemy made multiple versions of the tune – including the Branford Marsalis–infused, free-jazz cut for the movie and the more straight-ahead approach on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet – only shows the versatility of the song’s message.
Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
To celebrate the legacy of the tune, and its impact both in and out of movie theaters 25 years later, Rolling Stone caught up with Lee, Marsalis and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and found out how they made an anthem.
Where does the “Fight the Power” story begin?
Chuck D: Spike, [producer] Bill Stephney, Hank and I had a meeting, and Spike simply said, “Hey look, I’ve got this movie based on all this tension going on in the New York area, the clashing neighborhoods, and I’m looking for an anthem.” All I remember was Spike was saying, “I’m looking for an anthem.”
Hank Shocklee: Spike’s original idea was to have Public Enemy do a hip-hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is kind of like a Negro anthem or spiritual. But I was like, “No.” I opened the window and asked him to stick your head outside. “Man, what sounds do you hear? You’re not going to hear ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in every car that drives by.” We needed to make something that’s going to resonate on the street level. After going back and forth, he said, “All right, I’ll let you guys go in there and see what you guys come back with.”
When did the “Fight the Power” concept come up?
Chuck D: We like to work from titles down, so we came up with “Fight the Power” first. It was inspired by the Isley Brothers’ song “Fight the Power.” But the challenge was, could we make something entirely different that said the same thing in another genre?
Shocklee: We lived in the suburbs and were sandwiched by nothing but white communities. It was like we were the leftovers: We got what the white communities didn’t want to have, we got their spillovers. So we always had to kind of fight this adversity. We wanted to just make something that was going to say, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not gonna take it any more – I’m going to fight the system.” So that song that the Isley Brothers did, “Fight the Power,” resonated, but their version was a little soft. It didn’t resonate as deeply as I thought it should.
“Fight the Power” and the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
Chuck, at what point did you write the lyrics?
Chuck D: I was getting ready to head out on a European run with Run-D.M.C. in the fall of 1988. I remember writing a big chunk of it on a plane as we were flying over Italy. And D.M.C. was probably in the chair next to me. So I had the aftereffect and the glow of Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay to inspire me, so to speak, in the writing of some of the lyrics.
“Freedom of speech is freedom of death” is a line that has always stood out. What prompted that?
Chuck D: A lot of that stuff like that line is like Bob Marley or Frederick Douglass: “There’s no progress without struggle.” There are a lot of things like that that I was able to incorporate it in there.
Why did you pick out Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 single “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as a negative thing?
Chuck D: Because”Don’t Worry Be Happy” doesn’t apply to protests. If you’re not worried and you’re happy, you’re like, why protest? Not everybody’s gonna feel like that.
What inspired the line about Elvis and John Wayne being racists?
Chuck D: [Comedian]Blowfly had a record called “Blowfly’s Rapp”in 1980. And there was a line in there where one of the characters in the song was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and basically he had a lyric, “Well, I don’t care who you are, motherfuck you and Muhammad Ali.”
Why did you pick Elvis Presley and John Wayne, specifically?
Chuck D: Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else. 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 & 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 shit.
But as far as “motherfuck him and John Wayne”… yeah, fuck 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 their iconic status so everybody doesn’t feel that way.
“Fight the Power” and the Best Summer Songs of All Time
Is that also how “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” came about?
Chuck D: That came from the fact that Spike also discussed how there was a wall in the movie with people we respected as heroes on it. So “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” was saying, “You know what, we’ve got heroes on the wall, too.”
Flavor, how did you end up getting the John Wayne line?
Flavor Flav: A lot of the songs that Chuck D has written, I took parts. I’d say, give me this part, give me that part. And I’m very grateful for the lines he gave me. I ain’t gonna lie, because those are the most memorable parts of the record.
See Where Questlove Ranked “Fight the Power” on His Top 50 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
Was “Fight the Power” the first song considered for Do the Right Thing?
Lee: That wasn’t the first song they submitted. It was not “Fight the Power.”
What was it?
Lee: Not “Fight the Power.”
Shocklee: It was “Fight the Power.” He got the preproduction version. It was a sparse outline of the idea of the song. Spike, with all due respect, is not a rap guy, so he’s not gonna understand where it could go until it’s a finished production.
Chuck D: [Laughs] Spike misconstrued it as being a different song. It was a song in a rough stage with different elements brought up to the front. But Spike used it, because he had to present the film to a bunch of different investors. I remember checking out a screening with Hank in Brooklyn, and Spike had put in the rough draft of the song, and every time he played it, I was sinking in my seat, because I was like, “Oh shit. The song is not complete. It sounds like shit to me. And he’s going to put in the movie this many times? What the fuck!” I was like, “Man, we’ve got to come better than that.”
Hank, what was your goal when you were putting together the music for the track?
Shocklee: I wanted you to feel the concrete, the people walking by, the cars that are going by and the vrroom in the system. I wanted the city. I wanted that grittiness, the mugginess, the hot sticky, no-air vibration of the city [laughs].
How did Branford Marsalis get involved?
Branford Marsalis: I think it was Spike’s idea. I don’t feel at that the time that P.E. or Hank would have been suddenly compelled to use a saxophone.
Shocklee: I wanted to have a sax in the record but I didn’t want it in a smooth, melodic fashion; I wanted someone to play it almost like a weapon, and Branford was the guy. He came in the studio and he was incredibly gracious and very humble. He treated us as if we were musicians just like himself.
Marsalis: Hank did something that I’ll never forget. 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 motherfuckers,” and he threw all three up. And the shit 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.
“Fight the Power” in ‘Do the Right Thing’ and the 30 Greatest Rock & Roll Movie Movements
Branford, coming from a jazz background, what was it like playing over a Bomb Squad track?
Marsalis: It was not a normal chord progression. If it was C minor then it went to A-flat 7. It has the same sensibility as a James Brown tune, which is completely where they got it from. If you listen to when they go, “Fight the Power” and you hear that voice that goes, “Aahh,” that voice is not in the same key as the other shit. A musician would never do that. But it works. It unwittingly helped me expand my brain in a way.
Did you think you had a hit?
Chuck D: No, but when I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh. We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver shit. We couldn’t rely on radio.
Marsalis: They had the greatest marketing tool in the world. They had a movie that people were going to see two and three times, that was going to be all over the world and it scared white people half to death — which ensured that it was going to sell.
Flavor Flav: When “Fight the Power” was being created, all I did was just come in, lay down my lyrics and I was out. I didn’t know that the record was going to be as big as it turned out to be. I just wanted to make a great record and keep it moving. And next thing you know, this phenomenal record was being played on the radio over and over and over. I’m like, wooow. This is crazy.
Chuck D: For all the talk about “Fight the Power,” there was always resistance to Public Enemy. It really got no higher than 16 on the R&B/black charts, which just goes to show you how much help black radio and urban radio gave us. It didn’t even crack the Top 10. It’s crazy, because in hindsight when they talk about the Number One rap record that meant something, “Fight the Power” is always at the top of those charts.
The B side to the original 12 inch features a hilarious meeting between Spike and Flavor. How did that come together?
Chuck D: They’re having a conversation – about what? Who the fuck knows. Flavor won’t remember it [laughs].
Flavor Flav: I don’t remember the B side.
What did you think of the movie’s opening credits, when Rosie Perez shadowboxes to the song?
Flavor Flav: It was just incredible, man, hearing my voice in a movie [laughs]. It was buggin’ me out. It was like the first time I ever heard “Public Enemy Number One” on the radio. It gave me that kind of feeling. Then also hearing my voice all throughout the movie – because that’s the only record that they really played in that movie, [actor Bill Nunn’s character] Radio Raheem would play nothing else but “Fight the Power” on his box, man. It was just an incredible feeling.
Chuck D: It was cool, because I thought I could get away with not doing a video [laughs].
Marsalis: I dug the song. I thought it was a hit from the get. I mean, Rosie wasn’t my favorite dancer necessarily, as someone who had a relationship with the arts that was rather broad. But it was cool. It was great to see. You know, Rosie was fine as hell so I didn’t object to that.
Shocklee: The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boom box playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.
What do you remember about making the video?
Lee: All Chuck D and I wanted to do was reenact a march. So we had everybody show up. We marched from a specific space through the streets of Brooklyn and ended up on the block where we shot the film. We had to do it there. The movie is shot on one block. Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy and Lexington in Bed-Stuy. So we definitely wanted the destination of the march was the block where we shot the film. The stage was there. Perform.
Shocklee: That video was a really good thank-you that Spike did for us. We didn’t get paid for using the song throughout the film. It was the first big production budget that we’ve ever had for a video. When I first got the treatment, I thought it looked very simple. It was just, “Hey, we’re gonna do this march, make it seem like it’s a march on Washington, but we’re going to do it in Brooklyn.” I got to the set around 5:30 in the morning, and people were lined up. It looked like the Million Man March.
Spike, how did you get so many people there?
Lee: We just put the word out: “Public Enemy video.” People showed up. The police were scared though.
Lee: That many people? They always get scared. But there was not one incident. It was great. And the police were not a problem. As long as you’re done by 6, we’re all right.
Chuck D: It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn. It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.
Chuck, what inspired the video’s intro, where you talk about the Civil Rights March on Washington from 1963?
Chuck D: I remember coming on in the video saying that the whole concept of the march in Washington wasn’t complete, but my words weren’t as sharp as I would like them to be, so I ended up saying, “That’s some nonsense.” And the way it was cut, I sound like I’m out of my damn mind [laughs].
Flavor Flav: That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot. And with that many people at my video shoot, it was crazy. Not only that but we had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant. We had a good time that day, man. I would give anything to live that day one more time, that day was so amazing.
Flavor, who is the little girl you’re holding at the end of the video?
Flavor Flav: That was my daughter Shanique. She was three years old at the time. Now she’s 28 [laughs].
Lee: Chuck and Flavor just had so much fun. It was a great day. VH1 named it the Number One hip-hop video of all time. Well deserved. Rightfully so.
See Where Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ Ranks Among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
The version of “Fight the Power” on Fear of a Black Planet stripped away Marsalis’ solo and remixed the Elvis line. Why make different versions?
Chuck D: “Fight the Power” came out on Motown first, because of the soundtrack, but we were with Sony. We had to pull some structural things in order have “Fight the Power” on Motown as a single but also our own video on Sony and then being on Fear of a Black Planet the following year as the final track.
Shocklee: Putting on the Public Enemy album, it just didn’t make sense to have the same exact version. And I’m a big fan of each. Each record, to me, should live in its own space.
Finally, now that 25 years have passed, how do you feel the song holds up?
Chuck D: I feel like Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.” “Fight the Power” points to the legacy of the strengths of standing up in music. Spike really made that record what it is. Because who puts a song in a movie that many times? Who does that?
Flavor Flav: I think it’s one of the most amazing things that Chuck has ever written. I’ve always looked at Chuck as one of the most amazing writers and lyricists ever. And a lot of the stuff that Chuck wrote was all accurate information. Chuck has been right a lot of times and that’s why I always backed up my partner.
Marsalis: Come on, that shit is anthemic. And for all of the people that love popular culture, there are a handful of songs that are actually anthemic in hip-hop or otherwise. And that one is one of them.
Shocklee: I think it was Public Enemy’s and Spike Lee’s defining moment because what it had done was it had awoken the black community to a revolution that was akin to the Sixties revolution, where you had Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. It created such an energy surge throughout the community that it became the template for every artist, every filmmaker, every rapper, singer, and it also sparked community leaders and teachers to understand the power of hip hop. And it made the entire hip-hop community recognize its power. Then the real revolution began.