Public Enemy was on the verge of disbanding. Then they released an anthem that would define the summer that year and go on to become a rap classic.
In September 1988, after finishing the previous nine weeks shooting his third feature film, Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee had the first of several conversations with Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad. Lee wanted the group to contribute a song to the movie.
His initial idea was for Public Enemy to make an updated version of the old Negro National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with Terrence Blanchard. But Public Enemy convinced him they needed to take another approach.
Inspired by The Isley Brothers’ 1975 single “Fight the Power (Pts. 1 & 2)” from their landmark LP The Heat Is On The Bomb Squad went to work creating an anthem that would come to define the Summer of 1989. After Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was completed and then submitted, the group was surprised at how often Spike used it in the film. It was the film’s heartbeat — its recurring theme.
On April 22nd, 1989, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford/Stuyvesant — where Do the Right Thing was shot the previous Summer — Spike Lee directed Public Enemy’s video for “Fight the Power” which doubled as a youth march. Lee had high hopes for this song as the backbone of his film. Motown was banking on this song to help push the film’s soundtrack to a younger audience. Def Jam was banking on Public Enemy’s next single to be a hit to create momentum for their upcoming third album which was still in its planning stages.
A month later, Spike Lee screened Do the Right Thing at the Cannes Film Festival. While the movie made the majority of the jury nervous — except for Sally Field who loved it — all Spike needed to do was avoid any controversy that could hurt the film. On May 22nd, an interview ran in the Washington Times that contained several ant-Semitic statements by Public Enemy member Professor Griff who had already been censured by the group on multiple occasions for similar infractions.
Things then came to a head when, that June, journalist R.J. Smith addressed Public Enemy’s reluctance and inability to punish Professor Griff in an article titled “The Enemy Within” which ran in The Village Voice. Not coincidentally, that was the same day the soundtrack for Do the Right Thing was released.
Def Jam, Public Enemy, and their management, Rush, had to address this issue to avoid a backlash that could not only hurt the film but potentially end their careers as recording artists.
A day after the Village Voice article ran, Public Enemy held a press conference where they announced that Professor Griff was no longer a member. That Friday, Chuck D appeared on MTV’s This Week In Rock with Kurt Loder and said the group was pretty much over due to many disagreements amongst members and their handlers over the best way to handle the situation with Professor Griff. Due to the controversy, Def Jam had halted them from going forth with their follow up to It Takes A Nation Of Millions…
The date was June 23rd, 1989. It was a week before Do the Right Thing was set to begin its limited run in slightly over 350 theaters in North America.
Public Enemy were essentially disbanded at the time Do the Right Thing debuted in theaters. Members of the Jewish Defense Organization were extremely vocal in calling for the boycott of the film due to the usage of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” They even distributed leaflets that included a timeline of previous infractions, the group’s association with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of The Nation Of Islam and critiques from New York Magazine that characterized the film as “dangerous.”
Public Enemy, while not officially a group, were set to have the 7” and cassingle of “Fight the Power” be released on July 4th. The following week, Public Enemy’s tour VHS Fight the Power Live would hit store shelves which contained a promo for Do the Right Thing.
It was essentially a waiting game to see how the film and song “Fight the Power” would both be received by the general public.
On July 8th, 1989 in his Billboard column The Rhythm And The Blues Nelson George wrote a treatise titled “Rap Act Featured In Controversial Lee Film Breaks Up: Did Public Enemy Do the Right Thing?” In it he detailed the timeline that led to the group disbanding while discussing the song “Fight the Power” and its importance to the film. Incidentally, the soundtrack entered the Top Black Albums chart that week at #84, while “Fight the Power” entered #81 on the Hot Black Singles charts. (It also was listed as the #1 Breakout Song on the Hot Dance Music Sales charts before the full numbers for the week were even in.)
The next week, when the sales numbers were finally tabulated, “Fight the Power” leaped to #66 on the Hot Black Singles chart, entered the Hot Dance Music 12” inch sales chart at #31 and entered Hot Rap Singles chart at #8. That marks the highest debut by a Rap single since Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” that April.
Not only that but the video for “Fight the Power” was playing on multiple video shows on BET and MTV. For a group that had disbanded, it seemed that Public Enemy had the makings of a hit on their hands.
By mid-July, Do the Right Thing was a critical and financial success. It had already managed to gross over twice its $6.5 million dollar budget in only its third week of limited release. That’s an impressive feat considering it was on less than 500 screens. (For comparison sake, Batman was on 2,201 screens while Ghostbusters II was on 1,978 that same week.) The controversy hadn’t been a deterrent; instead the song had helped to galvanize audiences and made people want to see the film by the time it finally went into wide release on July 21st, 1989.
While “Fight the Power” was moving units there were a few crucial factors which prevented it from ultimately going Gold. For one, with most other Def Jam singles, there was the song then the instrumental, unless it was a single or double-sided single released after the album was released. This meant that fans would visit the record store in droves seek out the instrumental for “Fight the Power,” especially after hearing Radio Raheem play what seemed to be the instrumental all throughout the film.
However, people were disappointed to discover that on the B side there was no instrumental to be found. Instead, the Motown single offered “Flavor Flav Meets Spike Lee” where Spike Lee and Flavor Flav had an almost 5-minute long conversation/argument over the beat. If there was an instrumental in instead there’s no doubt the single would’ve gone platinum.
Even without an instrumental on the flip side, “Fight the Power” hit #1 on the Hot Rap Singles and stayed there for six consecutive weeks. On Wednesday, August 9th — eight weeks from their initial press conference — Public Enemy released a new statement announcing that the group was “back in action” sans Professor Griff. Def Jam and Rush Artist Management added that Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, was back on and expected to be released sometime in the coming Winter.
Two weeks after Public Enemy announced their return, 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was killed in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was often played in the many subsequent protest marches led by Rev. Al Sharpton.
In addition, on September 4th,1989, in Virginia Beach, thousands of HBCU students clashed with overaggressive and hostile police during the second day of Greekfest. After being constantly harassed, monitored and racially profiled several visitors complained about their treatment but it all fell on deaf ears. Thousands of fed up students took to Atlantic Avenue, the Virginia Beach Police called in the National Guard. Donning riot gear, they used force to clear the streets.
Rioting ensued and the youth confronted the advancing forces they chanted “Fight the power!” Wherever there was unrest and inequality, people were using the phrase as a rallying cry.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.