"Fight The Power" Video Shoot
Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D of the rap group 'Public Enemy' film a video for their song 'Fight The Power' directed by Spike Lee in 1989 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs

Music Sermon: How 'Fight The Power' Saved Public Enemy

It was “1989, the number, another summer,” and in New York City, the racial tension was thick as the season’s heat. For New York, it wasn’t just “another summer” - 1989 was a defining year for the city, and for its black and brown youth. The swift persecution of five black and brown boys for the Central Park Jogger attack, with little evidence, is in the national conversation today, but divided the city along racial and class lines that spring. The August murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood sparked protests across the city. In the middle of these two events, both of which are tightly woven into the fabric of New York, Spike Lee released one of his most provocative films: the prophetic Do the Right Thing.

At the time, Lee intentionally chose Public Enemy, the most radical group in rap, to set the movie’s tone. Their seminal anthem “Fight the Power” was not only one of hip-hop’s most monumental songs, but also Gen X’s first taste of movement music. The group’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything anyone had ever heard in music, let alone the still very new rap genre. Public Enemy’s sophomore album combined the tight flow of battle rappers, the spirit and energy of the Black Power movement, and the aesthetic presentation of the Black Panthers with their paramilitary backing group, Security of the First World (S1W), all packaged up with a logo featuring a black man in a sniper’s crosshairs (can you imagine all of that today? The “If a white group did that…” comments would be insufferable). PE didn’t just start the conscious rap movement, they sparked the gangsta rap movement – NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was directly influenced by Nation of Millions (Chuck sent an early copy of the album to the group, and you feel the inspiration in “F*ck the Police” especially. Along with the defiant social commentary in the lyrics, Dre channeled The Bomb Squad’s sonic chaos in the track. Cube went on to work with The Bomb Squad for his solo debut).

“When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I wanted Public Enemy.”

But at the time of the movie’s release, PE had technically broken up; sidelined by controversy impacting their reputation not just domestically, but abroad. On June 29, one day before Do the Right Thing hit theaters, Russell Simmons announced: ''Public Enemy is disbanding for an indefinite period.”

THE STORM

Public Enemy was made up of distinctively different personalities: Chuck D, the leader, the voice, and the “adult” of the group; Flava Flav, the blueprint for hip-hop hype men and comedic levity to Chuck’s booming gravity; and Professor Griff, the “Minister of Information,” a black Muslim who didn’t actually observe any of the tenants of Islam but subscribed to the most incendiary rhetoric The Nation of Islam offered. As the Minister of Information, Griff sometimes spoke publicly on the group’s behalf and had been known to stir up controversy with comments that were just over the line, but not far enough to cause a mainstream firestorm. Then, on May 22, 1989, he sat down with reporter (and later writer for The Wire and Treme) David Mills for an interview with The Washington Times. Because he was talking to another black man, Griff got way into his bag, and sh*t went left, quickly.

“Griff opined that ‘the majority of them [i.e., Jews]’ are responsible for ‘the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe,” recounted LA Times rock critic Robert Cristgau in his summation of the controversy, properly titled “The Sh*t Storm.” “He… raved about how ‘the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa,’ observed that ‘the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat,’ and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group.” It was a mess, but it still flew largely under the radar until the story was picked up by The Village Voice (pours out liquor). You know how the timeline gets when there’s controversy? Imagine that in real life amongst the music community and media.

Even the most esteemed music critics had praised Nation of Millions, many even included the LP on their 1987 Album of the Year lists. Now they were being called on to defend or condemn the group they’d once praised.

Nelson George was one of the lone hip hop writers at the time aside from Harry Allen (which is why you will always find Nelson George references in my work), and as a black man in a space where we were still fighting for voice and position, he was careful to distinguish Griff’s comments from what the group stood for. "There's no question they say Farrakhan's a prophet," George told the LA Times at the time, "but Chuck D was very specific about what they like about Farrakhan. That Prof. Griff is a (jerk) doesn't invalidate the record. And Public Enemy was signed by Rick Rubin, who is Jewish, and one of their first managers is Jewish, as is the photographer that shot most of their album cover pictures, and (so is) their publicist Bill Adler."

Chuck was torn. He first backed Griff, then seperated the group’s stance from Griff’s personal stance, then banned Griff from speaking on behald of PE, before finally condemning Griff and apologizing for his comments, stating: “We’re not anti-Jewish or anti-anyone at all. We're pro-black. To use the same mechanism that you're fighting against definitely is wrong. We don't stand for hatred. We're not here to make enemies. We're apologizing to anyone who might be offended by Griff's remarks.” Griff was expelled from the group on June 21, 1989.

The continued pressure from the Jewish Defense Organization – including calls to boycott Do the Right Thing, Def Jam and Columbia/CBS, who distributed the group’s albums, and Rick Rubin even though he wasn’t involved with the group anymore – finally wore Chuck out. He told Kurt Loder during an MTV interview that the group was done. ''He (Griff) transferred misinformation, and it was just wrong. You can`t back it,” he explained. “But we got sandbagged, and being as I got sandbagged, the group is over as of today. We`re outta here. We`re stepping out of the music business as a boycott . . . against the music industry, management, record companies (and) the industry retailers.”

In Robert Cristgau’s earlier-referenced article, written shortly after that MTV interview, he opined of PE’s future: “…it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup.”

Instead, it only took about a month. “Fight the Power” became a hit; The song and movie combined birthed one of the biggest cultural statements of the decade.

THE ANTHEM

Spike told Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s famed production unit) and Chuck he wanted an anthem, but already had an idea in mind. “Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to be produced by someone else and with just Chuck D rapping,” Shocklee told the Guardian. “I was like: ‘No way.’” Hank found an example right out of Do the Right Thing’s world to make his point. “We were in Spike’s office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: ‘Yo man, you’ve got to think about this record as being something played out of these cars going by.’” Spike knew he wanted the power of Chuck’s voice, but Chuck and Shocklee knew that the moment called for something bigger, sonically. Gen X is now considered a generation without a social movement. Boomers were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, Millennials led Black Lives Matter, Gen X’ers were chillin’ - except we weren’t. Police brutality, the overcriminalization of black and brown people (hi, stop-and-frisk), the rise of the crack epidemic… these were our issues, and hip-hop was our movement: our way to give voice to the systemic injustices and bleak realities black people faced daily.

With “Fight the Power,” Chuck, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad captured the energy of black resistance in a rare, perfect way – sonically and lyrically. It sounded aggressive, it sounded urgent, it sounded defiant, it sounded confident. It was the protest music of black Gen X’ers. “The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter – but it would have lost the chaos,” Shocklee went on to explain. “When something is organized and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, is going to be chaotic. So the hardest part was making sure the track wasn’t monotonous. Lots of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isn’t perfectly in time. I didn’t just want white noise and black noise – I wanted pink noise and brown noise!”

The title and thematic direction came from Ron Isley and his brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. The song struck a chord with 15-year-old Chuck D. Last year, Chuck and Ernie Isley (who, by the way, is the most criminally underrated guitar player in music history) compared notes on the two "Fight the Power's" for NPR: “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,” Chuck shared with Ernie. “And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

I can't play my music
They say my music's too loud
I kept talkin about it
I got the big run around
When I rolled with the punches
I got knocked on the ground
By all this bullsh*t goin’ down

Like the 1989 version, The Isleys’ joint catches you up in the undeniable bop of the track even while delivering power through the lyrics.

PE’s “Fight the Power” was also a big f*ck you to “American” pop culture, disparaging white icons Elvis and John Wayne, who in the late ‘80s were both damn near deified. It was a declaration that we black folks have our own history and culture.

'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

A song that feels and sounds like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” will never happen again, because the Bomb Squad’s trademark sampling methods would be a legal headache and financially crippling today thanks to changes in copyright laws spurred by the growing rap industry in 1991.
“It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put rhymes on top – that separates emotion and content,” Shocklee shared when discussing how the song came to be. “All the samples have to work with Chuck’s emotion. We’d have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.”

THE MOVIE

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song used as many times as “Fight the Power” is in Do the Right Thing. I can’t even tell you what other song is on the soundtrack without looking it up. Honestly, the entire soundtrack should have just been a “Fight the Power” maxi-single.
Also, shout out to one of the most iconic opening title sequences ever. It’s like James Bond level. Better.

The song and the movie are inextricably linked. As mentioned earlier, Spike wanted “Fight the Power” playing whenever we saw Radio Raheem. Since Raheem is the movie’s pivotal character, PE underscored some of the movie’s most powerful moments.

Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone why using Radio Raheem as the vehicle for the song worked so well. “The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boombox 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.”

Even before they retreated into self-imposed career exile, Public Enemy weren’t radio artists. The film was their only real promotional vehicle for the single – but what a vehicle. “When I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh,” he shared with Rolling Stone. “We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver sh*t. We couldn’t rely on radio.” While the group laid low, “Fight the Power” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart and cracked the Top 20 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart (Hammer would break down the barrier for rap on the Hot 100 and Pop charts about a year later). In August, PE came out of “retirement” to announce their renowned third album, Fear of a Black Planet.

THE VIDEO

The music video for “Fight the Power” goes down as one of the most satisfying visuals for a song, ever. In the history of music videos. It is the perfect accompaniment to the track’s energy and power. For the video, Spike created a modern-day version of the March on Washington in Brooklyn, which he called "The Young People's March on Brooklyn to End Racial Violence,” featuring Public Enemy. The march was Chuck’s idea, and Spike did the video as a favor, on the strength of them letting him use “Fight the Power” for free. If Chuck D wasn’t already firmly positioned as hip-hop’s political leader, watching him leading throngs of young people through Bed-Stuy did the trick. “It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn,” he later shared about the day. “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.”

Flav added, “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… (W)e had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant…I would give anything to live that day one more time.”

Like the movie and the song, the video is on multiple “best of all time” lists.

While echoes of the controversy of 1989 followed PE through the early ‘90s, the sheer power of Fear of a Black Planet prevented it from slowing them down in any way. Nation of Millions blew the music community away, but Fear of a Black Planet surpassed it.

This has nothing to do with anything, really, except that I want y’all to peep how completely off the chain Flav is in this interview. Chuck and Fab 5 Freddie just gave up.

THE LEGACY

The legacy and impact of Do the Right Thing are perhaps immeasurable. The movie garnered two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, was deemed one of the most important movies of the year, then later one of the most important of the decade, and is still largely considered to be Spike’s greatest and most complete work. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including John Singleton, who went home and wrote Boyz N The Hood after seeing the film. Radio Raheem’s boombox is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Fight the Power” is still one of the most important songs in hip-hop, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is ranked by multiple lists as one of the greatest songs in music, period. Public Enemy went on to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But as I said before, the power is in the two - movie and song - together. It’s hamburger and bun. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cereal. Neither are as strong if they’d been presented to the world without the other.

In any other year, the movie and song just wouldn’t have hit the same. Do the Right Thing was one of the first “day-in-the-life” black movies that showcased the routine and connectivity of community - how we rely on each other, how we interact with each other, and the line between business owners integrating with the community and just making money from the community. “Fight the Power” came just as conscious rap was gaining a commercial foothold. Despite the group’s assumptions, the song did get radio play - lots of it. A year earlier, radio wouldn’t have been ready. A year later, the song wouldn’t have felt as special. Thirty years later, the movie and track aren’t just a snapshot of 1989, but they both still feel incredibly relevant and accurate. But without this partnership, the self-proclaimed Rolling Stones of hip-hop may have had an entirely different musical legacy - one smashed to bits the way Sal smashed Raheem’s boombox. Instead, they proved the galvanizing power hip-hop could have. 1989 was not just another summer; it sparked a hip-hop revolution.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
James Devaney/WireImage

The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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Mike Coppola

Back For The First Time: How 'We Are The Streets' Captured The Raw Essence of The LOX

First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.

Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.

By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.

Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."

The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.

With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."

As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.

Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.

This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E,"  in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.

Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."

In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.

Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.

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(L-R) Cynthia Erivo at the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards on January 12, 2020; Scarlett Johansson at Netflix's 'Marriage Story' L.A. premiere on November 05, 2019.
Matt Winkelmeyer and Kevork Djansezian

Cynthia Erivo, Scarlett Johansson And The Oscars' Ongoing Whiteness

The 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced Monday, Jan. 13 and, after a few years of glad-handing their supposed embrace of diversity, the Academy’s nominees were once again a distressingly predictable bunch—particularly amongst the major award categories. Bemoaning lack of diversity at the Oscars has become a punchline unto itself, but, for an Academy that is suddenly so image-conscious, this was a step backward. Alongside a Best Director field made up exclusively of men, Black actors were almost totally shut out in the top categories. Strong performances from previous Oscar winners/nominees like Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx seemed to be likely contenders for a nomination but were snubbed. There is the notable exception, of course, of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony-winning actress received an Oscar nod for her turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a film that seemed to engender both praise and derision well before it opened in theaters in November 2019.

The British-born Erivo was at the center of much criticism when it was announced that she would be playing the legendary Tubman, the escaped slave born Araminta Ross, who led at least 13 trips along a treacherous journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to free first her family, then others in bondage; she also became an officer in the Union army and an activist for women’s suffrage. The casting of Erivo as Tubman became a flashpoint after tweets from the actress were widely publicized in which she appeared to mock Black Americans in a Twitter exchange with actor Joel Montague after he asked her to sing a song she’d written.

“@joalMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx.”

The tweet was screenshotted and popped up on countless media sites, as the public criticism of Erivo grew. As she began making media rounds in the lead-up to Harriet, she addressed the issue.

"I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn't take it lightly," Erivo said in an interview with Shadow And Act back in October. "I love this woman and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.

“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant—and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”

But the bad will had taken root. Harriet had a successful opening and a strong showing at the box office, but it was met with derision on Twitter as rumors swirled about various aspects of the film’s plot and historical inaccuracies. The word of mouth reception was far from glowing, but the borderline smearing of the film on social media was more scathing than the actual reviews once the movie hit theaters. But while the critical reception to the film itself was lukewarm, Erivo’s performance was consistently praised. “The British singer and actress…nails [Tubman’s] thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence,” wrote Owen Gleiberman of Variety; and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott felt that “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love.” In an age when Black pain on the big screen can make for predictable platitudes from pundits, there is an ongoing question of who such a film as Harriet is meant to speak to and speak for. In the case of Erivo, you have more than a strong performance in a middling film. You have a performer who has, in many ways, lost the audience that would’ve been most invested in that performance.

Erivo's nomination for Harriet comes alongside a double-nod for Scarlett Johannson, another actress who found herself embroiled in controversy in 2019. Of course, ScarJo is much more high-profile than Erivo, an A-lister who finds herself in any number of prestige pictures and major blockbusters. But ScarJo’s defense of Woody Allen, at a time when Hollywood is at least attempting to come to grips with how it has enabled abusers, drew gasps and derision when she made press runs for her role in the acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story. She told Vanity Fair in November:

“I’m not a politician, and I can’t lie about the way I feel about things,” she said. “I don’t have that. It’s just not a part of my personality. I don’t want to have to edit myself or temper what I think or say. I can’t live that way. It’s just not me. And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it’s going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that’s kind of par for the course, I guess.

“Even though there’s moments where I feel maybe more vulnerable because I’ve spoken my own opinion about something, my own truth and experience about it—and I know that it might be picked apart in some way, people might have a visceral reaction to it—I think it’s dangerous to temper how you represent yourself because you’re afraid of that kind of response. That, to me, doesn’t seem very progressive at all. That seems scary.”

Johansson’s controversial statements surrounding Woody Allen (and earlier comments about her playing trans and Asian characters) were met with widespread criticism that was subsequently muted by the acclaim following her turns in both Marriage Story and the WWII-set period comedy JoJo Rabbit. They weren’t misguided or misrepresented tweets from six years ago, they are her expressed positions on the subjects; she’s announced that she doesn’t intend to continuously apologize or even recant where she stands. And at the end of the day, she’s now a two-time Oscar nominee.

Obviously, Erivo is also basking in the recent glow of Academy recognition. This isn’t a case of a white actress bouncing back from backlash while a Black actress fades into obscurity because of it. But when Scarlett Johansson walks the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, if she takes the stage after her name is read as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress or both, she won’t have to contend with the idea that those who have given her the award stand in stark contrast to those for whom she wanted the film to resonate. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn’t have to wrestle with the idea that she’s only the second woman of her background to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She won’t have to face the hurt that she and others like her were shut out in her native country’s biggest movie award. She won’t have to think about all the criticisms of “slave movies” and being nominated for being in one.

Whatever criticisms there may be of Cynthia Erivo, whatever criticisms there may be of the film in which she starred, there’s always a softer landing for those who don’t have darker skin; simply because being Black on the whitest of nights means that all eyes are on you. It also means you have to carry so much more than your white counterparts will ever be asked to shoulder. Oscar or no Oscar; criticism of Cynthia Erivo never required condemnation of Cynthia Erivo. But on a night when white actresses will once again be widely represented, from the reliable grace of Little Women to the martyr-making propaganda of Bombshell, it’s disappointing that this one Black actress being amongst them is going to be picked apart.

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