*Brian Hardgroove, the one-time bass player for Public Enemy, famously said of the rap group’s protest anthem “Fight the Power” that it’s “not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power.”
As the world continues to protest systemic racism in all of its forms following the murder of George Floyd, we’re highlighting the influences, inspiration and samples that went into “Fight The Power” in our latest EUR Video Throwback. Although it first appeared on Spike Lee’s 1989 soundtrack to “Do The Right Thing,” a different version was featured on Public Enemy’s third studio album, 1990’s “Fear of a Black Planet.”
Shortly after the 1988 release of their second album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” PE was about to hit Europe as part of Run-DMC’s “Run’s House” tour whenLee called. The filmmaker needed a song for his upcoming “joint” about racial tension on a hot summer day in Brooklyn. He immediately thought of PE.
Group leader Chuck D said he was inspired to write most of the song while flying over Italy on the tour. “I wanted to have sorta like the same theme as the original ‘Fight the Power’ by The Isley Brothers and fill it in with some kind of modernist views of what our surroundings were at that particular time.
The Isley Brothers – Fight the Power, Pts. 1 & 2 (Audio)
The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team, decided to infuse the track with lots of looping, layering, and transfiguring of various samples. They recruited Branford Marsailis to add sprinkles of saxophone throughout, and a solo in the version that opens the film. Outside of Marsalis, Bomb Squad member Hank Shocklee wanted the track to be completely absent of harmonic clarity and coherence in favor of sounds that were “defiant” and “angry,” as requested by Lee.
“Fight the Power” begins with a vocal sample of famed civil rights attorney and activist Thomas “TNT” Todd bellowing in a speech, “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.”
This “rather switch than fight” line was from a famous ad campaign for Tareyton cigarettes that ran from 1963 to 1981. The slogan was crafted to foster a sense of loyalty to the brand. Actors or models in the ad were depicted with black eyes, suggesting they fought hard to remain a Tareyton smoker.
The Tareyton slogan was adopted the following year by female supporters of conservative politician Barry Goldwater (aka “Goldwater Girls”) during the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater appeared to have the nomination on lock as primary season was winding down, but supporters of the moderate Republican William Scranton tried to mount a “Draft Scranton” movement. “Goldwater Girls” were seen trolling Scranton events wearing bandages and toting signs saying “We’d rather fight than switch!”
Then the Camp Records label parodied the slogan with the song “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish,” meaning to behave effeminately. Thomas “TNT” Todd then referenced the Camp Records parody during a speech about the war in 1967. He was referring to soldiers who went AWOL in Vietnam on moral grounds. In the context of “Fight the Power,” the quote aims to encourage more African Americans to get involved in defending their rights.
Public Enemy – Fight the Power (“Fear of a Black Planet” Version)
Below is Thomas “TNT” Todd in recent years, speaking at a 2014 event about the state of black Chicago politics. He’s addressing a group of leaders regarding the need for more engaged political education and participation in Chicago and across the country. He gets going, reminiscent of his booming voice on the record, at around the 10:51 mark.
Thomas “TNT” Todd on the State of Black Chicago Politics
The three measures that follow Todd’s opening in “Fight the Power” that lead into the main beat are the lines “pump me up” from DC go-go band Trouble Funk’s song of the same name played backwards.
Trouble Funk – Pump Me Up
Marsalis throws in some triplets that are buried in the mix of this three measure wind-up. The “chuck chuck” at the end is taken from the 1972 song “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by The Dramatics. In their song, it’s a rhythmic device. In “Fight the Power,” it’s a nod to Chuck D. Listen below.
The Dramatics – Whatcha See is Whatcha Get – at the 1:33 mark
Once “Fight the Power’s” beginning wind-up ends, the main groove drops with a loop of West Street Mob’s “Come on, get down,” a bass line from James Brown’s 1971 track “Hot Pants” and drums from the most sampled breakbeat in hip hop – Clyde Stubblefield’s drum break in Brown’s 1970 song “Funky Drummer.” But here, Shocklee takes only the break’s first two eighth notes in the bass drum and the snare hit.
West Street Mob – Let’s Dance (Make Your Body Move) 1981 (at the :11 mark )
James Brown – Hot Pants (at the :07 mark)
James Brown – Funky Drummer (Pt. 1 & 2) (at the 5:19 mark)
Bits and pieces of the following are also tossed into “Fight the Power’s” main groove: the Bobby Byrd/James Brown 1971 track “I Know You Got Soul” (at the :12 mark below), the auto-tuned “Yaaaaaah” from Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” (at the :13 mark below), and the “Oh Jam” from Guy’s “Teddy’s Jam” (at the :02 mark below).
Bobby Byrd – I Know You Got Soul
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock
Guy – Teddy’s Jam
And let’s not forget the “Let me hear ya say” snippet and subsequent wails from Sly and the Family Stone’s hit “Sing A Simple Song.”
Sly and the Family Stone – Sing A Simple Song
Spike Lee produced and directed two music videos for the song. The first featured clips of various scenes from “Do the Right Thing.” The second opened with a movie newsreel of the 1963 March on Washington before it cuts to Chuck D dismissing the entire march as “nonsense” and leading a staged, political rally in Brooklyn called the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.”