Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World review – Chuck D is a brilliant history teacher
Some of the greatest pop music ever made gets the respectful, rigorous sociological treatment it deserves – thanks to this documentary series from the Public Enemy star
There’s almost no hip-hop in the first episode of BBC Two’s new four-part documentary about the genre, a series that labours under the vanilla title Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five only drop The Message in the last five minutes. Instead, we are given an hour-long history lesson on New York City in the 60s and 70s – the decades leading up to hip-hop’s birth.
This, however, is the correct approach, and it signals that Fight the Power will treat its subject with the respect and rigour it deserves – not surprisingly, since Chuck D of Public Enemy is an executive producer as well as one of the main interviewees. Any music documentary with ambitions to inform as well as entertain is a trade-off between sociology and musicology: the records say this and sound like that because this is what was happening in the world at the time. In the case of hip-hop, the scene was a more direct response to political circumstances than any popular music before it, and those conditions – black citizens marginalised by racist authorities – have resonance beyond the US and beyond the 20th century.