Night of the middle-aged bassheads
No longer terrifying, but Public Enemy still have enough gusto to go around
It's the night of the middle-aged bassheads, and it threatens to be every bit as distressing as the Sex Pistols' reunion gigs. Public Enemy got back together for a rare anniversary performance of 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the album that brought underground NYC sounds and radical black politics together and helped push hip-hop firmly into the mainstream. Twenty-one years ago, Public Enemy's seminal first tour of the UK was met with a mixture of excitement and outrage not witnessed since the punk explosion. "I was excited, but I was also terrified," one fan who saw that first tour aged 16 told me.
Flavor Flav and Chuck D are in their late forties now, and so, you can tell from looking around, are many of their fans, but the Friday-night atmosphere is charged, for in many ways this is a homecoming gig. It Takes a Nation of Millions . . . begins with the words "London, England . . . consider yourselves WARNED!" over a howl of air-raid sirens, and there has always been a special bond between Public Enemy and the capital.
As the pre-show dubstep booms out, a grinning Flavor Flav, with a coterie of women hanging off his arm, moves past me through the crowd. These days Flav is more known for his eye-popping exploits on reality TV than as Chuck D's right-hand man in the most powerful political rap group of all time. Fortunately by 11pm the famous "target" stage backdrop is in place, and it's down to business and a raucous procession down memory lane, without the unseemly cynicism (or paunches) of the Sex Pistols reunion shows.
"There's always some shit with governments, that's how you know it's Public Enemy," Chuck D says early on, explaining why the controversial group member Professor Griff got stuck behind in New York. This generates some faint-hearted "Fight the power" type whoops, but it's one of few overtly political statements during an evening which is more about celebration than insurrection: "Party for Your Right to Fight", as Public Enemy would have it.
There may be only two frontmen in Public Enemy tonight, but the stage is still full, with guitar, bass and drums accompanying the Bomb Squad on the decks. And then there are the S1Ws (Security of the First World), the group's unintentionally camp bodyguards. They stand in formation at the back of the stage, wearing camouflage, arms folded, occasionally breaking out to do a little drill: a few steps forward, a turn, then back again. You wonder whether they have day jobs.
"Every time I come to London I'm always coming back home. This is my second home," Flavor Flav announces to wild cheers, and as well as hyping the crowd he does his fair share of rapping. While it's difficult to say this about a man who wears comically oversized timepieces around his neck, he is no court jester - he's no Bez - and Chuck D's faith in sticking by the eccentric host of Flavor of Love is more than vindicated.
"Rebel Without a Pause" kicks in, and even though the song's squalling backbeat is muddied by an imperfect sound system, the 3,000 hands in the air say it all. And still Flavor Flav and Chuck D keep bouncing hyperactively across the stage, drawing on apparently bottomless energy reserves. As the clock strikes midnight and babysitters across the south-east check their watches, the beered-up crowd keeps dancing.
"Whatcha gonna do?/Rap is not afraid of you!" Chuck D spits over the insistent beat of "Bring the Noise". What has changed in the past 20 years is that people are no longer afraid of rap: it's not the jolting rebel yell that it was 1988, and its motifs have become familiar and normalised. Call-and-response chants, DJ scratches, and injunctions to "Wave your hands in the air" are no fresher or more shocking in 2008 than the phrase "Are you ready to rock?" or a Townshend-style guitar windmill.
But, fresh or not, Public Enemy perform with such gusto and such unceasing energy that even the S1Ws doing press-ups can't take the edge off the sense of occasion. Turns out you can go home again. Bass for your face, Thomas Wolfe, as Flavor Flav might say.
Pick of the week
Until 13 June, Islington Academy/ Shepherds Bush Empire, London
Eighties synth duo play 21 shows, for each of their 21 albums. Phew.
6 June, Wembley Stadium, Middlesex
Stadium rock from the former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
Mother of All Parties
7-9 June, Beaconsfield, London SE11
It will be, if your music of choice is the electro avant-gardists Matmos.
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