“Fight the Power” from Public Enemy‘s 1990 platinum album, Fear of a Black Planet, is easily one of the most important songs in hip hop, representing the raw, intense and powerful nature of public outcry through music. While the song debuted in 1989 as the centerpiece of the soundtrack for the Spike Lee joint, Do the Right Thing, the song was the trademark track that shuttled the subsequent album, Fear of a Black Planet, into music history.
Where does one start when speaking of the overwhelming power of this album? For starters, I can share that I became aware of the song “Fight the Power” and the group Public Enemy when I packed into the theater as a teenager to see Do the Right Thing with my peers. Despite the fact that Public Enemy had two albums out prior and had been chief influences on the style of popular hip hop acts like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, they had not made a blip on my radar yet, which during those days was more R&B, pop and classic soul focused.
From jump, the song set the movie up. You knew some ish was going to pop off. The song incited that type of energy. You didn’t sit through this song lazily head nodding. You pumped your fist, shouted the chorus and let the song’s fierce energy course through you. It was just that deep. Watching Rosie Perez dance hard as hell to the song’s thunderous beats as it opens the movie — a lone image against the massive movie screen backdrop — was easily engaging while being drawn into the song by Chuck D‘s forceful lyricism was inevitable. The song’s video depicting a street rally in New York illustrated the track’s message as loud and clearly as the lyrics. The signs and placards of fallen civil rights leaders, uniformed men in precise formation and an energized sea of Black faces with fists raised upright shouting along left an indelible mark on the consciousness and after watching, you wanted to do something, be about something.
Fear of a Black Planet was the third studio album by Public Enemy on Def Jam Recordings, and their most financially successful. It debuted at No. 40 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling one million copies in its first week and has been dubbed by music critics across the world as one of the best hip hop albums of all time. While some credit the album’s producers, Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler — aka the Bomb Squad — with the album’s success, given its stellar use of sampling and compelling beats, no one could deny that a large element of the album’s success centered around the fearless and in-your-face aura that Chuck D created as the group’s frontman. His presence was one that was not even derailed by the comic and almost coonish antics of his sidekick Flavor Flav. In fact, the sheer power, authority and commanding presence of Chuck legitimized Flav in a sense, while Flavor Flav’s presence softened the potentially intimidating essence of what Chuck D represented as an articulate, overtly masculine and unabashedly politically conscious Black man.
Other singles off the album are classics in their own right. Chuck D spitting the lyric “hear a drummer get wicked” on “Welcome to the Terrordome” has to be one of the most sampled phrases. While “911 is a Joke” will go down as one of the best hip hop videos and songs, not only because its subject matter sadly still rings true, but it also explains to us why Flavor Flav is due respect as a rhymer. One can also point out “Power to the People” as a foundational example of true hip hop based on how Chuck D epitomized the original role of the MC in the song, serving more as the hype man while the song highlights the scratching skills of Terminator X.
I can easily go on, but will only mention that this album alone gave me faith in the power of hip hop and keeps me loyal to the genre as I grow older and watch iterations of hip hop manifest in not-so-pleasant ways. The merits of the album as a classic are endless and it serves as a reminder of why, for many, hip hop offers a salvation that is rarely found elsewhere.