Live Review: Public Enemy, Rock City (23/04/13)

publicenemy rock city

“WE IN THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME, Y’AAAAAALLL!” It’s palpable how much Public Enemy have enjoyed their recent induction into Ohio’s esteemed Museum (only the fourth hip-hop act to receive the accolade), particularly when Flavour Flav – you know, the excitable clock-wearing, MTV-bothering scamp who pretty much as invented the hypeman role – proudly boasts about it for about the seventeenth time tonight.

There’s no denying the worthiness of this honour though, as over a hugely influential thirty-one year career, P.E. have instigated both provocation and controversy through a predominantly Afrocentric and anti-establishment agenda to become one of the most outspoken and defining hip-hop acts of all time. Taking issue with the social and racial injustices that both Reagan and Bush’s America arguably perpetuated, lead MC Chuck D became renowned for his impassioned sermons that bolstered their iconic records It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) in their ultimate bid to Fight The Power.

But despite P.E’s warm-up compere promising a “real hip-hop show” that would hark back to their aggressive late-80s/early-90s heyday, at times the presence of an accompanying three-piece band tonight ensures that this is not your average 8 Mile-sweatbox affair. P.E. have evidently been inspired by the rock-dominated sound of their fellow inductees by rejuvenating their live show to incorporate this band, which features a free-wheeling guitarist who would probably make Jimi Hendrix sit up and take notice of his rather staggering ability to solo with his teeth. Hell, even a show-off record-scratching stint from the equally impressive DJ Lord uses a sample of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as its basis.   

But before you go thinking that P.E. have undergone a drastic distortion-infused face-lift in an effort to revitalise their act, you’re reminded tonight of how much of the passionate vitriol that defined their explosion onto the music scene (that not so much as slapped the collective American consciousness in the face) remains intact. And sure, many of those in attendance here may have developed bald spots and found that their ‘Fight The Power’ t-shirts have taken on an even snugger fit in the time since P.E’s first visit to Nottingham in 1987, but their devotion to both being a “real hip-hop head” and the rebellious cause that the group peddle remains strong.

Bouncing on stage with an enthusiasm that mirrored many of the delighted punters, Chuck D, flanked by two flunkies dressed in military gear (who didn’t really do much other than remind us of the Black Panther/paramilitary image that P.E. associated themselves with at their peak), remains a capable wordsmith in his vocal delivery, effortlessly spewing forth his multi-pronged attack verses. Flavor’s arrival on stage shortly after only adds to the magnetic energy being generated by the triumvirate of Chuck, Lord, and the live band by whipping their devotees into an absolute frenzy.

For all they bring to the Public Enemy live show, the band’s temptation to go off on respective solos renders the chances of tonight being remembered as a conventional hip-hop show as rather slim. As the bassist takes his turn to demonstrate some admittedly adept slap-bass skills, many take this as their cue to head to the bar or outside for a smoke. Thank God, then, that the strongest period of the set sees Public Enemy unleash hit after hit, with ‘Bring The Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ each receiving a rapturous reception, the latter seeing a middle-aged lady being dragged up on stage to contribute vocals when she is spotted in the crowd by Flavor flawlessly reciting every verse. She deserves credit, however, for a remarkable job, as do two other starstruck fans who are invited up on stage to contribute to ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ and ‘Fight The Power’ respectively. This is undoubtedly the high point of the evening, proving that unleashing your finest moments on record one after the other in the live arena is a tactic that more live bands should employ.

It all comes to an end with the surprisingly popular (due to its use as the soundtrack to Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games) ‘Harder Than You Think’, though the positivity this generates is almost entirely sapped as Flavor embarks on an overlong speech that implored us all to stamp out racism and separatism in our communities. Nice point, but a tad overcooked and ill-advised – especially when earlier he’d been gleefully skipping around singing ‘Ding Dong! The Bitch is Dead’ in tribute to a certain late Prime Minister of ours.

This surprising anti-climax didn’t thankfully detract too much from the fact that even though they may no longer set the world on fire like they once did, the Public Enemy live experience doesn’t appear to have lost much of its zest from the time when white America truly feared Chuck and Flavor. It seems that even as their career reaches yet another milestone, they have no intention of stopping anytime soon – because that just wouldn’t be very rock and roll of them, would it?

Sam Moore

…Sam is listening to Wolf Alice – ‘Bros’…


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