Public Enemy – Nottingham Rock City, Tuesday April 24
Originally published in the Nottingham Post.
In 1987, Public Enemy burst onto the scene amidst a blaze of controversy, sending shockwaves through hip hop with their brutally uncompromising approach. Last week, alongside the likes of Rush, Heart and Randy Newman, they were formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Back then, they were seen as dangerous, disruptive radicals. Now, against all the odds, they have ascended to the status of revered elder statesmen.
Inevitably, some of that early rage has been blunted. As a front man, Chuck D is an almost affable figure these days, communing with the crowd rather than confronting them. Shed of their fake Uzis, the ever-unsmiling, largely motionless Security of the First World seem less like a paramilitary troupe, and more like the butchest go-go boys in showbiz.
Even Flavor Flav looked somewhat altered. The cap was gone, revealing mini-dreads beneath. And where was his trademark clock? Deposited at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we were told, in accordance with a long-standing pledge. The clocklessness didn’t last long, though. A replacement had been sourced, and it was soon whipped out and pressed into service.
Flav has become quite the multi-instrumentalist of late. His drumming might have been basic, but he succeeded in holding down a steady rhythm while firing out a rap, while his bandmates took a break. And as a bass player, he didn’t do badly at all. “Flav, how low can you go?” we chanted, as he plucked and gurned, baring his metal teeth. To which one answer might have been: frolicking with Brigitte Nielsen on reality TV? Still, that’s water under the bridge, and maybe revered elder statesmen are now due some respect.
As for recently deceased stateswomen, that proved to be quite a different matter. “Ding dong, the wicked bitch is dead”, Flav hollered, to hearty cheers. This earned a pantomime scolding from Chuck (“That’s disrespectful!”), but Flav wasn’t to be silenced. “She didn’t give a f*** about real people”, he added, to further cheers.
Rock City has always held a special place in Public Enemy’s hearts. As Chuck reminded us, they debuted Bring The Noise here in 1987, in one of Rock City’s most legendary shows. The affection was returned by a series of guests from the front row. Stephanie’s word-perfect delivery of Don’t Believe The Hype was spotted, and she was hauled up for an impromptu performance. A few minutes later, local rapper Duke01 added a guest verse on Fight The Power. “I got to be careful”, said Flav. “People are coming up here and taking my job!”
Unlike most hip hop acts, all of Public Enemy’s music was generated live on stage – most notably by their brilliant turntablist DJ Lord, whose quickfire cutting of Smells Like Teen Spirit was a wonder to behold. The screeching sample that dominates Rebel Without A Pause might have been dialled down on the night, but few other concessions were made to middle aged mellowness.
The set ended with the Shirley Bassey-sampling Harder Than You Think, which became the band’s highest charting single last year, having been used as the theme tune for the BBC’s coverage of the Paralympics. It was a fittingly triumphant climax for an act who, twenty-six years down the line, have finally come in from the cold.