Back around the late 80s/early 90s, there were three bands whose albums, without fail, always picked up 10/10 in the NME – a mark otherwise rarely given. These were The Pixies, REM and Public Enemy. Tonight, Public Enemy were due to do a re-run of Fear of a Black Planet. I’ve seen a couple of these album performances now, and whereas some bands just play the album through from track 1 to the end, or maybe they will jiggle the tracklisting a bit, Public Enemy, in true revolutionary style, just played whatever the hell they wanted, cutting in classics from other albums at leisure.
The build up to this gig was filled with excitement from the time the gig was first announced a few months ago – incredibly, it was to be the group’s first ever show in Cardiff – right up until the moment the band hit the stage. Both warm up DJ and the support act got the crowd going, then a couple of members of the Public Enemy crew came on to further get people in a party spirit; the album’s opening jam played, before finally Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the whole band came on to the sound of ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’, and the place literally blew up.
Any questions about whether Public Enemy are still relevant and whether this show would be much more than an entertaining hark back to the past were very quickly forgotten. The band’s stage presence has an impact that is the most captivating I think I’ve ever seen. Along with DJ Lord, the drummer, bassist and guitarist, the two main men are flanked on either side by members of the S1W team, who are dressed in outfits that could be those of prisoners or members of the military. In one way, they’re mocking authority, but at the same time, there’s a look of such defiance that you almost think the revolution has just happened and these are the people who have taken over.
One other crew member led the crowd in raising fists, and it did not seem to matter that this was by far a majority white crowd. The fact that the NME was one of the band’s biggest champions might well be one of the reasons for this – this was a crowd of mostly hardened gig goers. The slogan on the back of this crew member’s t-shirt (7K, I think Chuck D introduced him as) read “Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude” and the solidarity expressed within the crowd was reassuring – this was a group of fans who were equally supportive, and free from prejudice.
Politics may well be one facet to the Public Enemy package, but fun is another factor in this, and any hip hop show. Flavor Flav is the fun provider, and gets the place jumping like the floor is on springs. He also invites one crowd member, Sarah, to the stage to join in with the words, and later swaps a t-shirt with a girl who’d got him a nice looking pocket watch as a present.
Flavor also turns out to be a pretty adept musician, twanging away in one section on first the bass, before having a go on the drums. Meanwhile, the guitarist shows off by playing the guitar behind his head. We are also privileged to the full force of DJ Lord’s scratching skills, after Flavor gives him an intro like a boxer entering the ring. For a good 5 minutes, he is literally on the “1s and 2s” as the 2 tracks on his decks seem to have just the words “one” and “two” on loops as he cuts and scratches between the two. This was filmed by a crew member, and I would strongly advise looking this up on youtube – you’ll be in for a treat. It goes to show that the band really are the number one hip hop band for a reason – coupled with everything else, they’re also all incredibly gifted musicians.
And the quality of the songs themselves of course seals the band’s reputation as being the greatest. Along with the best of “Fear Is A Black Planet” we had classics like “Bring The Noise” and “Don’t Believe The Hype”, as well as more recent song “Harder Than You Think”, which was a highlight for me, but the overall effect of the show is such that you almost forget which song is playing.
If there was just one negative aspect on the night, it was the fuss made over a half empty plastic bottle being thrown. OK, we had been asked prior to the start not to throw things on stage, but sending security into the crowd to try to deal with the perpetrator was a little excessive I thought, and for a moment I sensed it was a case of using the same heavy handed control which the band oppose. In fairness, Chuck D himself reacted in a light-hearted way, and it was all over quite quickly.
Fairly soon after the show drew to a close. A strangely quiet ending. Flavor led us in raising hands once more, this time in a victory salute, and got us all to repeat the word “Peace.” And that was it. They came on with a bang, and left in peace.
There was no encore, but in the unofficial after party in a nearby bar afterwards, where I also met a guy with a brilliant Public Enemy tattoo, even some of the band put in an appearance – something most bands would never do – and this for me topped off an eleven out of ten performance.
An edited version of this review first appeared on Godisinthetvzine