Some of the many samples on this track include "Pump Me Up" by Trouble Funk and "Funky Drummer" by James Brown, which gets a mention in the lyrics ("Sound of the Funky Drummer").
Discussing the song with Keyboard magazine in 1990, Chuck D explained: "We approach every record like it was a painting. Sometimes, on the sound sheet, we have to have a separate sheet just to list the samples for each track. We used about 150, maybe 200 samples on Fear of a Black Planet. 'Fight the Power' has, like, 17 samples in the first ten seconds. For example, there's three different drum loops that make one big drum loop: One is a standard Funkadelic thing, another is a Sly thing, and I think the third one is the Jacksons. Then we took some sounds from a beat box. The opening lick is the end of a Trouble Funk record, processed with doubling and reverb. And the chorus is music going backwards."
Probably Public Enemy's most famous song, this embodies their message of black pride, and along the way takes shots at the white icons Elvis Presley ("Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant s--t to me") and John Wayne. Even Bobby McFerrin couldn't escape their wrath, as Chuck D raps, "Don't Worry Be Happy was a number one jam, damn if I say it you can slap me right here."
This militant and confrontational approach was designed to empower the black community and create some controversy along the way, which helped sell a lot of albums. By this point, many of Public Enemy's fans were young white guys who liked the beats and associated with the anti-authority message. The group had also been through charges of anti-Semitism, reverse racism and homophobia, and emerged mostly unscathed (although their "Minister of Information," Professor Griff, left the group after declaring "Jews are wicked"), so declaring white people "Rednecks" in this song wasn't that much of a risk.
This song first appeared on the soundtrack of the 1989 Spike Lee movie Do The Right Thing. Lee recalled in Public Enemy: Inside The Terrordome: "We knew (Fight The Power) was coming out in the summer of 1989, and in the summertime, there's always one song in New York that, if it's a hit, you can hear everywhere: on the subway, cars, coming out of people's houses."
"I wanted this song to be an anthem that could express what young black America was feeling at this time. Around this time, New York City under Mayor Ed Koch was racially polarized, and I wanted this song to be in the film."
The track was later used in the 2005 movie Jarhead, where "Don't Worry Be Happy" also appears.
Most of Public Enemy's fans were too young to remember, but The Isley Brothers released a song called "Fight The Power" in 1975. Unlike Public Enemy, the Isleys stated that their song was not specifically about the black experience, but about all people rising above the powers that be.
A memorable performance of this song took place on August 10, 1990 when Public Enemy played it at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee - an Elvis enclave and home to his Graceland mansion. The concert took place six days before the anniversary of Elvis' death, so there was a bit of controversy over whether or not the line about Elvis was appropriate. Chuck D, unfazed, bellowed the lyric with his typical gusto.
In his post as the group's "Minister of Information," Professor Griff told The Washington Times that Jews are responsible for "The majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe." When the article was published in May 1989, the Jewish community was outraged and a firestorm of controversy followed. With Do the Right Thing set for release in July, Chuck D fired Griff and then announced that they were splitting up. This kept the film clear of the controversy, and once it was successfully released, Public Enemy resumed operations. Griff quietly came back to the fold about a year later.
The Godfather of Soul provided not just a key sample in this song, but lyrical inspiration as well. "'Fight The Power' comes from James Brown saying it like it had to be said in the '60s," Chuck D said in the documentary Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown.