Song 147: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)

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I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best song to have been featured in a movie’s opening credits, which sounds like the lamest compliment ever, but think about how important opening credits are. The best ones set the tone of a movie before a character even says a word and are just as creative and artistic as the films they introduce.

Do the Right Thing has one of the best opening credit sequences in all of film. Rosie Perez does a dance that’s equal parts celebration and fight (and eventually dons boxing gloves for full effect). In a movie so full of life and determination, it’s a perfect way to start. And it’s all done to Public Enemy’s timeless masterpiece “Fight the Power,” as courageous and pulse-raising today as it was in 1989.

According to Wikipedia, “Fight the Power” contains 13 samples, including the opening speech, which is not included in the movie, or in the clip below. It’s from a speech by Thomas “TNT” Todd, a civil rights activist:

“Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.”

Fighting–for equality, justice, a place on the wall–is a huge part of Do the Right Thing, but so is ambiguity. The film is full of confusion and poor choices, so much so that statements like “do the right thing” and “fight the power” are easier said than done. In the “brothers on the wall” scene alone, a worthy cause is clouded by the annoying Buggin Out (played masterfully by Giancarlo “Gus Fring” Esposito), and it’s a white person (Sal’s son, played by John Turturro), who prevents a violent conflict by taking away a baseball bat. Nothing is straightforward.

The best political songs, however, are. I love that Chuck D doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and that he starts the song by setting the scene: “1989, another summer.” The song was released three years after Howard Beach and two years before the Rodney King beating, but nothing about it sounds dated. And can you imagine, today, two companies as huge as MCA (which distributed Do the Right Thing) and Motown Records (which distributed the “Fight the Power” single) would promote a song featuring the lyrics “Elvis Presley was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist that sucker was/Simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne”? Unbelievable.

And that production! The Bomb Squad really brought it on this one: it’s like five alarms going off at once, to the “sound of a Funky Drummer.” Those 13 samples make one big, disorienting mess, a backing track that captures the chaos and confusion of race relations circa 1989. (In an interview, Chuck D described the production this way: “We put loops on top of loops on top of loops.”)

I think “Fight the Power” is not only one of the best songs of all time, but a flat-out masterpiece, a track that Public Enemy never topped. Like the film it opened, it’s a celebration and a stance, a party and a battle, a story and a call to action. In other words, it’s hip-hop.

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