This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, said, "The young always inherit the revolution." That couldn't be more true of two songs, released at two fraught times in American history, that share the same title.
The Isley Brothers spent the 1960s churning out hits like "Twist and Shout," "This Old Heart of Mine" and "It's Your Thing." But the group's image underwent a serious change in the '70s. It was a post-Watergate America, when trust in government was perilously low. The energy of the civil rights movement had cooled. And the country was recovering from a recession to boot.
"Fight the Power, Pts. 1 & 2," released into that context in 1975, was a crossover smash for The Isleys, charting in the top five. The funky beat made it a hit in dance clubs. But there was also a rebellious message that took listeners by surprise:
"I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud
I tried talking about it, I got the big runaround
And when I rolled with the punches, I got knocked on the ground
By all this bulls*** going down."
Carlton Ridenhour was 15 years old, and a lifelong Isley Brothers fan, when that song changed his life.
Ridenhour would later take the stage name Chuck D, as the leader of the pioneering rap group Public Enemy. In 1989, he wrote his own "Fight the Power" for the film Do the Right Thing. The movie is set on the hottest day of the summer in a Brooklyn neighborhood, where the temperature leads long-simmering racial tensions to boil over in the street.
Writer/director Spike Lee told Public Enemy he needed an anthem. The song the group created would come to score the film's legendary opening sequence — and, later, cause the plot to turn in a tragic way.
"Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom of death
We got to fight the powers that be."
For the series American Anthem, NPR arranged for Chuck D to sit down with Ernie Isley and talk about their songs and their inspirations. See the full conversation in the video above, and read on for an edited transcript.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Chuck D: The "Fight The Power" that the Isley Brothers made in 1975 — I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me, but it was a record that I thought represented us. "I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud": That spoke loud to me. And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record. Where was the seed of that idea?
Ernie Isley: Thing was, inspiration is all around us all the time. We were in California, Los Angeles. We had just finished recording the Live It Up album. Our mother and wives, and my nieces and nephews, flew out to L.A. after the record was finished, and we were gonna go to Disneyland for the very first time.
So, I was in a real good mood. I got in the shower, and for some reason, I started saying, or reciting, something like, "Time is truly wasting, there's no guarantee. Smile is in the making, fight the powers that be." I was like, "Whoa." Soap went this way, water went that way — I jumped out and grabbed a pad while I'm dripping ...
Chuck: You had to write it down?
Ernie: ... and I wrote that down. I didn't tell the brothers about it right away — it was like two or three months. And when I did, I said, "With all this nonsense going down." And Ronald [Isley, the group's lead vocalist] took that into account.
When it came time to sing it, I heard him say, "With all this BS going down." I went, "Ronald ... you're not gonna change that?" He said, "Change what?" [Laughs] "No, I'm not gonna change it."
Chuck: Was he hot that day, or mad at something?
Ernie: No, no, no. It was just, like, a matter of fact. And I said, "You know, man, some people may not like it." He said, "Ernie, if you can say what you feel, and it's embraced, wonderful. If you can say what you feel, and it's not embraced, at least you said what you feel." And I was like, "Yeah. That makes sense."
Chuck: It was a serious time in the United States of America. For black folks in 1975, it was a serious, serious time of doubt. Because when white folks got it bad, there's a basement underneath that that got hell going on.
Fourteen years later, Spike Lee had asked us to come up with something that signified this movie that he was making about unrest in Brooklyn, where he was from, and seeing that same hypocrisy. And he said, "I need an anthem." We were in the middle of R and B — that's Reagan and Bush. So I said, "We don't want to sample from the record. What we want to do is carry the torch of the meaning — to yell and scream back at hypocrisy." Because they definitely say we play rap music too loud. And we roll with the punches, and we get knocked on the ground. And so it was like, how do we carry the torch?
Ernie: When you guys came out with your "Fight The Power," I was listening, and you said, "Fight the power, fight the power, fight the powers that be." The "that be" part is when it's manifested — like, what kind of monster is it? Whatever it is, once it's manifested, then you know how to begin your fight. You're gonna take all of it on courageously, and with a sense of optimism.
Chuck: I mean, we made songs that were based on feeling. We didn't think it was one of our strongest songs at all. It ain't as rough as some songs that we've made, and crazy like some songs we made. But we were in pocket: This is the groove, this is the feeling. That was something that really, seriously drew the connection between what we felt in '75 and what we had 1989.
And Spike knew that record, too, so he didn't reject that. "'Fight The Power,' Spike — that's the anthem you're looking for." "And it doesn't sound like the 1975 version by the Isleys?" "No, it's totally over here — but it's gonna say the same thing." ... Hip hop is almost like its own archive museum.
Ernie: It was a tremendous hit in its own right. And it was important that you said what you said — [including] calling out Elvis and calling out John Wayne. It was like, "Did you hear what he said?"
Chuck: Now, you know, we give props. Elvis is in my household. But, there's other records in the crates. So that was a takedown saying, "The Isley Brothers are my heroes, not these people." ... Our history is in our music. If you de-emphasize our music, the history is gone. You could teach black history by default, just by teaching the music.
Ernie: That's right. In some ways, you could teach American history.
Chuck: And households were our best educational systems, because it taught us what the real deal was as we went to school. I mean, you and your brothers was always like uncles and aunts in our crib, without ever seeing you. Somebody's gonna play the record, and it's like, "Yo, this part of family. This is not offensive, this is to learn you," as they used to say. It'll learn you something by listening to these records.
Ernie: It's a wonderful way to be able to communicate with people. ... Thank God that music is what it is. It's like an extension, you know? And it's like an embrace, that all of us can connect through generations, through lifetimes. They're gonna be listening to "Fight the Power" by y'all for as long as they got ears. It'll be rediscovered. It'll be rehashed.
Chuck: Makes us love, makes us fight. Thank you, sir.
Ernie: Thank you.
Chuck: Fight the powers that be.
Ernie: That's right, man.