Fight The Power by Public Enemy is about fighting the power, and while “the power” is never specifically identified, we all understand it to mean anyone or anything in power who is wielding it unjustly. It gave a voice to the underrepresented and positioned Public Enemy as the greatest political rap group of all time.
Public Enemy’s first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, came out in 1987, and almost immediately their thematic presentation of black militancy was invigorating and exciting. By their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they’d created a new style of song production that was super innovative and mesmerizing.
It was this beautiful texture of samples woven together and looped ’round and ’round and ’round, sped up just enough to feel even more frenetic. It was really remarkable, and a thing that, save Bambaataa and maybe a pinch of others, only the production duo the Bomb Squad was doing back then.
But Public Enemy was also philosophically overpowering. They rapped about impeaching the president (“Rebel Without a Pause”), the inevitability of time spent in incarceration for black men (“Bring the Noise”), metaphorically lynching critics (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), things like that.
These were timely and important discussions—this was near the end of the ’80s, so there were of course racial tensions in the country, and there was also a general lack of black civil rights leadership—but Public Enemy was also seen as hyper-threatening, and, more troublesome to their purpose, hyper-exclusive.
“Fight the Power” carried the same fury as the seven singles they’d released before then, but it was also wider, more inclusive, and that made it more impactful. Public Enemy had always been expert hostage takers, particularly as policy and pathology related to blacks, but “Fight the Power” encouraged active participation from all listeners who felt listless, not just all black listeners who felt listless. It was the perfect measure of anger and insight, and in 1989, that’s exactly what rap music needed to be.
“Fight the Power” was named one of the five hundred Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was named the seventh best rap song of all time by Rolling Stone. It was named the greatest hip-hop song ever by VH1.
It was named the best song of 1989 in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. It was selected by Time as one of the one hundred most extraordinary songs of all time. It was named one of the best songs of the century by the Recording Industry Association of America. It takes samples from more than a dozen different sources. It’s been covered four times, and three of those times, one by Korn, one by Vanilla Ice, and one by the Barenaked Ladies, were, and remain to be, absolutely the worst things.
Other Public Enemy Songs
1). “Night of the Living Baseheads”: Don’t do drugs because drugs are very bad.
2). “Welcome to the Terrordome”: Every conversation about Public Enemy that lasts longer than two minutes will eventually approach their occasionally anti-Semitic rhetoric, anti-gay rhetoric, or even their anti-women (quiet) rhetoric. This was the most famous version of low-key anti-Semitism, where Chuck howls, “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction / So- called chosen frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus.” Important for a different reason than the rest, I suppose.
The Influence of “Fight The Power”
Chuck D’s voice is amazing. It’s superheroic. It sounds like it’s two miles wide. It sounds like God made a mistake because nobody should have a voice like Chuck D’s rap voice. That’s important.
Spike Lee asked Public Enemy to make “Fight the Power” for his movie Do the Right Thing. If he doesn’t call them to do that, does “Fight the Power” ever get made? And if the answer is no, then is he granted lifetime immunity for all the ridiculous outfits he wears to Knicks games? Can we forgive him for Girl 6? CAN WE FORGIVE HIM FOR OLDBOY? That’s important.
What’s more: During Public Enemy’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Spike, the first person up introducing them, made mention of how the first song Public Enemy submitted wasn’t quite what he was looking for. “Fight the Power” was their second try.
Chuck D was a revolutionary when people were kind of looking for one, even if he didn’t want to be. That’s important.
More on that: In his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang writes about how Spike viewed Chuck, saying that the video Spike shot for “Fight the Power,” which looked less like a rap video and more like a presidential rally, helped to “firmly establish Chuck’s cultural authority.” That’s important.
More from Chang: “Lee placed Chuck in the streets amidst the likenesses of Black power fighters, one new Black icon anointing another.” That’s important, too.