Fighting the Power

Bob Gendron

7 Min Read

In the venerated 1989 film “Do the Right Thing,” director Spike Lee shows how festering issues can snowball. A sobering reflection of American race relations, it remains equally significant for launching Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”  

With that defiant song as its centerpiece, the movie telescoped the importance of hip-hop on an unprecedented scale. In the same way Lee knew America needed to see “Do the Right Thing,” he recognized the country needed to hear Public Enemy. The time had come for both artists.

Lee’s Academy Award-nominated work turned the volatile changes sweeping the U.S. into protest art. Initially set off in slow motion by Reagan era policies, frustrations within America’s most vulnerable communities reached a breaking point by the late ‘80s amid escalating job losses, wage freezes, service cuts, drug epidemics, health-care disparities and law-enforcement harassment. 

Simultaneously, hip-hop was shedding its party-music infancy and transforming into what Chuck D dubbed “the CNN of the ghetto,” alongside increasingly agitated strains of rock, from thrash metal and rap-rock to riot-grrrl punk. Between 1988 and 1993, a legion of urgent new voices uninterested in pop bromides emerged: Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine, PJ Harvey and countless more. 

Indeed, if “Do the Right Thing” and “Fight the Power” ignited a fire in July 1989, subsequent events poured on the fuel. In the span of 36 months, the U.S. entered a recession; President Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge; the Gulf War commenced and, even after it ended, an American military presence in the Middle East continued; motorist Rodney King was beaten by police and after his attackers were acquitted, riots broke out across Los Angeles; John Singleton released “Boyz n the Hood,” which starred rapper Ice Cube; incarceration rates soared; income disparities rose. Globally, the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War thawed and Apartheid ended in South Africa. 

Rather than existing in a vacuum, where most of the day’s pop music could be found, Public Enemy inserted itself at the center of the struggle and offered context.

No ‘80s musician connected and conveyed the era’s state of affairs more perceptively than Chuck D. As the primary voice in Public Enemy, he embraced risk as a necessity and obligation. Rather than existing in a vacuum, where most of the day’s pop music could be found, Public Enemy inserted itself at the center of the struggle and offered context. 

Taken together, the collective’s first four albums — “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” (1987), “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (1988), “Fear of a Black Planet” (1990) and “Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black” (1991) — have no equal in hip-hop. Thematically, the records are boots on the ground, intelligent missives that address many of the prejudices, histories and demands that Ta-Nesihi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain write about today. Aurally, they remain inimitable, walls of sound built on a dense foundation of samples excavated and intricately layered by the Bomb Squad production team.

Chuck D and company weren’t alone in confronting injustice or prompting dialogues about inequality. Along with fellow hip-hop intellectuals like Boogie Down Productions, they influenced numerous contemporaries and inspired other groups to grab a mic. Transitioning from a straight-ahead gangsta approach, Ice-T became overtly political on “The Iceberg: Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say” (1989) and “O.G.: Original Gangster” (1991). Ice Cube walked a similar path on “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” (1990) and “Death Certificate” (1991), crucial bookends to the King tragedy. Paris, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the Coup would also pick up the protest mantle before Bush left office.

Most prominently, Public Enemy’s sound and stance echo through the music of Rage Against the Machine. When the quartet issued its self-titled debut (for a major label, no less) in November 1992, Hollywood — the same institution Public Enemy vilifies in the song “Burn Hollywood Burn” (1990) — had already acquiesced to the rap group’s cache by outfitting then-14-year-old actor Edward Furlong in a Public Enemy T-shirt for a starring sequence in the blockbuster film “Terminator 2” (1991). The co-optation didn’t blunt the hip-hop ensemble’s messages; it reinforced them. 

Rage Against the Machine engaged in some adaptation of its own for the cover of its first album, which displays a famous 1963 photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s self-immolation. And in thanking Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton, IRA demonstrator Bobby Sands and Minor Threat/Fugazi member Ian MacKaye in the record’s liner notes, the band drew a direct line not only to its protest-music forebears but a wide swath of rebels. Informed by leftist ideologies that make socialist thinker Howard Zinn appear soft, Rage Against the Machine brought radicalism out of the underground and into suburban homes, rural outposts and sports arenas. Even if listeners didn’t fully grasp or agree with singer Zach de la Rocha’s rants, the band’s hybrid musical style and catchy hostility ensured they stuck around.

That the group’s ascension coincided with Lollapalooza’s popular surge cannot be discounted. As the opener on the headline stage during the 1993 iteration of the summer festival, Rage Against the Machine solidified a cycle of musical dissent that began in earnest five years prior. The intersection of golden-age hip-hop and alternative rock, suggested in 1991 by the inaugural Lollapalooza lineup that included Ice-T, blossomed into a subgenre that as early as fall ‘93 soundtracked a movie (“Judgement Night”) and briefly became a commercial phenomenon. 

Explicit protest music was no longer niche. You didn’t need a powerful AM/FM receiver to tune into a low-powered college radio station to hear it. Nor did you have to depend on recommendations from an indie record store to keep you in the loop (though that still helped). Albums by Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Ice-T could be bought at malls and big-box electronics stores whether you resided in Salina, Kansas, or Bangor, Maine.

PJ Harvey wasn’t a city girl, but instead learned about hardship, isolation and facing adversity on a farm in England. Those experiences resonate through Harvey’s music, vocals and songwriting, never more so than on her first two albums. Raw, graphic, extreme and instinctive, “Dry” (1992) reverberates with a bold expressiveness that links it with period works by Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Its post-punk foundation, primitive blues, simmering fury and harsh texture also share similarities with the sonic approaches of her peers. 

Yet Harvey’s debut goes further by establishing new territory and discourse. Its subversive protests, erotic overtones and clever lyrics stake claims to female equality, identity and representation that primarly existed outside mainstream and major-label realms in the early ‘90s. (An exception: Sonic Youth’s “Dirty” album, whose “Swimsuit Issue” finds bassist-vocalist Kim Gordon rattling off the first names of every model in the pages of the 1992 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.) 

The singer taunts machismo, castrates male supremacy and turns narcissism into farce — all with fleet wordplay and nimble deliveries that often don’t appear to be what they initially seem.

Notably, Harvey doesn’t seek freedom; she doesn’t need to. On songs such as “Hair” and “Sheela-Na-Gig,” titled after the name given to architectural carvings of naked women, she already has it. The singer taunts machismo, castrates male supremacy and turns narcissism into farce — all with fleet wordplay and nimble deliveries that often don’t appear to be what they initially seem. 

She brought the same galvanizing confidence and emotional thrust to the concert stage. There, the singer’s dagger-eyed, stiletto-heeled presence doubled as a dare for anyone to knock her from her throne while the music functioned as a lethal warning for anybody even thinking about it. Harvey introduced a modern, innovative, overdue variation on an old trope: the femme fatale. Seductive and threatening, yes, but rarely ambiguous or duplicitous about her intent. Her gender-transposing songs empowered the masses — and seemingly, fortified her own resolve.

“I’ll tell you my name,” Harvey sings on the feral “50ft Queenie,” from her brilliant sophomore set, “Rid of Me.” “F-U-C-K.” 

By the time the record hit in May 1993, a generation of like-minded female artists — including a host of riot-grrrl bands as well as Liz Phair on her landmark “Exile in Guyville” album issued that June  — were waiting in the wings or blasting away in basements. Protest music had rarely sounded so noisy, disruptive and inclusive, or felt more liberating.

Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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