How we stimulated Public Enemy’s Fight the Power

The hood was on its own, abandoned at every level. Fight the Power was the anthem of the streets

Hank Shocklee, producer

During the disco boom, the money was flowing so crazy that even the messengers were riding in limos and then the business crashed. Bands couldnt afford a drummer or a bass player and thats how rap was born: marriage build tracks from samples of records. But even when we were bigger than R& B and boulder groups, we could scarcely get our videos shown just once a week, on Yo! MTV Raps. Rap was a dirty word. Radio stations didnt want to play it, the Grammys didnt even acknowledge it.

It was a time of huge racial tension, too. Hip-hop culture was just starting and no one understood it. Kids would be out on the streets chilling, shoelaces untied, hats on backwards, and theyd be getting harassed by police. The economy was fucked up and crack was reaching the black community hard. Everyone had a friend or relative on fissure, who was stealing from them. We had our automobiles broken into so many times, when we were up late in the studio. The hood was on its own, abandoned at every level government, district, city. We had to overcome everything. Opposed the Power was going to be the anthem of the streets.

Watch the full video for Fight the Power directed against Spike Lee

We induced the track for Spike Lees 1989 movie Do The Right Thing. Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, Lift Every Voice and Sing, to be produced by someone else and with merely Chuck D rapping. I was like: No style. We were in Spikes office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: Yo man, youve got to think about this record as being something played out of these autoes running by.

So I worked on reinterpreting what Spike meant. My brother Keith had this drum beat with a couple of percussion loops. It had an energy, an urgency, but not to induce you mad. It felt uplifting. But how do you evolve that into a sung employing only samples? The track had to have a sense of camaraderie, whilealso being a call to arms and it had to come from a Public Enemy perspective. The whole PE culture was about disruption. Thats where the guitars come in. I wanted a Deep Purple kind of energy, but with melody. Rocknroll guitar wouldnt work, too much edge. This needed to be softer, though still with the bite of angst.

The drums had to feel like African war drums, but instead of us going to war, it had to be like we were already winning the war. It needed less sustain on the bottom end, because too much would put it into a different space: a mad mood. This needed to say: Im angry, but Im not mad to the phase where I want to destroy everybody. Instead Im charged with the energy of overcoming something.

Me and Chuck then built up the way. It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put verses on top that separates feeling and content. All the samples have to work with Chucks emotion. Wed have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.

Its easy to make a dope beat, where the kick and snare are maintaining the groove together. But Fight the Power doesnt have that. You cant tell what the kicking and snare are doing. Theyre creating a backdrop, but its not pronounced, it doesnt swaying. Its more of a head-bob, reminiscent of a Black Panther rally, a put-your-fist-up kind of vibration. If a anthem has swing, if it induces you move from side to side, thats a different emotion, all about celebrating something. Thats what defined Fight the Power apart: it wasnt trying to be groovy. The groove couldnt be so hypnotic that youd get lost in it, since then youd lose what the sung was about. It would be a good sung, but not an anthem.

The records almost like an Easter egg hunt. Kids wouldnt just listen to the lyrics, theyd try to identify all the little samples in there( such as Funky Drummer by James Brown, Sing a Simple Sung by Sly and the Family Stone and I Shot the Sheriff by Bob Marley ). It went back to the digging in the crates culture. Thats what devoted the records their appeal on a street level, a feeling of: Wow! I didnt know you could set all that in there and where did it all come from?

Getting the final mixture right was just as important as procuring all those other parts. The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter but it would have lost the chaos. When something is organised and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, going to get chaotic. So the hardest portion was stimulating sure the track wasnt monotonous. Plenties of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isnt perfectly in time. I didnt just want white noise and black noise I wanted pink noise and brown noise!

Flavor Flavor Flav, left, with director Spike Lee and Chuck D, right, filming the video for Fight The Power in New York, 1989. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

Chuck D, vocals

I wasnt the first person to write a song called Fight the Power. The Isley Friend did that in 1975. They talked about how we needed an answer to government persecution. I merely built on that. If the government dictates who you are, then youre part of the power structure that maintains you down. We were going to fight that and say: Appear at me as a human being. The government wanted rap to be infantile, to have us talk about cookies and girls and high school shit. I was like: Nah, were going to talk about you.

We came up with the rhythm, then started adding samples. You might hear a collage of 25 or 30 different audios and words all at once, blended into a concise line of thoughts and feeling. We didnt leave any space empty. Why would you have someone rap over just a bassline? Only as Bo Diddley played the guitar like a drum, we played samples like a drum. We were piecing together a quilt of noise.

Minimalism in rap came afterward, because people couldnt afford the samples, and “its become” the norm. Is it more exciting now? Probably not. Because the sampled musicians were the greatest of all time. If youre picking something from the 60 s and 70 s, youre picking magic. I once told the Rolling Stones: Ive stolen everything I can off of you!

Some of my lyrics were controversial: Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. I never told Elvis was wack, but its a racist notion to say hes an icon the King when rocknroll started before him. But my scalp has been seen as more hostile than anything I could say. Black people, our scalp is noisy.

Chuck Movement Chuck D, right, with Professor Griff and Terminator X, and members of the S1W crew in the background. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/ Getty Images

The record was cool, but it was enhanced by a video, and the committee is also had a major film attached to it. There was a motion behind it too: New York had a lot of issues and needed an anthem. Today you have hit records that need financial help because they have nothing else to hold them up: rap music is determined by big business. Its entirely lawyer-driven and everyones looking for a jackpot. Back then, though, it had a political movement to supporting it.

But the lives of black Americans havent get better since Fight the Power. Were more disconnected as a people, were deceived by the governments illusions. Anything good that comes out of the people is kept from the people. Public Enemy were ignored by American Tv and radio right after Fight the Power. We werent going to get a fucking Tv demonstrate, we werent going to be NWA. We refused to lose to stereotypes.

Songs are like little earthquakes: after Fight the Power, the fucking world shake, and then it went back to the style it was. Law is the only thing that builds everything change. Revolution alters laws and, yes, a sung can spark revolution. But ballads now strike someones one by one: some hear them now, some next week, some never. Were removed from the working day when everyone heard something at the same time.

Fight the Power connected wherever we went. I recollect being told Croats and Serbs were singing it together, back when they were at war. Art liberates human being, but governments want to keep them apart. When people ask if Im American, I say no, Im a fucking Earthling.

Public Enemy play the Common People festival on 28 May in Oxford, and 29 May in Southampton

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