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How Public Enemy wrote the perfect soundtrack to a brutal year

A portrait of Public Enemy
(Image credit: Eitan Miskevich)

2020 is the year of the soundtrack. But instead of a collection of songs curated to accompany the action in a film or TV show, soundtracks these days have switched their focus to reality. Right now, artists don’t need to look to fiction for inspiration when it comes to creating the soundtrack to dystopia. Instead, bands are increasingly creating a sonic narrative to mirror the uneasy societal, racial and political climate that has permeated 2020. 

Back in 1989, when Public Enemy released their anti-establishment anthem Fight The Power, the people who heard it – those who really heard it – related to it. Hard. They related to it for reasons that went beyond the song itself, and into what it represented: back then, folks had just seen Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a film which centred the racial and class tensions between African-Americans and Italian Americans coexisting in Brooklyn’s Bed–Stuy neighbourhood, and the ugly reality of what can happen when those tensions bubble up into real conflict. 

Fight The Power appeared on the film’s soundtrack. It gave listeners a snapshot into what it might feel like to march in Brooklyn’s sweltering summer heat, fighting for respect and the end of police violence in Black and brown communities. 

For those who resided outside of New York City’s five boroughs, it was an insider’s look at what happens when you merge race, music and anger. It was a fitting soundtrack to the rage and frustration Black folks felt during the tail-end of Reagan’s oppressive presidency; a time when the crack game rivalled the rap game and police brutality was at an all-time high. 

Cut to 2020 and Public Enemy have re-released the track as Fight The Power: Remix 2020, a reinvigorated version with lyrics updated to reflect the current state of racialised fuckery – this time with a side of global pandemic – that has dominated 2020 for so many of us. Lyrics make reference to the murder of George Floyd as well as Breonna Taylor (‘Fight for Breonna and the pain of her mother’), the Black medical worker killed by Louisville police officers in March.

“Always expect the expected,” says Public Enemy figurehead Chuck D. Louder is catching up with the formidable MC the day before the release of the group’s new album, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? We’ve just asked him about Taylor’s murder, and the resulting unrest ripping through the US and wider world. “It’s the sense of divide between citizens and authorities – [the sense] that there is no standard of how to punish or penalise or reform policing in the United States. 

“It seems like that divide has to close to figure out how to make the authorities accountable. Instead of them just ‘handling’ people – you handle animals – [they need to know] how to deal with people. Because Black communities don’t own their own spaces, it always seems like they are being policed from the outside looking in, but there is no standard policy of how to deal with people. And there’s a lot of stuff that comes with understanding people before you actually deal with them. 

“Those things have to be worked on,” he adds. “When it comes to making decisions, one has to understand how to respect the people that this happens to, and the issues that pop up and go to the forefront. Because there’s no standard of respect.” 

At the time of writing, no officers have been directly charged in Taylor’s death.

So, we ask Chuck, is Fight The Power: Remix 2020 the perfect soundtrack for our times, just as the original was 30 years ago? It seems a legitimate question – we had assumed that as Public Enemy’s driving force, he would have been behind the decision to bring back the song and to centre the album around it. But it turns out it was The Roots co-founder Questlove, not Chuck, who suggested bringing the song back, and who assembled the artists and assisted in recruiting collaborators on this version. 

“As music makers and people who are always in the flow of creation of audio and visual, they realised that the best theme to what is going on was Fight The Power, but with some with new voices to it,” says Chuck. Hip-hop artists and producers Nas, Rapsody, The Root’s MC Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove were brought into the fold, and Chuck welcomed their involvement. 

The 60-year-old has a commanding presence, and is rightly seen as an authority for all things hip-hop, so you’d be forgiven for assuming he’d want control over the remake. Instead, he welcomed the advice from the “younger” generation as to what was needed to pass the keys to the next crop of hip-hop artists. 

“I could be like – ‘Ehh, I don’t know, I think that someone else should be the [voice] of this’ – you know, get some young energy to represent it. But you’d have to be a fool not to recognise the ‘go with the flow’ – so that’s where that came from,” he explains. The resulting version is the best of both worlds – a showcase for collaborators and an opportunity for Chuck to once again boss the track.

As the group – which features the eccentric but undeniably charismatic Flava Flav, DJ Lord, who replaced DJ Terminator X in 1999, and guitarist Khari Wynn – never stopped recording, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is an album he describes as being “85-90% organically put together.” It’s just one of the many projects to materialise from the Public Enemy camp in the last few years, joining PE 2.0., a production company that produces remakes of Public Enemy songs, who are behind two "remakes" on the album, Public Enemy Radio (a project formed without Flava Flav, which released Loud Is Not Enough in April of this year – more on that below) and Chuck D’s work with Tom Morello and Cypress Hill’s B-Real in Prophets Of Rage, the Rage Against The Machine offshoot which disbanded in 2019 due to Rage’s reformation. 

Hip-hop fans were stunned when news broke earlier this year that Flava Flav had been “fired” from the group. It followed a sudden, and slightly embarrassing episode, in which Chuck and Flav fired shots at one another both through social media and lawyers following Public Enemy Radio’s appearance at a Bernie Sanders rally. Chuck later claimed the episode had been a “hoax” designed to “to grab attention and highlight media bias towards reporting bad news about hip hop”, though Flav denied these claims.

While order seems to have been restored for now, Chuck did offer us insight into something that did almost create a temporary splinter in the group. What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is the first release on Def Jam Records since the band left the label in 1999, and the journey there wasn’t a simple one. “Flava and I butted heads because I wanted to stay independent, like I had been for the past four to five years, and he wanted to go major,” Chuck explains. “I think Def Jam was a great settling ground for both of us.” The label was not only the first major label to sign the band, but also represented the golden era of hip-hop. 

Fight The Power isn’t the only track to get a do-over on the new album. Another “remake of sorts” is the excellent Public Enemy Number Won, a new version of their 1987 debut single Public Enemy No. 1, which this time around features the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Ad-Rock, Terminator X and Run DMC. 

“I had reached out to Run and DMC and the Beastie Boys because that song actually put me into the industry where I was recruited heavily by Rick Rubin,” says Chuck. “For me, it is an homage to them as a birthday gift to hip-hop, and it also ended up being an homage birthday gift back to me in collaborating with my favourite Rock & Roll Hall of Famers” (Public Enemy were inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 2013). 

“So, coming full circle back to Def Jam, with the song that pulled me into the industry on Def Jam was a no-brainer, and it ended up being a cornerstone of the record. At the same time I toured with DJ Premiere last year with Public Enemy Radio, Flava and I agreed that he was going to be on the new album. That’s when [the single] State Of The Union came out – the same time when Donald Trump was exercising his buzzard wings, so it was speaking to that!” he laughs. 

“Those three songs alone were the cornerstone of an album that [Public Enemy producer] C-Doc put together seamlessly into making a statement. It all came together organically. It wasn’t like all the appearances on the album were a marketing strategy; it was more like, ‘this is how it is’”.

On Yesterday Man and Smash The Crowd, the sampling of hard rock and metal tracks creates a sonic punch that accentuates the lyrical content, conjuring a pronounced aggression that might be informed by how metal is defined in the mainstream. It’s not the first time they’ve dabbled in the rock and metal worlds – in 1991, they remixed their 1987 single Bring The Noise with US thrashers Anthrax. This later garnered acknowledgement from African American fans, who regularly cite the song as their gateway into discovering heavy music. 

So what’s the enduring appeal of metal? “The tempos are quicker,” says Chuck. “The notes might delve in the major and minor and the bass has funky, low ebbs, kind of like minor chords. We dip into the speed and power and the muscular sound. Flav and I are able to ride over tracks without being lost in the mix of guitar or other noise.” One of the issues working with Flava Flav, he explains, is that both their voices are quite distinct. So, it takes a producer to find tracks that don’t submerge their voices, without “raising our levels so we could be heard.” 

“I think often younger artists try to find something convenient so they can get their flow on,” he adds. “But, being from the 80s [rap scene], you had to tackle something that was difficult, something that was ugly. I’m totally that writer and that MC where, give me the ugliest shit and I gotta figure out the design to get on top of it and make it fit. That’s probably the biggest difference. We can be educating in words, and also be educating in style, and educating and illuminating the music underneath it, so people can say ‘this music really is music’”.

While their collaborations have opened doors for hip-hop heads discovering heavy sounds (and vice versa), not everyone in the metal communities have been so welcoming. “Being [inductees] in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, there has always been this resistance that says that rap music is not rock’n’roll. I think that’s [from] metalhead historians that only talk about what they know. 

“We’re not saying that we’re the ‘rock,’ but we are the fucking roll,” he laughs. “That shuts them up.”

In Chuck’s world, there is no place for division – whether that’s the division between the state and its citizens or those looking to gatekeep musical scenes. “I take pride in paralysing people that want to be able to go in and divide music,” he says. “Rap music is vocals on top of music that has already been characterised. So, saying that Rap will disappear is as silly as wondering when singing records are going to stop.”

What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? is available now via Def Jam