Back in the late 1980s/early 90s, there were three bands whose albums, without fail, always picked up a 10/10 in the NME – a mark rarely given. The bands in question were: The Pixies, REM and Public Enemy. Tonight, Public Enemy were in town to do a re-run of ‘Fear of a Black Planet’. I’ve seen a couple of these album performances now; whilst some bands just play the album through from track 1 to the end -or maybe 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 it 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 onstage to further get the crowd into the party spirit. The album’s opening jam played before Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the whole band finally appeared 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 have 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 all dressed in outfits that could be those of prisoners or members of the military. On the one hand, 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 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, amongst a crowd of mostly hardened gig goers. The slogan on the back of this particular 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 being a group of fans who were equally supportive, and free of 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. Early on, he leads the crowd in a long cheer of “Woooah” (as if he’s about to do the Ayatollah, heh!). He also invites one audience member 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.
Surprisingly, 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 his instrument behind his head. We are also treated 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 while he cuts and scratches between the two: this sequence is filmed by another crew member, and I would strongly advise checking it out on Youtube –you’ll be in for a treat. This showmanship is an indication that Public Enemy really are the number one hip hop band for a reason –they are all incredibly gifted musicians.
The quality of the songs seals the band’s reputation as being the greatest hip hop act. Along with the best of ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, they play 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. If there was just one negative aspect on the night, it was the fuss made over a half empty plastic bottle being thrown onto the stage. 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 purport to oppose. But this was over quickly, and fairly soon after the show drew to a close. Flavor led the crowd into raising our hands once more; this time in a victory salute, then got us all to repeat the word “Peace,” and that was it: a strangely quiet ending. The band had come onstage with a bang, and left in peace.
There was no encore, but during the unofficial after party at Buffalo, some of the band made an appearance -which is rare. For me, this along with meeting the guy with the cool Public Enemy tattoo, turned a top notch evening into an eleven out of ten performance.