Don't Look Back
Dr Octagon and Public EnemyEdit this event
There have been mutterings from the Public Enemy camp that Chuck D is less than happy about having to do the genre defining It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in its entirety for ATP’s_ Don't Look Back series of gigs. This may have something to do with _Hip Hop Connection's perceived slight accusing the radical band of peddling nostalgia by agreeing to perform this concert. I ran into Barry Hogan, ATP's head honcho, the night before the gig and he said with no small amount of wryness that he was surprised about the number of writers for Hip Hop Connection were keen to get into the sold-out Brixton show on the free list given how nostalgic it was for them before adding: "Anyway, what the fuck's wrong with nostalgia? Most of the best music has already been made compared to the music that's coming out right now. What would you sooner do, come to the Public Enemy gig or go and watch The Kooks?" Word.
Full disclosure: I probably shouldn't be reviewing this show – I'm far too biased. Not only are they my favourite group but this is probably my all time number one album. At the tail end of the ‘80s when I was leaving home Public Enemy were my Sex Pistols, my Rolling Stones, my era-defining band. Never before had a musical unit existed who had equally radical image, message and sound. They were like a cultural nail bomb – forcing even the most rockist of white critics to admit en masse for the first time that there was more to rap than a bunch of black hoodlums shouting over someone else's record. Nation took the rough blueprint of Yo! Bum Rush The Show and presented a much more cohesive take on radical noise and radical politics. The casual sexism – 'Sophisticated Bitch', for example, from said ’87 debut – had gone but unfortunately the obsession with the radical Nation Of Islam hadn't (something that would lead to Professor Griff being ejected from the group soon afterwards). Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad's quantum leap forward in production techniques, which basically involved pushing the sampler to its limits, created a totally new focus for hip-hop and would birth Gangsta Rap and eventually nu-metal and rap-rock ('She Watch Channel Zero?!' was the blueprint for Korn and all the metal groups that followed). The album was as much influenced by Run DMC and Boogie Down Productions as it was by avant-garde use of musique concrete and Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. This is, by my best recollection, the thirteenth time I've seen them live. And I mention this because if more writers were acquainted with watching them they'd realise that they usually do most of this album live anyway, so it's hardly that much of a departure. And it certainly isn't, as The Observer commented recently, a reunion gig.
If PE are phased by the_ Hip Hop Connection_ criticsm you'd be hard pressed to spot it. They probably haven't played a gig with as much expectation and rapturous reception since they were over to promote their last truly great album,_ Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black. The crowd are already hyped to the max before they hear the immortal words _"Yeah boyeeee!" from off stage. I immediately lose a bet that Dave Pearce will have been tempted out of retirement to introduce them. By them, I mean Flavor Flav and Chuck D. Terminator X retired in 1998 in order to take care of the ostriches that he now farms in North Carolina and Griff wasn't allowed to leave the US by the police, causing the frontman to comment: "It wouldn't be a PE gig if there wasn't trouble with the government". DJ Lord does some fearsome scratching over 'Good Times' by Chic while the ever so slightly camp S1Ws wearing desert issue fatigues do their introductory dance. But hip-hop's oddest couple explode out of the wings and Chuck's recent complaints over on theQuietus that he has trouble remembering lyrics doesn't seem to be impeding his fearsome flow.
Musically, as has been the case for the last few European tours, the sound is beefed out by live guitar, bass and drums. The 'Enemy are one of the few live hip-hop bands who easily shrug off the usual karaoke accusations without turning into some lentil munching, conscious jazz mess like Jazzmatazz or The Roots. Brixton can suffer from muddy mid-range sound and tonight is no exception, with some of the subtleties of tracks like _'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos' _getting lost. Luckily, tonight is all about an elemental punch to the solar plexus. A chance to jump up and down like a maniac rather than to stroke one's chin.
It's hard not to indulge in relativism when watching PE but the delivery on_ 'Bring The Noise' and 'Rebel Without A Pause' make you realise that there are few who can deliver like this live now. The full Wu-Tang Clan can occasionally, and Jay-Z, perhaps, but that's just his delivery. It certainly makes you despair of Kanye West being hailed as anything other than mediocre. A dribbling ant by comparison. This is backed up by the sheer visceral force of Flav tracks like 'Cold Lampin' With Flavor'_. Sure it may be a novelty song by their own standards, but it still sounds like a sonic bunker buster. It eviscerates all in its path; despite its strange lyrics about Mexican beer and completely made-up words.
They defy the curfew because they have another point to prove, that after Nation they have more than enough great material to keep on rocking it all night. It's like being punched repeatedly in the face by a heavyweight: 'Shut 'Em Down', '911's A Joke', 'Can't Truss It', Too Much Posse', 'Public Enemy #1', 'You're Gonna Get Yours'. As the tumult still echoes round a hyped-up venue, you can recognize that, yeah, Public Enemy may well be middle-aged but we probably need them now as much as we ever did.
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