Public Broadcasting and Public Enemy Join to Explain the Rise of Hip-Hop

David Hinckley
5 min readJan 22, 2023

If America had known in the 1980s that 40 years later hip-hop would be the subject of a multi-part historical documentary on PBS, maybe America wouldn’t have been so scared.

Fight The Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World, a production of PBS and BBC, premieres Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. EST on PBS. If the title sounds like a bold assertion, hip-hop artists have never been shy about staking their claim, personal or global, to the front of the room.

Chuck D of Public Enemy.

If hip-hop didn’t change the whole world, there’s no doubt it redirected popular culture in America. Turn on any contemporary music station today and those beats descend directly from the street parties of the 1970s in the Bronx.

Like rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop began as outlaw music, a dangerous force that threatened to shatter the tranquility and safety of the American living room. It was scorned and reviled by grownups, black as well as white. Many radio stations wouldn’t play it except for maybe an hour late Saturday night, when it wouldn’t unsettle the ears of impressionable young children. The respectable music world tried first to ignore it and then shut it away in a dark basement with the hope it would wither and die there.

It didn’t. It blossomed, because it turned out that the children in those comfortable living rooms — first mostly black and brown, but soon white as well — liked what they were hearing. The fact it had been labeled forbidden fruit, just like early rock ’n’ roll, did not diminish its desirability.

So just a few years later, people who insisted they hated rap were bobbing their heads and dancing to hip-hop beats. It wasn’t exactly a stealth takeover, but hip-hop elbowed past the old sound as surely as rock ’n’ roll had bigfooted Perry Como several decades before.

Fight The Power documents this rise through vintage video and interviews with artists, focusing on those who believed rather than those who criticized.

The filmmakers repeatedly tie the rise of hip-hop to the world in which it was rising, positioning the music as a voice that questioned and challenged those whose words and deeds were oppressing neglected communities.

Writer and social commentator Nelson George notes how the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950s may have been a gift to people looking for a faster route to Westchester, but that it devastated whole communities in the Bronx, which not coincidentally became the national symbol of urban decline in the 1970s.

It was no accident, Fight the Power declares, that artists in the Bronx employed the only power they had — their art — to start building new communities rooted in the common denominator of music.

The guiding force and voice behind Fight the Power is the man who wrote and recorded the song of the same name: Chuck D of Public Enemy, whose thundering records in the 1980s made PE one of the most influential and enduring hip-hop groups of all time.

In the 1980s, Chuck D says here, the black community was being attacked at the highest levels of the land. Under President Ronald Reagan, he says, the war on drugs and other policies had the effect of demonizing and marginalizing inner-city residents, the great majority black and brown.

Hip-hop, which began as party music that offered a good time on a hot summer night, began to respond with songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Melle Mel’s warning — “Don’t push me / ’Cause I’m close to the edge” — resonated and helped inspire a string of other artists, from KRS-1 to NWA and Public Enemy, to record their own often blunt and angry responses to what they saw as a corrosive society.

Ice-T

As time passed, these verbal declarations played out in a variety of ways. Ice-T, who became close to a wanted man after he recorded “F — — Tha Police,” has for the last decade been better known as a TV cop on Law & Order: SVU.

In any case, Fight The Power argues that hip-hop had a major and lasting impact on America’s racial discussion. Without hip-hop, Fight the Power says, the George Floyd protests wouldn’t have happened.

Whether or not that’s true, Fight the Power tells a compelling story in a fast-paced and convincing way.

The first episode sets the stage, noting how Bronx DJs like Kool Herc organized parties in clubs and parks. Interestingly, the commentators suggest, the police didn’t see these large, exuberant gatherings as a menace, but rather as a good thing, because young folks were all clustered in one spot rather than roaming through the shadows.

Hip-hop began primarily as music rather than words, with DJs creating a new beat by mixing hot riffs from existing records. Rappers were originally known as MCs and their primary function was to keep the crowd engaged with a little patter while the DJ was reloading.

Eventually this flipped. LL Cool J recounts how it was the same thing that happened in the 1930s and 1940s with the big bands, where originally the instrumental arrangement was featured and vocals were a short interlude in the middle. Then, as the vocalists started to become more popular, the spotlight shifted from the band to Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra.

Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC.

As this suggests, Fight the Power weaves musical history in with sociology, and while the series presents hip-hop as a very good thing, it doesn’t ignore the controversies inevitably attending any movement that becomes a social force and a multibillion-dollar industry. It only takes the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG to remind us that hip-hop’s path has had some deep shadows.

But it has also grown from a block party, powered by hot-wiring a street lamp, into an international force. While no four hours can tell that whole story, Fight the Power lays down a solid foundation and reminds us why the powers thathip-hop was fighting had reason to be concerned.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”