Chuck D On Creating Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” Anthem For ‘Do The Right Thing’
Last weekend, Spike Lee’s iconic film Do The Right Thing turned 25. Lee’s magnum opus was celebrated all over the country, with Barack and Michelle Obama giving praise to the movie at the White House, a party in Bed-Stuy featuring Dave Chappelle, Wesley Snipes and tons of supporters and many more observances. Chuck D, who helped pen the movie’s anthem “Fight The Power” with Public Enemy, helped spread an important message about racial tension and our society at large.
Do The Right Thing revolves around Spike Lee's character Mookie on the hottest summer day in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Filled with controversial scenes that reflected on race, police brutality and in-group favoritism, the film was praised for its honesty about America at the time. To pay homage to Do The Right Thing and “Fight The Power,” XXL spoke to Chuck D about the film’s cultural impact, how “Fight The Power” came together, and the state of hip-hop today.—Eric Diep
XXL: How did you meet Spike Lee initially?
Chuck D: I met Spike Lee in 1988 to be part of a renaissance of a whole bunch of Black creators in the late 1980s that spoke through their art and music. And Spike was a filmmaker who came out of Brooklyn against the odds to make She’s Gotta Have It and then also School Daze. Spike Lee put a Public Enemy shirt on Kadeem Hardison on School Daze. So we are all kindred spirits in that we are connected in a forward, positive manner to try and amp up against the resistance that was going on against Black folks, especially at that time.
You had a lot of incidents in New York City that totally didn’t mesh with where we try to go as a people. So, you had Black newspapers like The Sun and FM news of course. You had Black radio. You had talk radio with Gary Byrd. Mark Riley. Bob Lore. There was a lot of Black media, remnants of Black media speaking out about these things and the art seems to line up well with it. [It’s] totally different than what we have today.
Public Enemy made “Fight The Power” for Do The Right Thing. How did that anthem come together?
We were inspired by a 1975 Isley Brothers anthem. The first song that I ever heard with a curse word in it, but it was in the context of the spirit of resistance and bullshit. That resonated. Fast forward 13 years later, right in the middle of R&B, which is Reagan and Bush, “Fight The Power” was that three word anthem anyway. To make a rap song that felt the same, that might even turned it up a notch...it was really quite academic.
Did the lyrics come to you right away?
Spike said to make an anthem. We're putting it in the movie. I took off on the 1988 European tour with Run-DMC. Public Enemy and Run-DMC toured together at that point in time, so I remember writing a chunk of the lyrics while being in Europe and being on the plane and being inspired by DMC and Jam Master Jay.
It was a team effort. You're talking about Public Enemy, which is a team. Bomb Squad, which is a team. So to get both of those things—I'm contributing to vibe that has to be in sync. It was a while for us to get it together because we knew it was gonna be a certain magnitude in a movie. I never would have thought Spike would put it in the movie 20 damn times and the beginning. I mean, who does that? That was like bizarre. We had to step up because it had to be something that had to be good enough for people who want to hear it in a movie. First time that was ever done.
How did “Fight The Power” help Public Enemy’s career?
Well, we weren’t getting no radio play nowhere anyway. We were known as a group that really smoked stages. That was our visibility into the mainstream as far as coming into our own terms. It was really the first time a rapper used the movie vehicle to comment on our own terms in a powerful way. Krush Groove came close when they introduced radio with LL Cool J and stuff like that. Wild Style and Beat Street. But the difference is that Do The Right Thing was a serious movie. And when “Fight The Power” came out, not only was it “Fight The Power,” but Public Enemy and Do The Right Thing kind of scared White America. There was fear in that. But there’s always fear in the truth. So the truth came out and spoke that.
Even down to the point with the Elvis and John Wayne line, I was able to get that from a Blowfly song reference from 1980, which said “motherfuck Muhammad Ali.” And also, just a bunch of different references that made “Fight The Power” what it was. Elvis and the John Wayne line came out of the fact that Spike had scenes where there were no Black people on the wall. In the walls of America, Elvis and John Wayne are on the wall, but Black people aren’t on the wall. That’s where that line came from using the Muhammad Ali thing.
Do you think “Fight The Power” still connects with today’s hip-hop listeners?
Yeah, but all over the world. New York is a small bubble. United States is a small place in the world of hip-hop. “Fight The Power” was used as an anthem in many places in South Africa. It was used as an anthem in Croatia, Siberia. You know different places—Asia. UK as well. Brazil. “Fight The Power” is a theme. Like I said, we evolved the theme when The Isley Brothers made the first “Fight The Power.” We are proud to be in line and step in something that’s really powerful.
25 years later, how do you think Do The Right Thing holds up today?
It must look alien to a lot of people to see that you have a lot of Black folks standing together trying to speak up and be connected. It’s one thing to be absorbed into America. “All right, we all equal.” You all gotta be treated equal. You all gotta be able to say that it's truly equal. It’s not just a bunch of talk. I think when it comes down to Do The Right Thing, I think it's something the Black community can look at and re-learn from. I definitely think, Black president or not, the situation has swayed backwards. Whenever you see the word “Nigga” being the one-word answer and everybody thinks it's all right, that’s the sign of the Black apocalypse.
How did Do The Right Thing impact the culture? What changed?
Well, it scared off a lot of rappers. I think the movie; it had a lot of executives on edge where they didn’t want to revisit those zones. They tried to take resistance blasé. But, yeah it’s an American thing, but that’s the United States of America always. Everywhere else in the world is always trying to figure out how it all comes together while the United States is always trying to figure out how do they stay in control when they are really not. Do The Right Thing answered all of those things—the unity to stand up. You look at the movie and it looks like it’s from another century, which it is.
What do you think is the biggest difference between the state of hip-hop now and before?
The biggest difference between hip-hop back then and right now 2014 is that a company didn’t always have the final say so in what hip-hop should be. It’s drastic difference between going from we into me. They just turned the W upside down. [Laughs]
You had the famous saying, “Rap is CNN for black people,” and that hip-hop is a window for the underclass. Is the message diluted now?
The message can really get diluted across different generations without clear interpreters. What I mean by interpreters—it’s always some boss or somebody in charge or an editor to edit out in order to sell something. Not everything should be about selling a soul. Sometimes, souls should be given away. There’s a heartbeat to culture and music that necessarily doesn’t have anything to do with the heartbeat of a cash register.
But that’s somebody who might be culturally oriented as opposed to being capitalistic. Notice I didn’t just say business, because you could have business prosper when you have sharing in mind and you have slow growth considered. It’s not talking about everybody trying to make a killing and gut it out. Notice that I didn’t use the word business; it’s very capitalistic, capitalizing on everything in its path. That’s where I think a lot of the hip-hop leanings fell into. I didn’t want to say that it also directed into something, it fell into it. It slipped.
Who are some of the people you think still carry that message in hip-hop?
It’s so many. From Mos Def to Brother Ali to Immortal Technique, you got so many. We cover everybody on rap stations. Rap stations are really where we have a home for 1000 MCs. The classics, women. There’s a universe of women out there that’s all saying do the right thing. International MCs are hot, and local MCs in different areas are hot, so I’m not looking to see who pops up on major radios or BET. They’re some of the worst standard bearers or culture chasers that you can find. They’re real lazy.
I think XXL digs a little deeper; they’re a little mainstream-y too, but there’s room for improvement. Everybody gotta sell a magazine, but like I said, there’s a heartbeat inside hip-hop that doesn’t have the ring of a cash register all of time. It has to do with, what makes people interested? What makes people vibe? What I mean, people, not just a certain core demographic, I mean across the board. Hip-hop is 0 to 50. That’s a very important inspiration.