The summer of ‘89 was a tense, tight and hot period of time in New York City. And that’s just the weather. Race relations in the Big Apple were bad and appeared to be getting worse with each sweltering day. Reverberations from that year’s Central Park Five “wilding” case (in which a crew of young black kids were ultimately wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman) are still being felt today. For lifelong New Yorkers of a certain age, the names Michael Griffith and Eleanor Bumpurs will jog the memories of how racially divided the boroughs were in the ’80s. The tensions seemed to peak on August 23rd with the killing of a young black man, Yusuf Hawkins, by a mob of angry white teenagers in the notoriously racist (and then predominantly Italian-American) section of Brooklyn called Bensonhurst. So in that sense, Spike Lee’s stunning third full-length feature, “Do The Right Thing”, was prescient. So was the theme song from Do The Right Thing; Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. Both movie and song came out at the beginning of that fateful summer and accurately captured the rage of oppressed Black people, inside and outside the five boroughs.
“Do The Right Thing”’s story revolves around a day in the life of a young man named Mookie (played by Spike Lee). He’s working at a local pizza shop, trying to support himself, his girlfriend and their newborn. The movie takes place on the hottest day of the summer, and, well…I don’t want to drop any spoilers (even though it’s been thirty years) for those who haven’t seen the film yet except to say that while it may not be my favorite film of all time (and it’s pretty high up there, just maybe not #1) it is the most important film I’ve seen. If you have not yet seen it yet, please go to Netflix or Amazon or wherever you get movies from these days and add it to your queue immediately.
“Fight The Power” has a similar place in my heart. Global politics aside, let’s not forget that 1989 was also a tumultuous year for Public Enemy the group. Following the success of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back the previous year, press attention on the outfit’s militant bent was laser focused. Group member Professor Griff made some unfortunate (and legitimately bigoted) comments about Jews to a Washington Post reporter and the heat came down on the group as a whole. First, Griff got kicked out of the group, then leader Chuck D completely disbanded the group, and within a matter of months, the group (minus Griff) was back together. I’m not sure whether “Fight The Power” was recorded before or after the brouhaha, but Chuck’s powerful vocals possess an anger that’s more pronounced and focused than on previous P.E. joints.
The Bomb Squad’s production is flawless. They were the best of the early hip-hop producing squads, and they were able to take samples from a variety of sources (I can pick out James Brown, “Teddy’s Jam” by Guy, “Planet Rock”, and the opening speech from James Brown, as well as the interpolation of the Isley Brothers’ song in the chorus) and blend them into a stew that was urgent, soulful, danceable and funky.
…and then there’s the infamous “Elvis was a hero to most” line, which Chuck D has subsequently walked back. While Elvis undoubtedly benefited from a structural racism that very much exists today even in the music business (hello, Justin Timberlake!), there’s no evidence to suggest that he himself was racist. The rumor has perpetuated itself in the black community for decades, and since the man has been dead for forty something years we’ll of course never know for sure.
John Wayne, though; that dude was hella racist. Flav is right. Motherfuck him.
“Fight The Power” might be the best musical manifestation of righteous anger to be made in my lifetime. It appears on many “greatest songs of all time” lists for a reason. It’s one of those songs that transcends the era, the genre and the artist.