NPR’s American Anthem series brings together two songwriters — Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers and Chuck D of Public Enemy — whose respective versions of “Fight the Power” eyed the same struggle.
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.
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.
For the series American Anthem, NPR arranged for Chuck D to sit down with Ernie Isley and talk about their songs and their inspirations.