The Music in Spike’s Message

Twenty years later, what does it mean to ‘Do the Right Thing’?

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With Do the Right Thing, Lee became the “funky drummer” for a generation of writers, thinkers, artists and musicians trying to get their intellectual freak-on. (This apparently included Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, two Ivy League professionals going on their first date.)

The film seemingly anticipated the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black Brooklyn youth who was shot in an Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, and the eventual election of David M. Dinkins as New York City’s first African-American mayor.

Not surprisingly, many mainstream critics misread the film. The National Review dismissed it as an “artful exploitation of racial tensions in New York,” and writer Joe Klein famously predicted in New York magazine that the film would cause riots.

Beneath the racial bombast, Lee has never missed an opportunity to link music to his message. His genius as a filmmaker and tastemaker is tied to his brilliant mining of the black musical tradition, from championing “go-go” and “Da Butt” in School Daze to the jazz tradition in Mo’ Betta Blues and the music of Stevie Wonder and Prince in the films Jungle Fever and Girl 6.

Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, was a jazz bassist whose sensibilities influenced many of his son’s early films. Do the Right Thing marked a break of sorts from the jazz-backed She’s Gotta Have It, as Lee courted more popular artists such as Guy, Take 6, the reggae group Steel Pulse and, of course, Public Enemy. Do the Right Thing was the first time that Lee openly embraced hip-hop in his films. The film began with an instrumental version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that quickly shifts to the opening bars of “Fight the Power.”

Lee would later become more critical of hip-hop, as we would see in his 2000 film Bamboozled, but in 1989 he clearly understood the seismic shift in black culture that hip-hop helped usher in. Public Enemy was at the height of its own powers, a year after the release of its groundbreaking It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Though Redhead Kingpin’s “Do the Right Thing” was initially slated as the lead single from the film’s soundtrack, Public Enemy burst to the forefront to carry the bloodstained banner for Lee’s vision.

The year 1989 was one in which groups like Public Enemy and “black radical chic” could exist alongside the “daisy age” attitudes of De La Soul, whose “Me Myself and I” offered a critique of black groupthink. The black Brit invasion of Jazzie B and the Soul II Soul reflected a burgeoning Afro-cosmopolitanism.