Just got back from Birmingham with some fantastic memories of my second experience seeing PE live.
(Photo credit: Chuck D)
People assume that, as a writer, being able to express oneself comes easy. The truth is, in the aftermath of an incredibly engaging and fulfilling exhibition of live music from a group I spent years listening to in my youth, I have toyed with writing this review for a couple of days now, fearing misjustification. On a night that included slapping fives with Flavor Flav, Chuck D using my camera to take pictures of the band, grabbing the setlist as a souvenir, and even losing my shoe in the ‘I Can’t Do Nothin’ For Ya, Man’ mosh pit, I must admit I’m still feeling pretty star-struck by all that occurred.
My first experience seeing Public Enemy live before this date in Birmingham came five years ago in an old Boddington’s warehouse somewhere in the middle of Manchester. As good a gig that was for the band further cementing its legacy as a Hip-Hop pioneer and social/cultural conscious movement of the struggle, the bad organisation and poor sound management of the event somewhat hindered my enjoyment.
The agitation in wanting to see PE again stayed with me ever since that night, but due to a variety of health, money and a few unspeakable personal issues, the opportunity never came. As a result, the night of the 5th September, 2011, was a very special night for me, as it saw the group not only returning to the UK, but also performing its fantastic 1990 album, Fear Of A Black Planet (less the “themed concept songs”, according to Chuck D’s twitter) just after its twentieth anniversary.
Now each both in their early fifties, you could forgive Chuck and Flavor Flav for losing some of their energy and edge, but for two and a half hours they brought their revolutionary brand of Hip-Hop to Birmingham to rock heads from start to finish. I had high expectations to begin with considering that I rank Black Planet as one of my all-time albums, but PE even went beyond the predicted songs to perform joints from It Takes A Nation Of Millions (the band’s best album), as well as its most recent record, How To Sell Your Soul.
Promising a “money’s-worth night” by Flavor upon arrival, the enthusiasm went to new heights just after ‘Meet the G That Killed Me’ when DJ Lord threw on the excellent interlude cut ‘Show ‘Em Whatcha Got’, closely followed by ‘Bring The Noise’, sending the crowd absolutely bananas. To non-attendees it may be disappointing to hear that nothing from their debut album, Yo Bum Rush The Show, was performed, but considering that PE’s catalogue of music is so impressive and their renditions of the chosen songs so involving, I never really thought about it till now.
The absence of Professor Griff (who never seems to get enough mic time on the band’s recordings, for me) due to passport issues, didn’t dampen the proceedings, either. Effortlessly transitioning from well-known hits to political speeches, the crowd found themselves jumping, moshing and rapping along to PE’s every word, as well as listening attentively to wise words relating to government oppression and the infamous Mr. Magic diss that helped launch the group on Hip-Hop radio back in 1986.
Despite often being unfairly criticised in the modern day for being “old” and “out of touch”, Public Enemy very much came across as a band that didn’t give a damn about any up-the-arse critic. With nothing to prove, it still had the hunger and confidence of an intellectual, free-thinking movement just starting out in its day, but also with the musical maturity of a band that’d been touring since the early eighties.
Yes, I said “band” in the literal sense, seen as though the average fan fails to realise that Public Enemy is an actual band, rather than just a “rap crew”. Seeing PE live, you really begin to appreciate the musicianship from the likes of the DJ, guitarist Khari Wynn and legendary bassist Davey D. Even hype-man Flavor Flav, who is the polar opposite of emcee Chuck and can sometimes go to annoying extremes, seemed essential in drawing the crowd’s attention to the words of his emceeing partner and heightening the overall excitement for the band. In Birmingham, he was the icing on the cake for a fantastic evening: Crowd surfing, slapping hands with fans, and even getting arsey with Chuck on the mic when told the venue’s curfew was approaching.
Then, shortly after an extended version of ‘Fight The Power’ — the greatest song in Hip-Hop history, period — Chuck D quickly left the stage and the mic was left for Flav, who, for all his craziness, provided the defining point of the evening with a speech on racism and separatism. Audience members looked on, almost in disbelief, how a man with so many media-centred drug and domestic abuse issues could step up under the spot light and win the attention of so many people for all the right reasons.
As a result, I left the arena utterly adamant that Public Enemy (still) is the most important act to ever evolve from the culture of Hip-Hop. A bold statement, maybe, but one that I feel is justly deserved for two-and-a-half-hours worth of politically-conscious lyrics, crowd-rocking music and free-speaking entertainment.