For anyone watching the opening night of the Democratic National Convention on cable news or a major broadcast network, the event wrapped up with Michelle Obama’s powerful speech before the show cut away to commentary. But viewers watching online or on C-Span got to see the actual grand finale of Stephen Stills and Billy Porter teaming up for a new version of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 protest classic “For What It’s Worth.”
“Billy did such a great cover of the song and I was [originally] going to sing with him on this one for the DNC,” Stills told Variety. “But then I decided ‘Nah, it’s Billy’s record, so let him fly with it.’ And also, my Wi-Fi is unreliable, so I played guitar and sang along.”
This isn’t the first time that Stills has revisited “For What It’s Worth” with an artist from a different generation. Back in 1998, he teamed up with Public Enemy for the title track of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s He Got Game. The rap group not only sampled the original recording, but they brought Stills into the studio to play guitar and re-sing a chunk of the song.
“The goal was to enhance [‘For What It’s Worth’], to take it to another level,” Chuck D told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I totally hate when somebody takes a classic and desecrates it. I like Jimmy Page and P. Diddy, but what they did to ‘Kashmir’ was a debacle. They are giants in their own way — and you can print this — but that was a fucking travesty. When I get involved with a classic, I knock the fucking ceiling out of it or I leave it the fuck alone.” (Here’s the original video.)
Public Enemy had been on hiatus for four years when Spike Lee approached them about the He Got Game soundtrack. Their involvement motivated them to not only re-form the group, but also to welcome Professor Griff back into the fold nearly a decade after he was fired for making shockingly anti-Semitic comments in an interview with The Washington Times. (He has since left the group again.)
The song was also a bit of a comeback for Stephen Stills. At the time, he still drew large crowds with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but he hadn’t been a part of a hit song since CSN’s “Wasted on the Way” and “Southern Cross” landed in 1982. The trio broke up in 2015 after years of squabbling, and Stills has been largely off the grid since he wrapped his co-headlining tour with Judy Collins in November 2018.
“I’m tired of touring,” he told Rolling Stone in February. “But if it can be limited and quality, I’ll do it.”
Stills’ collaboration with Porter was limited to just three minutes and it was certainly a quality production. It’s a shame so few TV viewers had a chance to see it, but Michelle Obama is a hard act to follow.