“I think a lot of white bands miss the point of rock ‘n’ roll. But when you hear Public Enemy it suddenly comes back to life.” – Mick Hucknall (1989)
On a night when The Black Eyed Peas brought their traveling pop circus to HSBC Arena, hip-hop luminaries Public Enemy (PE) took the Town Ballroom stage with a vengeance to continue the socio-musical revolution they began more than 20 years ago and, as always, it was not televised.
All the glitz, avarice and blatant misogyny that have defined the genre as of late were annihilated as Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and DJ Lord treated their fans to an all-out lyrical assault aimed at everything from racial separatism to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Those who missed it may wish that it had been on TV, because they would’ve been able to ascertain just how transcendent the art of rap music can be when firing on all cerebral cylinders.
Opening with the intoxicating flow of “Contract on the World Love Jam,” PE turned up the heat with a string of classic jams including “Brothers Gonna Work it Out,” “Bring the Noize,” “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” while fist-pumping their way into the souls of anyone willing to listen.
The finesse with which Chuck D rattles off rhyme after animated rhyme should urge aspiring rappers to cling to their day jobs, because he’s constantly pushing the limits of what the human larynx is capable of.
Whether it was his eerie modulation on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or the possessed A cappella take on “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” he appeared determined to make these songs blossom as if we were hearing them for the first time.
Say what you will about Flavor Flav’s notorious “Flavor of Love” exploits, but the aptitude and unbridled enthusiasm he adds to the PE repertoire makes for an unforgettable concert experience. A naturally gifted entertainer, Flavor is the jester to Chuck’s no-nonsense straight man and songs such as “911 is a Joke” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” gave him a chance to show people what he’s all about.
I equate PE’s dynamic duo of emcees as the Lennon/McCartney of hip-hop in the sense that their convergence of talent ignites the stage like few musical combinations ever have. Not bad for a group of guys who have eclipsed the 50 year mark in age.
Professor Griff, leader of the S1Ws and, as a fan’s sign read, “The Professor of Truth,” laid the question of age to rest rather quickly by performing 10 one-armed push-ups in the middle of the stage thus solidifying one of the most energetic shows I’ve ever attended.
Now, one would think that the evening would conclude with a raucous delivery of their 1989 anthem “Fight the Power” (which Chuck D himself told me “speaks for itself), but they just weren’t ready to leave yet. “She Watch Channel Zero,” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and even a Flavor Flav drum solo all made appearances to ensure that the audience didn’t go home disappointed.
What separates PE from other mainstream acts is that they live, breathe and believe their radical philosophy so soundly that they’re willing to set aside time at the end of every show to speak out against whatever topic is currently causing a stir.
On this night, Flavor Flav took the reins and spoke from the clock about how racism is destroying the country from within. I was touched and, judging from the applause, everyone else in the room was as well.
People often question the direction of hip-hop in 2010 but, as long as Public Enemy is around to “Say It Like It Really Is,” I think the genre will be just fine.