Public Enemy’s Hot Summer

The long hot summer of 1989 saw Public Enemy release “Fight the Power” as the theme song for Spike Lee’s classic film Do The Right Thing. Their trial by fire over that summer led to an explosion of popularity and to the group fracturing.

“Fight the Power” was a glorious, celebratory uprising. Arriving at a time when the next wave of activists was finally emerging from the long shadow of the civil rights movement, it’s “Dancing In The Streets” for the hip-hop generation, a pro-Black agit-rap message meant to inspire social activism and political change. One of the unfortunate legacies of the furor that eventually engulfed “Fight The Power” is that we forgot how joyous and empowering it sounds.

The song was the leading light in a year when America struggled to process the aftereffects of a rising hip-hop nation. In Los Angeles, N.W.A’s classic treatise of street knowledge, Straight Outta Compton, elicited scrutiny from the FBI and law-enforcement groups, thanks to the album track “Fuck The Police.” In Miami, 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Want To Be drew legal scrutiny for obscenity, resulting in court cases that nearly went to the highest federal level. Back in New York, De La Soul was sued by The Turtles for sampling their music on the seminal 3 Feet High And Rising, one of several lawsuits against rap performers that would have a chilling effect on sampling.

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