Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the iconic Public Enemy song “Fight The Power,” Chuck D and Flavor Flav of the group spoke with Rolling Stone about crafting the anthem associated with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Also featured in the interview is the film director himself as well as Hank Shocklee, an integral member of the song’s production unit The Bomb Squad, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis who appears prominently on the record himself.
During the interview, the musicians and Lee detail how the song was commissioned as well as early disagreements about the track itself. Shocklee, the group’s chief producer, explained Spike Lee’s original call for a Hip Hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“Spike's original idea was to have Public Enemy do a hip-hop version of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ which is kind of like a Negro anthem or spiritual,” he said. “But I was like, ‘No.’ I opened the window and asked him to stick your head outside. ‘Man, what sounds do you hear? You're not going to hear “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in every car that drives by.’ We needed to make something that's going to resonate on the street level. After going back and forth, he said, ‘All right, I'll let you guys go in there and see what you guys come back with.’”
Explaining that the title was the first piece of the song-making process, Chuck D shared writing most of the lyrics while on a plane with Run-D.M.C.
“I was getting ready to head out on a European run with Run-D.M.C. in the fall of 1988,” he said of the songwriting process. “I remember writing a big chunk of it on a plane as we were flying over Italy. And D.M.C. was probably in the chair next to me. So I had the aftereffect and the glow of Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay to inspire me, so to speak, in the writing of some of the lyrics.”
After Chuck D explained writing some of the song’s memorable lines—such as, “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”—Flavor Flav detailed Chuck’s having written his parts.
“A lot of the songs that Chuck D has written, I took parts,” Flavor Flav said. “I'd say, ‘Give me this part, give me that part.’ And I'm very grateful for the lines he gave me. I ain't gonna lie, because those are the most memorable parts of the record...When ‘Fight the Power’ was being created, all I did was just come in, lay down my lyrics and I was out. I didn't know that the record was going to be as big as it turned out to be. I just wanted to make a great record and keep it moving. And next thing you know, this phenomenal record was being played on the radio over and over and over. I'm like, ‘Wooow. This is crazy.’”
Admitting to some confusion about the song’s rough draft, Chuck D recalled being disappointed upon hearing an unfinished version appear in an early cut of the film.
“Spike misconstrued it as being a different song,” Chuck D said of the original submission. “It was a song in a rough stage with different elements brought up to the front. But Spike used it, because he had to present the film to a bunch of different investors. I remember checking out a screening with Hank in Brooklyn, and Spike had put in the rough draft of the song, and every time he played it, I was sinking in my seat, because I was like, ‘Oh shit. The song is not complete. It sounds like shit to me. And he's going to put in the movie this many times? What the fuck!’ I was like, ‘Man, we've got to come better than that.’”
Reflecting on the song's lasting impact, Flavor Flav named the song as one of his favorites ever written by his partner.
"I think it's one of the most amazing things that Chuck has ever written," he said. "I've always looked at Chuck as one of the most amazing writers and lyricists ever. And a lot of the stuff that Chuck wrote was all accurate information. Chuck has been right a lot of times and that's why I always backed up my partner."
During the interview, the “Fight The Power” and “Do The Right Thing” creators also break down the filming of the song’s separate video, the appearance of different versions of the track in the soundtrack and on the group’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, and the song's 25-year legacy in Hip Hop.