Public Enemy at Canalside (2016)


Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Public Enemy (PE) has spent three decades refusing to stay silent as the nation formerly known as the United States of America becomes even more viciously divided across racial, ideological, and socio-economic lines.  The pioneering rap group continues to disown the mainstream notion that hip hop is just music by jackhammering the bedrock on which so many despotic American policies were built while simultaneously distancing themselves from the inconsequential rappers of the day.

Rather than waste a perfectly good rhyme on Bacardi, selfies, or petty territorial disputes, Chuck D channels his rage toward racism, police brutality, and the demoralizing effect that the prison-industrial complex has had on the black community.  You know, the things that actually MATTER.  The way in which his professorial baritone commands the stage is as incendiary as a Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, so anyone still suffering from the disoriented belief that hip hop isn’t music needs to pay closer attention to what’s really going on.

Thousands of enlightened souls stormed Canalside Thursday night to join the revolution and experience why PE was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.  Because we’re currently suffering through one of the uglier election cycles in recent memory, the atmosphere was decidedly hostile compared to their last Buffalo visit, but don’t automatically assume that a little hostility is a bad thing.  Chuck D’s talents are best served when he has something fresh to dismantle and his kinetic performance on this night affirmed my belief that he’s the greatest MC of all time.

While “Harder Than You Think” and “Night of the Living Baseheads” went for the throat early on, it was the auditory gauntlet of “911 is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and “Hoover Music” that gave the casual fans in attendance a panoramic view of what this group stands for.  They’re equal opportunity agitators to whom the two-party system is an anathema and they won’t stop until every last supine public servant is held accountable for contributing to the dysfunction.  If N.W.A. was “the CNN of the streets,” PE is more like an unfiltered system of checks and balances at a time when our own federal government’s system of checks and balances isn’t living up to its end of the bargain.

Flavor Flav is far enough removed from his reality television days to remind people that there’s plenty of artistry and satirical jocularity behind the clock just waiting to bring the house down.  His solo material was loose and funky, which counterbalanced the rest of the evening’s antagonistic vibe quite nicely.

A thumping tribute to Buffalo’s own Rick James followed by a home stretch of the “Shut ‘Em Down” and “Fight the Power” put the finishing touch on a glorious night in the Queen City, but I don’t think anyone would have objected to the show carrying on well past midnight.  It can’t get much better than PE playing a free outdoor show during an election year, so, if you weren’t there, you should have been.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect all rappers to adhere to Chuck D’s standard, but, when the world appears to be unraveling a little more every day, we need social commentators with his fearless intellect to step up and “say it like it really is.”

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