I cringe every time I post the most popular song by an artist on this list because it's boring and basic, but I can be excused at least for this one, no? Come on, it's "Fight the Power."
As a young teenager, I always wished that Public Enemy was more accessible. The songs didn't get the kind of wide play that gangsta and party rap got and I never did any blind purchasing of albums. I couldn't afford it. In fact, I had this system where I had to know at least three songs before investing in the album and Public Enemy did not qualify. Public Enemy's popular and creative peak was a bit before my time. Fear of a Black Planet was released when I was 10, just a hair too early. I remember the first time I saw a Public Enemy video on MTV, it was the premiere of "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a fine song. But it doesn't have nearly the same impact of "Fight the Power" or just about anything else on Fear.
"Fight" was initially released as a single (on July 4, 1989, which, A+) and very prominently featured in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing ahead of its album release the following year. I think I saw Do the Right Thing shortly after its release. I believe my parents rented it and I watched it with them, but don't recall "Fight the Power" standing out to me, which in retrospect is ridiculous. I can maybe point to the context of the film in which "Fight" barely seems like a song. It's so well-fit, it's environmental. A set piece. I don't mean this as a criticism.
Public Enemy's logo was also hard to avoid in the early 90s. Even though they themselves weren't super exposed in pop culture at the time, their cachet was. This is--so early 90s (in fact, here's a very fun piece in Pitchfork about this phenomenon). Eddie Furlong iconically wore a PE shirt through most of Terminator 2. If you don't remember, it was against the law to talk or think about any other film the summer of 1991. I remember my friend Astra who had a pathological obsession with Eddie Furlong saying she wanted a Public Enemy shirt like that one. I remember thinking that was a good idea and wanting one too, despite (to my knowledge) never actually having heard Public Enemy.
Then, for a while nothing happened.
Fast-forward to college when Pete got a copy of Fear of a Black Planet. He was still making mix tapes for me by that time and started adding Public Enemy to the rotation. I finally had a reference point. It certainly took long enough. "Fight the Power" lead the pack of course and I fell hard for it. Being particularly angry at the time, I remember thinking how ballsy it was that Chuck D had the nerve to effectively call Elvis a racist. I now see that was totally unfair and I think Chuck D has walked that back as well. I still like the spirit behind it.
It's interesting reading PE's post-hoc thoughts on this song. It comes off as kind of moderate by today's standards. Oft quoted is their bassist having said "Law enforcement is necessary. As a species we haven't evolved past needing that. 'Fight the Power' is not about fighting authority - it's not that at all. It's about fighting abuse of power." Hmm. It was a very, very different time.
THIS VIDEO, THOUGH. It might be my favorite part of the song. Unsurprisingly, it was also directed by Spike Lee, which was effectively payment for using the song so much in the film. They gathered the hundreds of people who appear at the situational march by putting the word out like "hey, Public Enemy is doing a music video. Show up at X location at Y time on Z date" and it all worked out. In this interview Public Enemy and Spike Lee reminisce about what a fun day it was. It is a very good read.
HEY--this is weird. I owned the Coneheads soundtrack but had ZERO recollection that Barenaked Ladies covered "Fight the Power" for it. I think I glossed over it because I had no reference point for the band or the song and it just sounded like gibberish at the time. I'm listening to it now and it's TERRIBLE. Just awful. I mean, what the fuck is this? How could they get away with this? I had to turn it off. There are other covers of this which I will NOT sit down and listen to, including renditions by Korn (2005) and Vanilla Ice (2008). Why do people do these things? Who enables this? Let's try and get a law on the books to eliminate cover versions of this song. "Fight the Power" and "Young Americans." Let's just take care of that now.
Public Enemy's messy recent past does not undercut their legacy. I don't think so at least. Flavor Flav was always eccentric. I don't think it's possible for him to do something out-of-character. I was an avid viewer of Flavor of Love when it was on. Pete would run out of the room screaming when I had it on, but I don't see what any of it has to do with Public Enemy. Looking back it's hideously problematic and I can't believe how much we've evolved since the mid-2000s, but that goes for ALL culture, not just VH1 reality show culture. I still can't wrap my head around that Bernie Sanders campaign/cease and desist situation from earlier this year (or last year or whatever), but I haven't really tried that hard. Honestly I'd rather read more about how great the "Fight the Power" video shoot was than form an opinion on that mess.