Nineteen-eighty-NINE: the number, another summer… SOUND of the funky drummer.
That’s how it all started—literally. In June of 1989, a young African-American filmmaker named Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, released one of the single greatest achievements in film, Do the Right Thing. Equal parts Shakespeare, Harlem Renaissance master-class and deeply personal ode to the city Lee grew up in, the movie was about love and life and race and gender and class and police and violence—basically, everything a young African-American man might’ve experienced in one full, hot summer day in Bed-Stuy back then.
Do the Right Thing was a tour de force, for sure, but it shares the spotlight with its unofficial theme song: Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power,’ which the tragicomic character Radio Raheem (deftly portrayed by Bill Nunn) seems to be playing for three-quarters of the movie on his giant boombox. Cutting no corners and taking no prisoners, ‘Fight the Power’ smacks America across its stupid white face, yelling at it to wake the fuck up.
“The whole thing is like America’s wall had pictures of Elvis and John Wayne as being its heroes and totally overlooked everything that was contributed by other people.”
A year before the song and movie dropped, Public Enemy was riding high on the success of perhaps its most famous hip-hop record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). Featuring now-classic tracks like ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and ‘Bring the Noise’— a hit the group would later re-cut with heavy metal band Anthrax—the album brought the hip-hop world what the subject of this interview describes as a new cohesiveness and structure.
Then Do the Right Thing and the revolution-in-a-molotov-cocktail-bottle that was ‘Fight the Power’ happened. And the following year, the group released the equally potent Fear of a Black Planet, on which they placed an alternate version of ‘Fight the Power’ (the original first appeared on the movie’s soundtrack). It was like a reminder that things hadn’t changed all that much in a year—and a warning not to forget the song’s powerful message.
Thankfully, nobody ever forgot anything Public Enemy ever did—and today, both of those seminal albums get the deluxe reissue treatment courtesy of Def Jam/UME. Of course, the re-releases are chock-full of new goodies like alternate takes and a live DVD and several different versions of ‘Fight the Power.’ We had the great honor of speaking with Public Enemy’s lead lyricist, rapper and creative force, Chuck D, about the re-releases, the evolution of hip hop and the story of that hot summer hit.
It’s a particularly interesting time to be talking about the re-release of Public Enemy’s two groundbreaking hip-hop records, given the recent midterm elections saw two historic wins by African-Americans. In 1988-’89, was electing politicians part of your agenda?
Well, to fight the power, sometimes you’ve got to assume that role and be the power, but if you’re going to be that power, you should be accountable and responsible to the community. So all the time we do that to fight the power, you’ve got to replace the power but with accountability and responsibility. And during the time of Reagan and Bush there was not a lot of that going on. David Dinkins, he was the mayor of New York City, so a lot of that had to do with a balance of their position, and they were taking shots at him.
Within a matter of months, a one-two punch of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton were released. Prior to that summer, do you think hip hop had gone sort of soft?
No, not at all. I think hip hop was starting to branch off into more aspects, because it was finally viewed as album-oriented music. So hip hop, for the first time in ’88 and ’89, had a lot of things to say from one artist. Now before 1987, it was largely still a singles market, where you’d hear a single, and you might get an album with a whole bunch of songs that nobody’d heard yet. But Public Enemy was like the litmus test, releasing an album out of nowhere—somewhere not from the streets but above the streets… with a whole bunch of different viewpoints. That changed the game right there.
I’ve read that you saw these two records as ‘concept albums.’ Most rock concepts don’t really have much by way of a coherent message: The Who’s Tommy or even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band come to mind. Do you think the rap genre owns the rights to the concept album concept?
Well, with rap music, I had to deliver a large volume of words ’cause you’re rappin’. So it was sort of like a [page] from the book of James Brown and the words of Dylan. So when you peel the words off, yeah, of course, it’s going to be a little bit of protest music. So as the chief lyricist of those albums, I had to make sure that everything didn’t repeat itself twice.
Making statements: Public Enemy way back when, Do The Right Thing‘s poster, Chuck D today.
I live in Brooklyn, which is now in the rapid process of gentrification. Do you think the memory of the Brooklyn in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is in danger of getting bulldozed?
Maybe, but you know, I think when you’re talking about the gentrification of Brooklyn, Brooklyn’s so big that you go deep down into the middle of Brooklyn, and it hasn’t been totally gentrified at all. In order to gentrify Brooklyn entirely, you’d have a lot of turf to cover.
Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ was written for that movie. Do you remember exactly where you were when the concept and lyrics came to you?
I was on tour with Run-D.M.C., trying to finish writing the album, in the air flying over Italy. And it was conceived sitting in a SoHo restaurant with Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, Spike Lee and I talking about Spike’s movie.
The song’s opening lyrics are so iconic, because you immediately shuttle the listener back to the summer of 1989. It almost strikes me as sort of the intro to a rap fairy tale: “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…” How vivid is that summer still in your memory?
That summer is vivid in my memory for a whole lot of different reasons, but I hardly dealt with ‘Fight the Power’ as much as I had to deal with being called ‘anti-semitic’ by the Village Voice [laughs]. So that was more the thing that I had to deal with. So ‘Fight the Power’ was like nothing to talk about.
Probably the most iconic—and controversial—line in the song is when you say that Elvis didn’t mean shit to you, and Flavor Flav follows it up by saying ‘motherfuck him and John Wayne.’ I have to agree with you, because they’re of a different era and not people I would’ve looked up to back then either. Who would take those two guys’ places if you wrote ‘Fight the Power’ in 2014?
Who? Um… well, the whole thing comes [from] the movie when one of the guys* says, ‘Hey, how come there ain’t no pictures of brothers on the wall?’ And the whole thing is like America’s wall had pictures of Elvis and John Wayne as being its heroes and totally overlooked everything that was contributed by other people. So, who would replace Elvis Presley and John Wayne in America or internationally?
No, who would replace them if you wrote the song tomorrow?
[laughs] I’m not even gonna go there. I’m not even going to answer that.
Not even, like, Rush Limbaugh?
No, because nobody really gives a fuck about him.
‘Fight the Power’ strikes me as something a modern rap artist could cover well, but with some passages rewritten or updated. Of all the modern rappers out there, who do you think would own the song best?
Brother Ali and Immortal Technique.
Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, an honor you now share with Elvis Presley. Does he still mean shit to you?
That ain’t got nothing to do with it. The whole thing is that Elvis Presley was the ‘King of Rock and Roll,’ and America anointed him King, and nobody else counted. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and even Jerry Lee Lewis were obscured by the fact that [America called] Elvis ‘king.’ Who called him king? That’s what ‘Fight the Power’ answered. It said, ‘These are my heroes, too. Most of my heroes don’t appear on a stamp.’
*That “guy” is the character Buggin’ Out, portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito, who would play meth kingpin Gustavo “Gus” Fring on AMC’s Breaking Bad 22 years later. How’s about that for some knowledge?