Monthly Archives: July 2014

Feast Versus The Cave Wall

The food presented at a feast versus the marks on a cave wall:

One is meant for a certain “seen” consumption, the other is the record of personal reflection and feeling.

One is meant for the smorgasbord, the other is meant for the soul.

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Schrader, Scorsese, Film, & Racism

“It’s a truism that blacks have to outperform whites in similar situations. More is called on for the part of a black than a white. He cannot have the kind of personal controversy in his life that a white person has…I remember when I was very young and very angry and I wrote this movie Taxi Driver. Spike Lee does not have that privilege; he doesn’t have the privilege to be angry. Society won’t let him. It’s too dangerous for a black person to be that psychopathically angry at whites, the way that white character in Taxi Driver was at blacks. It’s just not allowed to him.”

– Screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, director of Mishima) ,
upon viewing Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing in 1989.

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970's American Cinema

Scorsese & Schrader: The Fascist Punk Duos of 1970’s American Cinema

This was the very last thing I read before I finally gave in and wrote my first original feature film As an Act of Protest in the summer of 2000. It was a watershed moment in my life because I was allowing myself to be completely honest about how I felt and what I saw in the world around me. I wanted to write a film that challenged Schrader’s courageously honest, although smug, statement and I think I succeeded. During early screenings of the finished film during the paranoid aftermath of 9/11 (not the best time for radical artists of color-then again, was there ever any?), Schrader’s admission about allowance proved to be right: white people and their establishment token blacks did not want to acknowledge or concede that the sordid illogical white racism of America (the West) could very well be enough reason to explain why a black man could be crazy and pathologically angry at whites. Although victims of racism are not crazy; their resentment of their oppressors and their system is rational and righteous. Many did not want to accept the truth of As an Act of Protest any more than they may have accepted the much cooler, hipper Spike Lee classic Do the Right Thing. However, my film did not seek to necessarily entertain, it sought to express. And that’s what I am most proud of. One critic described it as an “internal Battle of Algiers” – he understood what I was wrestling with: the depiction of racism and how it affects the soul of a young African-American trying to find his place in the world. Regardless of how good or bad the film may be, it is apparent where my sentiments are – my issue is not with white people, but with white racism. And how it is inextricably linked to the lives of the colonized and oppressed. Scorsese and Schrader’s cinematic depictions of racial truths are another case altogether – as they represent the corrupted soul of the white establishment. Their outsiders may resent their own politicans and values and so forth — but they are still very much white men eager to assert and define their conception of right, wrong, and “whiteness.” They are urbane John Waynes.

Schrader was 26 was he wrote Taxi Driver and he always claimed that he, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese were all in that awful brutal racist psycho-emotional place when he wrote the film and when they made it – exorcising their raging demons and “evil” (his word). And while I would accept that as a film, as a work of art on its own; while I could accept that it was a portrait of a trouble white man’s struggle to come to grips with who he was, how America was fucked up, how Vietnam had screwed him up, how misogyny is supported, how white men’s racist hatred is supported and honed by the system, etc — I don’t buy it for one minute because ever since Schrader and Scorsese have not continued to excise their racism, they have continued to very comfortably indulge in it. (I will spare DeNiro in this post.)

And though I respect Schrader’s original voice as a screen dramatist (he has talent and in my book that always implies potential), he — along with Martin Scorsese — best exemplify the conflicted, tortured relationship supposedly “spiritual” and conscientious White Americans have with Black Americans. While Scorsese reveres rock & roll and blues music (all created by Black Americans) he has a creeping hostility and virulent racist attitude towards blacks in nearly every single one of his films. I find it amazing that he loves punk so much and is a well known Clash fan, but has such a gleeful derision of African-Americans. What would Joe Strummer say about that? Scorsese, casually, has a character say what he must perceive as being the obligatory term for blacks no matter what: “Nigger” in at least half of his narrative feature films (I stopped counting after 8). But on the Holly-weird screen everyone loves demeaning blacks and saying that word, it’s infectious to them. It’s an American past-time, part of the culture! The trash that Jay-Z and Kanye West have promulgated to suburban whites and urban blacks craving “authentic ghetto life” only give credence to white liberals who love hearing us call each other “my nigga” and then consistently write that into any script that features a brother from ‘hood. We all know in our heart of hearts this is true. It’s like a mirrored reflection of those incredible scenes in Robert Townsend’s brilliant Hollywood Shuffle where the white acting coach is teaching black men how to talk and “jive” and be real “BLACK” for Hollywood movies.

The flip side here is that people would decry and accuse Scorsese if he didn’t express his pathological racism, they would say: “Oh, man. That’s not really how it is!” or they would defend Scorsese and state he is representing the nonchalant racism of white people, etc. — but they would be wrong. These moments in his films are not only his own perverse way of being honest about how he feels (Spielberg said “Scorsese is the best director simply cause he’s the most honest”) — but anchored with a nasty feeling as if to cry: “Let me just simply get this off my chest, I hate black people, I can’t help it!” — and it reverberates throughout his body of work. It’s almost as if he makes sure he says “Nigger” in his films so that white people in the audience won’t have to…It’s deranged. He has an obsession heralding the white workingman’s cool hatred of blacks; Tarantino has a straight up ominous fetish for the word “Nigger” and demeaning stereotypes of black culture which is a whole other discussion. We must remember: words carry meaning, words carry thought. I’m a writer, I know full well the power of words to lance, kill, or protect. And in art – everything is on purpose. Even the mistakes.

Paul Schrader seems to be in between these two poles. He’s passive-aggressive. I think he admires Scorsese but wished he could have had the frenzied attraction of Tarantino. He views himself, however, as Martin does – a man of faith, etc. Which is puzzling.
Does it not creep you out that “men of faith” have an unfettered pathological hatred of black people? Amazingly, Schrader directed Richard Pryor in Blue Collar, easily Pryor’s best dramatic performance (outside of his own JoJo Dancer – a grossly underrated flick!) and the film was championed by the Left for bringing issues of racism, class, and union corruption to the fore. It holds up as an excellent movie. And yet, Schrader is himself – somewhere deep down, an unreconciled racist. (Interesting also is the fact that the great Pryor who denounced using “Nigger” in his routines by the close of the 1970’s — seemed to have had no impact on the immediate political consciousness of either blacks or whites in the arts. It was like when Dylan went electric: they were mystified, felt betrayed somehow!)

I want to make it clear that I am not implying Scorsese and Schrader to be DW Griffiths. As far as I’d like to believe they are not, do not, support racism or oppression of any groups — that is not what I am getting at. In fact, I wished they did so I could understand them more! It bothers me that very few writers and filmmakers will have this conversation. To do a movie about a racist is one thing, to make a racist film is another…but to sprinkle racist tendencies and stereotypes in your work is even more frightening because you can forever get caught up in debates about “what it actually means.” I know what it means, thank you very much. I am a New Yorker who has grown up in a mixed environment, blah, blah, blah — and I can spot a racist from a mile away. Schrader exposes himself as trenchantly as Scorsese does, but perhaps without the finesse (Watch Schrader’s Hardcore for one memorable example, that is not necessary). Bear in mind that while he tried to empty out his racist pathologies in Taxi Driver (why Scorsese may have clung to it so passionately), he developed a chauvinistic attitude towards people of color and sex in quite a different way (note how the same director of Hardcore did the wonderful dramatic bio-pic of Yukio Mishima, and in between made Patty Hearst…who, as we know, was held captive by a brother. Somewhere in all of this is a bizarre insane contempt for blacks and yet he tries to somehow make up for it by making Mishima. Very disturbing.)

Someone once told me I expect too much from white American popular artists. How preposterous! I told him it’s not that I expect too much — it’s that the American people of all races — demand too little. The depths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon’s music would put Schrader and Scorsese’s art to shame. One must be very critical and hard on the artists who possess the most ability and who are simply brilliant. Which is why Jay Z annoys and perplexes so many Black Americans who cannot accept him: he’s extremely talented…but he not only hates black people, women, and the revolutionary spring of hip-hop – he hates himself. There is something disgraceful and embarrassing when we confront sacred cows. It is not the slaughtering of them that bothers me — it is the “free pass” we give them – so that we can slaughter ourselves.

Scorsese and Schrader revere Robert Bresson, as I do. Schrader has written wonderful texts on him. But the spiritual gravitas of Bresson and the fury of his later 1970’s films – go deeper and cast a wider net of compassionate truth or understanding than either of the two filmmakers simply because: Bresson did not hate any one ethnicity or race. He was appalled by man in general and despised its Capitalism and cruelty. Period.

Amiri Baraka once said there is nothing more dangerous than a talented person with backward thinking. Scorsese and Schrader have a lot to learn. And that’s okay – for as long as man is alive, perhaps there is still room for his soul to grow. But I highly doubt it.

The number one problem with our popular National Actors and Directors and Screenwriters in this country is our refusal to make them responsible for not helping shape and criticize reality; for not incurring them to take a stand and own up to their own cinematic representations. Scorsese and Schrader would be unwilling and would fail, miserably, in trying to express plainly the problems that exist in this country in terms of race. Intellectually I know they know it, but instead of rebelling against Hollywood and the United States Government, they seek to maintain it, and glibly state that they are and have always been outsiders and outlaws and critics of conservative bourgeois society. I laugh at this. Why is it considered “political” if an artist is asked to take a stand, to choose a side, to make it clear how he perceives himself…and the “other”? The politics of Frank Capra alone make the average Hollywood icon look like Mussolini. (We forget that Congress wanted his head on a platter – literally – after he made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!)

We prefer our pockets deep, hearts numb, and minds closed. When audiences start demanding more from their “salon artists,” I will begin to reconsider the idea of social change or hope. The establishment artists, however progressive they may be noted, maintain the status quo. Now, who does that remind you of?

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Israel, The New Nazi’s, & 21st Century Racism

A child on the train this morning said to his father, “Lived backwards is the Devil.”

The father took no notice and told his son to “shut up.” A shame he could not accept or engage his son’s brilliant, precocious insight. That’s a brilliant poet right there in diapers, I was thinking to myself. I smiled. Which is rare because normally I am cursing the world – as well as my own place in it.

Then I re-read Norman Pollack’s beautifully searing and questioning piece, published in CounterPunch: “Israel’s Goliath to Palestine’s David” and through the looking glass I went…to get another fragment of truth.

Although it is a personal reflection and analysis of the hate that directs Israel’s nasty assault on the Palestinians, it is loaded with such truth, such spiritual and literal fact — that it would be very difficult for one to not regard the present regime of Israel as some kind of “new Nazism” for the 21st Century. It is not as far-fetched or preposterous as it may seem…if we African Americans have saddled up with the racist White Establishment by doing their bidding for them (President Obama’s nonsense, blacks willingly killing each other–keeping the FBI’s gang violence alive, and titillating white Liberals by gladly referring to ourselves heinously as “niggers” and “my niggas,” after ALL THIS TIME, etc, etc.) than it is NOT any more bizarre than to see the Israeli State Power and its complicit World Jewry members, who want to see Palestinians erased, compared to their own recent oppressors: the International-European Nazi party.

Think about it.

Yes, the devil is alive and well.

Thank You, Norm for writing this wonderful piece in CounterPunch.

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The Death of a Friend

The death of a friend made me realize not how fleeting life is or how precious moments are, but how little time we actually shared enjoying ourselves.

 

 

 

 

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Weaving Rugs and Building Floors: Some Pier Paolo Pasolini and Samuel Fuller, But Completely Alessandro

Afghan Hound
Written & Directed by Brian Alessandro

"Afghan Hound" (2010)

“Afghan Hound” (2010)

A New Director has made a powerful motion picture, which is now available to audiences on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

Brian Alessandro’s 2010 Afghan Hound opens with a shot of garbage. An indication of the mess that slowly forms when a white American war veteran and an Afghani carpet weaver’s lives intersect. Although understandably perceived as a film about a PTSD and a Vet’s struggle to come to grips with the horror he inflicted in Afghanistan at the start of America’s invasion shortly after September 11, 2001 — the film is less a portrait of PTSD and more an illustration of the warped relationship America and historic white racism have with the Oppressed and colonized. It is set in the here and now, within the fray of the 21st century circus and the themes of white guilt, war crimes (an oxymoron if there ever was one), revenge, and punishment could be applied to just about any time period in modern man’s consciousness. Chris Leeds (Adam M. Griffith in an impressive performance) is a veteran trying to resolve and accept the horror he inflicted and experienced as a soldier in Afghanistan. He is reflective, introverted, and fragile when we meet him and yet at least he seems to be able to support himself – he’s a carpenter. And while he may not be Jewish, he is a Catholic and the suffering he must endure is rite of passage ritual into a state of grace. He is 33, like Christ was when he was crucified. Although it is not a primary aspect of the film, it is wholly un-subtle. Is Alessandro implying that Americans (i.e. “white people”) must suffer to the depths in order somehow be reborn, be cleansed, be…treated for their institutional philosophy of militancy and imperialism? Whether at home or abroad, white America has its nose in everything and dictates to everyone under the sun. Except to itself.

Enter: Zemar – spookily interpreted by Lavrenti Lopes. Zemar is the Afghanistan-American (he grew up in Flushing) who initially befriends Chris (they swap trades, Zemar teaches Chris about rug weaving, who in turn gets lessons in carpentry). Their exchange of energies and ideas is affirmative and creative as they both build things…and yet, as Zemar reminds us: “Everything begins with philosophy.” Which, of course, means that there is an inherent idea behind any organized act or decision. And how we render those actions is based on ones philosophy. It is quite clear that the director wanted it to be known that America’s treatment of “the other” and its own soldiers – is quite a conscious act.

I wrote earlier that Afghan Hound is not really about PTSD in my opinion – as that skirts the issue. It is about the recognition of guilt and admission of sin. And how a white man willingly accepts his punishment – even if only it allows him to feel something stable and “real.” This is no coincidence or something to be taken lightly. The white man – cut off from his own center, his own “soul” as it were must always go to the “natives” to feel something. He must always be led, taught, entertained, or forgiven by a person of color in order to be free of his burden, his shame. He has been going to the black man for his music for centuries now – because it enables him to feel. But what he can’t seem to do is actually forgive himself. People of color throughout the world do nothing but forgive. It’s not that the colonized don’t know who they are — it is perhaps that the colonizer doesn’t know or can’t admit who he is. And the Chris Leeds of the world wouldn’t know where or how to begin to forgive…themselves. Their world is too unstable.

In one of the film’s most genuinely moving scenes, Chris announces to his friends and family — after imploring them for their American nationalism in which he excoriates everything from the A Bomb to Britney Spears – “at least the sunset is trustworthy.” He knows it’s the only thing man can rely on, the one constant that may never change and it is an emotional sunset or sunrise that he needs, he needs something to lean against that he can rely on. Zemar becomes his sunset.

It is when Zemar begins pursuing revenge on Chris that the film takes a surrealistically absurd turn. Alessandro powerfully crafts elements of Sam Fuller and Pasolini into what emerges as a kind of delicate ‘Theater of Torture’ – all executed and inflicted by Zemar who shows himself to be quite the guerilla sadist. And this is the power of Alessandro’s directing – he expresses the terrifying fact that even the oppressed’s ability to enact a reasonable or rational act of revenge – has been corrupted!

Maya Angelou once wrote that she did not believe that blacks would treat whites the same if they were in positions of power and if their roles in western society had been reversed. She wrote this in reference to Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” (which she appeared in originally) and while she may or may not be right, in the case of Afghan Hound – revenge is something Chris wants Zemar to have and, once again like a good sacrificial lamb – he offers himself and exposes himself to Zemar’s bizarre, yet benign, S&M fantasies (the scene where Zemar rubs his hands over Chris’ combat uniform as if to indicate the homo-eroticism of Fascist military fatigues is excellent). Zemar wants this white imperialist to suffer, to be punished, to be abused…and yet for all the debasing he does – it is Zemar who comes off appearing more warped than Chris, thereby endowing Chris with more sensitivity, almost in a strange way letting him (the white audience) off the hook, since the empathy is given more to him than to Zemar. If there is a criticism I have of Afghan Hound it is that.

Lopes bothered me half way into the film, he was too cocky and his cat like prancing was off-putting at first. I also was uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. As an African-American, I was delighted to see another man of color play a role that was complex and off-kilter. However, the “bitchiness” of the character bothered me, and at times bordered on a strange shifty eyed Arab stereotype via Peter Lorre – and yet in the last 10 minutes of the film Lopes finds a way of redeeming Zemar – not as a person – but as a character in the film. Because no matter no matter how “true to life” some movies’ people seem – one must not forget we are watching characters. And behind every character…is a philosophy.

Griffith did well as Chris – it’s a role Viggo Mortensen would’ve craved had he been 25 years younger. Griffith is a better actor, but there were times I did not believe his brooding. It would have been even more powerful if Griffith was more like his delusional white friends and had still been PRO-America and then gradually lost himself in Zemar’s Velvet Underground revenge games – discovering his own status as a racist imperialist and as a ‘pawn in the game’ but these are minor points and only ones I speak of in order to be fair and honorable to the film. To not be tough on a tough movie would be to dishonor it. And all works of art are flawed. It’s just that there are times when the artist must speak to his fellow artist and tell him exactly how his work stirred him and what questions it prompted. That’s how we all grow. It took great courage and talent to make Afghan Hound. For all his absurd “spiritual suffering” ethos, Scorsese couldn’t do it (he lacks the courage – plus he’s too busy making sure DiCaprio is brushing his teeth or God knows what) and neither could Aronofsky or any other establishment director who supposed to be known for taking risks and being honest.

American cinema does mirror the American society in that it is a socio-pathic, self-aggrandizing world that does little to change, challenge, or reflect on our history, mores, and accepted values. For this alone, Alessandro must be commended.

Final Note: Brian Alessandro’s use of wide-angle masters and subtle shifts in acting styles (look at the white American family the movie with that of the Afghani family, even the styles – within the perceived Naturalism – is different!) is effective and bristle with tension and a strange un-reconciled understanding. I am not sure how he achieved some of the things he did (which I am grateful for) but I know his work beckons repeated viewings and I hope he is a director who will continue to make honest and penetrating films.

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25th Anniversary of Public Enemy & Spike Lee’s Legendary Collaboration…

Riot on the Set: How Public Enemy Crafted the Anthem ‘Fight the Power’

Twenty-five years after ‘Do the Right Thing,’ Spike Lee, Public Enemy and Branford Marsalis reflect on the film’s anthem

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D & Flavor Flav of Public Enemy [Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images]

Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy perform in New York City.
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By Kory Grow from Rolling Stone

“We needed an anthem,” Spike Lee said. “When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting. I wanted Public Enemy.”

The director may have asked for an anthem for his 1989 chronicle of big-city racial tensions, but what he got was a salvo. A quarter of a century has passed since Radio Raheem’s boom box served as a megaphone to a generation, spreading Public Enemy’s rap reveille over and over again in the movie, but “Fight the Power” has not lost an ounce of its revolutionary power or poignancy. Chuck D’s lyrics praising freedom of speech and people uniting while decrying racist icons still sound just as vital as anything Pete Seeger wrote, and production team the Bomb Squad’s ultra-modern collage of funk and noise for the track has never been replicated. The fact that Public Enemy made multiple versions of the tune – including the Branford Marsalis–infused, free-jazz cut for the movie and the more straight-ahead approach on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet – only shows the versatility of the song’s message.

To celebrate the legacy of the tune, and its impact both in and out of movie theaters 25 years later, Rolling Stone caught up with Lee, Marsalis and Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee and found out how they made an anthem.

Where does the “Fight the Power” story begin?
Chuck D: Spike, [producer] Bill Stephney, Hank and I had a meeting, and Spike simply said, “Hey look, I’ve got this movie based on all this tension going on in the New York area, the clashing neighborhoods, and I’m looking for an anthem.” All I remember was Spike was saying, “I’m looking for an anthem.”

Hank Shocklee: Spike’s original idea was to have Public Enemy do a hip-hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is kind of like a Negro anthem or spiritual. But I was like, “No.” I opened the window and asked him to stick your head outside. “Man, what sounds do you hear? You’re not going to hear ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ in every car that drives by.” We needed to make something that’s going to resonate on the street level. After going back and forth, he said, “All right, I’ll let you guys go in there and see what you guys come back with.”

When did the “Fight the Power” concept come up?
Chuck D: We like to work from titles down, so we came up with “Fight the Power” first. It was inspired by the Isley Brothers’ song “Fight the Power.” But the challenge was, could we make something entirely different that said the same thing in another genre?

Shocklee: We lived in the suburbs and were sandwiched by nothing but white communities. It was like we were the leftovers: We got what the white communities didn’t want to have, we got their spillovers. So we always had to kind of fight this adversity. We wanted to just make something that was going to say, “I’m mad as hell, I’m not gonna take it any more – I’m going to fight the system.” So that song that the Isley Brothers did, “Fight the Power,” resonated, but their version was a little soft. It didn’t resonate as deeply as I thought it should.

Chuck, at what point did you write the lyrics?
Chuck D: I was getting ready to head out on a European run with Run-D.M.C. in the fall of 1988. I remember writing a big chunk of it on a plane as we were flying over Italy. And D.M.C. was probably in the chair next to me. So I had the aftereffect and the glow of Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay to inspire me, so to speak, in the writing of some of the lyrics.

“Freedom of speech is freedom of death” is a line that has always stood out. What prompted that?
Chuck D: A lot of that stuff like that line is like Bob Marley or Frederick Douglass: “There’s no progress without struggle.” There are a lot of things like that that I was able to incorporate it in there.

Why did you pick out Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 single “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as a negative thing?
Chuck D: Because”Don’t Worry Be Happy” doesn’t apply to protests. If you’re not worried and you’re happy, you’re like, why protest? Not everybody’s gonna feel like that.

What inspired the line about Elvis and John Wayne being racists?
Chuck D: [Comedian]Blowfly had a record called “Blowfly’s Rapp”in 1980. And there was a line in there where one of the characters in the song was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and basically he had a lyric, “Well, I don’t care who you are, motherfuck you and Muhammad Ali.”

Why did you pick Elvis Presley and John Wayne, specifically?
Chuck D: Elvis and John Wayne were the icons of America. And they kind of got head-and-shoulder treatment over everybody else. It’s not that Elvis was not a talented dude and incredible in his way, but I didn’t like the way that he was talked about all the time, and the pioneers [of rock & roll], especially at that time, weren’t talked about at all. When people said “rock & roll” or “the King,” it was all “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis, one trillion fans can’t be wrong” type of shit.

But as far as “motherfuck him and John Wayne”… yeah, fuck John Wayne to this minute [laughs]. John Wayne is “Mr. Kill All the Indians and Everybody Else Who’s Not Full-Blooded American.” The lyric was assassinating their iconic status so everybody doesn’t feel that way.

Is that also how “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” came about?
Chuck D: That came from the fact that Spike also discussed how there was a wall in the movie with people we respected as heroes on it. So “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps,” was saying, “You know what, we’ve got heroes on the wall, too.”

Flavor, how did you end up getting the John Wayne line?
Flavor Flav: A lot of the songs that Chuck D has written, I took parts. I’d say, give me this part, give me that part. And I’m very grateful for the lines he gave me. I ain’t gonna lie, because those are the most memorable parts of the record.

Was “Fight the Power” the first song considered for Do the Right Thing?
Lee: That wasn’t the first song they submitted. It was not “Fight the Power.”

What was it?
Lee: Not “Fight the Power.”

Shocklee: It was “Fight the Power.” He got the preproduction version. It was a sparse outline of the idea of the song. Spike, with all due respect, is not a rap guy, so he’s not gonna understand where it could go until it’s a finished production.

Chuck D: [Laughs] Spike misconstrued it as being a different song. It was a song in a rough stage with different elements brought up to the front. But Spike used it, because he had to present the film to a bunch of different investors. I remember checking out a screening with Hank in Brooklyn, and Spike had put in the rough draft of the song, and every time he played it, I was sinking in my seat, because I was like, “Oh shit. The song is not complete. It sounds like shit to me. And he’s going to put in the movie this many times? What the fuck!” I was like, “Man, we’ve got to come better than that.”

Hank, what was your goal when you were putting together the music for the track?
Shocklee: I wanted you to feel the concrete, the people walking by, the cars that are going by and the vrroom in the system. I wanted the city. I wanted that grittiness, the mugginess, the hot sticky, no-air vibration of the city [laughs].

How did Branford Marsalis get involved?
Branford Marsalis: I think it was Spike’s idea. I don’t feel at that the time that P.E. or Hank would have been suddenly compelled to use a saxophone.

Shocklee: I wanted to have a sax in the record but I didn’t want it in a smooth, melodic fashion; I wanted someone to play it almost like a weapon, and Branford was the guy. He came in the studio and he was incredibly gracious and very humble. He treated us as if we were musicians just like himself.

Marsalis: Hank did something that I’ll never forget. He made me do one funky solo, one jazz solo and one just completely avant-garde, free-jazz solo. And I said, “Which one them are you going to use?” And he said, “All three of them motherfuckers,” and he threw all three up. And the shit was killer. You had this Wall of Sound come in and the saxophones came in, and it was a Wall of Sound to accompany a Wall of Sound.

Branford, coming from a jazz background, what was it like playing over a Bomb Squad track?
Marsalis: It was not a normal chord progression. If it was C minor then it went to A-flat 7. It has the same sensibility as a James Brown tune, which is completely where they got it from. If you listen to when they go, “Fight the Power” and you hear that voice that goes, “Aahh,” that voice is not in the same key as the other shit. A musician would never do that. But it works. It unwittingly helped me expand my brain in a way.

Did you think you had a hit?
Chuck D: No, but when I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh. We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver shit. We couldn’t rely on radio.

Marsalis: They had the greatest marketing tool in the world. They had a movie that people were going to see two and three times, that was going to be all over the world and it scared white people half to death — which ensured that it was going to sell.

Flavor Flav: When “Fight the Power” was being created, all I did was just come in, lay down my lyrics and I was out. I didn’t know that the record was going to be as big as it turned out to be. I just wanted to make a great record and keep it moving. And next thing you know, this phenomenal record was being played on the radio over and over and over. I’m like, wooow. This is crazy.

Chuck D: For all the talk about “Fight the Power,” there was always resistance to Public Enemy. It really got no higher than 16 on the R&B/black charts, which just goes to show you how much help black radio and urban radio gave us. It didn’t even crack the Top 10. It’s crazy, because in hindsight when they talk about the Number One rap record that meant something, “Fight the Power” is always at the top of those charts.

The B side to the original 12 inch features a hilarious meeting between Spike and Flavor. How did that come together?
Chuck D: They’re having a conversation – about what? Who the fuck knows. Flavor won’t remember it [laughs].

Flavor Flav: I don’t remember the B side.

What did you think of the movie’s opening credits, when Rosie Perez shadowboxes to the song?
Flavor Flav: It was just incredible, man, hearing my voice in a movie [laughs]. It was buggin’ me out. It was like the first time I ever heard “Public Enemy Number One” on the radio. It gave me that kind of feeling. Then also hearing my voice all throughout the movie – because that’s the only record that they really played in that movie, [actor Bill Nunn’s character] Radio Raheem would play nothing else but “Fight the Power” on his box, man. It was just an incredible feeling.

Chuck D: It was cool, because I thought I could get away with not doing a video [laughs].

Marsalis: I dug the song. I thought it was a hit from the get. I mean, Rosie wasn’t my favorite dancer necessarily, as someone who had a relationship with the arts that was rather broad. But it was cool. It was great to see. You know, Rosie was fine as hell so I didn’t object to that.

Shocklee: The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boom box playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.

What do you remember about making the video?
Lee: All Chuck D and I wanted to do was reenact a march. So we had everybody show up. We marched from a specific space through the streets of Brooklyn and ended up on the block where we shot the film. We had to do it there. The movie is shot on one block. Stuyvesant Avenue, between Quincy and Lexington in Bed-Stuy. So we definitely wanted the destination of the march was the block where we shot the film. The stage was there. Perform.

Shocklee: That video was a really good thank-you that Spike did for us. We didn’t get paid for using the song throughout the film. It was the first big production budget that we’ve ever had for a video. When I first got the treatment, I thought it looked very simple. It was just, “Hey, we’re gonna do this march, make it seem like it’s a march on Washington, but we’re going to do it in Brooklyn.” I got to the set around 5:30 in the morning, and people were lined up. It looked like the Million Man March.

Spike, how did you get so many people there?
Lee: We just put the word out: “Public Enemy video.” People showed up. The police were scared though.

Why?
Lee: That many people? They always get scared. But there was not one incident. It was great. And the police were not a problem. As long as you’re done by 6, we’re all right.

Chuck D: It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn. It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.

Chuck, what inspired the video’s intro, where you talk about the Civil Rights March on Washington from 1963?
Chuck D: I remember coming on in the video saying that the whole concept of the march in Washington wasn’t complete, but my words weren’t as sharp as I would like them to be, so I ended up saying, “That’s some nonsense.” And the way it was cut, I sound like I’m out of my damn mind [laughs].

Flavor Flav: That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot. And with that many people at my video shoot, it was crazy. Not only that but we had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant. We had a good time that day, man. I would give anything to live that day one more time, that day was so amazing.

Flavor, who is the little girl you’re holding at the end of the video?
Flavor Flav: That was my daughter Shanique. She was three years old at the time. Now she’s 28 [laughs].

Lee: Chuck and Flavor just had so much fun. It was a great day. VH1 named it the Number One hip-hop video of all time. Well deserved. Rightfully so.

The version of “Fight the Power” on Fear of a Black Planet stripped away Marsalis’ solo and remixed the Elvis line. Why make different versions?
Chuck D: “Fight the Power” came out on Motown first, because of the soundtrack, but we were with Sony. We had to pull some structural things in order have “Fight the Power” on Motown as a single but also our own video on Sony and then being on Fear of a Black Planet the following year as the final track.

Shocklee: Putting on the Public Enemy album, it just didn’t make sense to have the same exact version. And I’m a big fan of each. Each record, to me, should live in its own space.

Finally, now that 25 years have passed, how do you feel the song holds up?
Chuck D: I feel like Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome.” “Fight the Power” points to the legacy of the strengths of standing up in music. Spike really made that record what it is. Because who puts a song in a movie that many times? Who does that?

Flavor Flav: I think it’s one of the most amazing things that Chuck has ever written. I’ve always looked at Chuck as one of the most amazing writers and lyricists ever. And a lot of the stuff that Chuck wrote was all accurate information. Chuck has been right a lot of times and that’s why I always backed up my partner.

Marsalis: Come on, that shit is anthemic. And for all of the people that love popular culture, there are a handful of songs that are actually anthemic in hip-hop or otherwise. And that one is one of them.

Shocklee: I think it was Public Enemy’s and Spike Lee’s defining moment because what it had done was it had awoken the black community to a revolution that was akin to the Sixties revolution, where you had Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. It created such an energy surge throughout the community that it became the template for every artist, every filmmaker, every rapper, singer, and it also sparked community leaders and teachers to understand the power of hip hop. And it made the entire hip-hop community recognize its power. Then the real revolution began.

 

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