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Why Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' still resonates

Chuck D, left, and Flavor Flav of Public

Chuck D, left, and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy perform at the 2015 BottleRock Napa Valley Music Festival in Napa, Calif.  Credit: AP Invision / Rich Fury

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Spike Lee’s groundbreaking “Do the Right Thing” will return to theaters in a new, 4K version on June 30. However, the movie’s influential anthem “Fight the Power,” from Roosevelt’s Public Enemy, has never really gone away, only growing in stature over the past three decades.

“Fight the Power” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It helped the album “Fear of a Black Planet” enter the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and helped Public Enemy get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility.

It hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Rap Singles chart. The Village Voice called it the best song of 1989. Rolling Stone named it one of the Top 10 greatest hip-hop songs ever. VH1 viewers said it is the greatest.

“Fight the Power” set the stage for the racial strife dramatized in “Do the Right Thing,” providing the soundtrack to Rosie Perez’s memorable opening dance sequence on the streets of Brooklyn. The intensity of Chuck D’s rhymes, inciting people “to fight the powers that be,” is matched by the thunderous production from The Bomb Squad. Each time it returns in the movie, you can almost feel the racial tensions ratcheting up.

The way Chuck D takes aim at Elvis Presley and John Wayne in the song and his complaint that “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp” echoes the complaints of black customers at the movie’s Bed-Stuy pizza shop that only Italian-Americans were honored on its walls.

“My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis' icon status in America made it like nobody else counted,” Chuck D told Newsday in 2002. “That's why I put Elvis and John Wayne in the same boat, because they were America's heroes. At that particular time, Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis couldn't even get a head nod. They'd get a ‘Who?’”

But the influence of “Fight the Power” went far beyond the movie and even beyond America. "When we play 'Fight the Power,' and someone who was on the Eastern side of Germany says, 'I can relate,' that's big," Chuck D told Newsday in 2013. "When someone in Ireland says they can relate with their feelings against the British Empire, that's big. When somebody is in Africa and Nelson Mandela is in prison, and they say, 'Look, we want to fight the power,' that's big."

The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee, also from Roosevelt, told Rolling Stone that “Fight the Power” was the defining moment of both Public Enemy and Lee’s careers. “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,” he said. “And it made the entire hip-hop community recognize its power. Then the real revolution began.”

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