Four-episode docuseries features pioneers Ice-T, Roxanne Shanté, Run-D.M.C., MC Lyte, Melle Mel, Fat Joe and more; Public Enemy co-founder also has new book ‘Livin Loud.’
One of the first salutes honoring the yearlong celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary takes place Tuesday night (Jan. 31) with the PBS premiere of Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. The four-part docuseries, produced in partnership with BBC Music, was developed and executive-produced by Public Enemy co-founder/activist/rap icon Chuck D and his production partner Lorrie Boula.
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“The most important word in the series’ title is the last word,” Chuck D tells Billboard during a recent phone interview as he explains how far the genre has traveled. “I’ve always been at the gate of hip-hop and wanted to see us compete alongside rock [and other genres]. A little genre that could play in the same arenas; be loud, boisterous and get our point of view across. But rap had no structural belief core then [in the industry]. It was treated like a novelty with no caretaking.
“Long before any corporations realized it was time to wake up, hip-hop had been speaking out and telling truths,” Chuck D continues. “Working with PBS and BBC was an opportunity to deliver these messages through new ways and help explain hip-hop’s place in history.”
Adds Boula, “There’s a deeper level to hip-hop that we felt kept getting missed. Yes, it’s become this commercial industry … pop music to some people. But we didn’t want to make something that was one-dimensional. We wanted to show hip-hop’s real and various layers. We also knew the BBC had very extensive news archives and that they were willing to roll up their sleeves in a different way as our partner along with PBS. They understood the vision.”
That vision began crystalizing three years ago as the project got underway. Pandemic-induced delays led last year to 18-hour days of simultaneous fact-checking and editing up until this past Thanksgiving so the docuseries could be quickly turned around in time for its January premiere. The result is an insightful and provocative look at how and why hip-hop became a cultural phenomenon.
Contextualized against the backdrop of pivotal moments in American history, the docuseries tracks hip-hop’s revolutionary journey across four decades in four chapters: “The Foundation,” “Under Siege,” “Culture Wars” and “Still Fighting.” Setting the tone for each episode’s introduction is Public Enemy’s searing “Fight the Power,” the group’s groundbreaking 1989 unity- and social consciousness-raising anthem that also figures prominently in the docuseries’ title.
However, it’s the frank and illuminating first-hand accounts from various rap pioneers that really hit home. In addition to Chuck D, those front-line players include Grandmaster Caz, Ice-T, The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole, Roxanne Shanté, Run- D.M.C., John Forté, will.i.am, MC Lyte, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, Melle Mel, Fat Joe and Lupe Fiasco, among others.
“I think people will be surprised by some of things the artists say,” notes Boula. “But they speak to the real issues in a way that none of us visitors to the space can. That’s the substance we wanted … to be of service to the culture, telling stories that maybe people aren’t telling that are equally as important as who’s dating who or losing their mind on Instagram.”
“And that’s one of the strong reasons why we felt confident that the BBC could help us narrate, navigate and direct the story with Lorrie building on top of that,” says Chuck D. “We needed to be able to be told how we, the U.S., looks to someone from the outside looking in. Speaking up and holding myself individually accountable; that’s the one thing I’ve always tried to do.”
Overall, Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World, is a vital living history lesson that can’t be found in any school history books. In fact, according to Boula, several colleges have already reached out to her about how to add the docuseries to their curriculums.
Beyond additional television and film projects currently on their drawing board, Chuck D and Boula are also prepping for the release of the former’s first fine art book, Livin Loud. Arriving Feb. 7 from Genesis Publications, the book features more than 250 of the icon’s paintings, sketches and drawings accompanied by a 13,000+-word commentary about his life and work.
“That’s my life,” says Chuck D, who attended art school and designed Public Enemy’s iconic logo — now on display at the Smithsonian — when the group was founded in 1986. “This book is a true expression of myself.”
PBS premieres the first episode of Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World on Jan. 31 (9pm/10pm ET/PT). The series will also able be available to stream on PBS.org, YouTube and the PBS video app. For the next three episodes, check local listings for PBS air dates/times or visit PBS.org. For more information about Chuck D’s forthcoming book Livin’ Loud, visit ChuckDBook.com.
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