Dancing to Politicsby Roger Young, images by Oliver Barnett / 15.12.2010
“It’s good to be home” enthuses Flava Flav near the end of Public Enemy’s three hour set at the Assembly last Tuesday night. “It’s taken us 23 years to get here, but man, it’s good to be home.” Oh no, I think, another African American coming home to Africa. “My ancestors are actually from Ghana, I went up the mountain and met the chief of the village they came from.” Oh god I just underestimated Flava Flav. But then again it’s impossible not to underestimate Public Enemy; did you read that first sentence? A three-hour set! Combining their back catalogue, personal histories and anecdotes, a blues section, a Motown section and a moment when local MC’s are invited on stage to spit while Flava plays the drums; Public Enemy are not some revival band trawling foreign shores for child support, they’re a force in effect, they’re still going, they’re still putting out hard hitting new material and they’re still vital as a gut punch.
P.H. Fat and EJ Von Lyric played to a fairly empty Assembly making me feel that the you-won’t-get-stabbed-in-this-crowd prices have meant the bulk of hip hop fans will go to the @mospheer gig in Athlone on the following night. But I’m wrong. By the time the Enemy come on the Assembly is near full.
They come on to the sound of guns being cocked, Chuck D inciting the crowd, the camo clad warrior bouncer guys in the back looking stern. Flava Flav is bouncing around, the famous clock hidden beneath his shirt, for now, making him look robotic pigeon chested. Power fists fill the Assembly. Public Enemy long ago learned the lesson that playing live means delivering live energy. Their DJ, “This is my DJ, DJ Lord, who replaced Terminator X when he retired in 1999” is supplemented by a full band, the excellent Brian Hardgroove on Bass, a drummer and a mind boggling blues guitarist. Also featured is Chuck D’s brother, “This is my brother who first introduced me to hip hop in 1986!”, the Bez of Public Enemy and of course the camo clad guys in the back.
Public Enemy do a lot of fronting, but unlike those other suckers, no fronting they can’t back up. From the power chants of “Everyone just clap your hands” and “Fight The Power” to the audience knowing practically every word of “Black Steel” (some, like myself, only because we absorbed it by osmosis like through the Tricky remix) the Enemy have the atypical Assembly crowd firmly in their hands and they don’t let go until they’ve exhausted them. Flav is a tightly coiled mass of self mythmaking and fast rhyming skill while Chuck D controls the whole thing with his, yeah I just said that attitude. Even the relentless politicking comes across only as genuine. They may have been repeating the same message for twenty-three years but some messages bear repeating. It doesn’t hurt that the messages are backed with a tight beat and a funky bass groove.
Midway they shout out to Motown and then play Motown. Near the very end of the set they bring in a sweet voiced soul singer. They have a delta blues breakdown. During “Rebel Without A Pause” they get into some hard rock guitar vibes. They borrow from all styles; this is the root of hip hop, a deep respect to musical influence and history. And then Chuck D calls out to the crowd, “Any MC’s in the house?” and pulls up four local MC’s and a Swedish female MC and leads them through a display of their skills while Flava plays the drums. It’s the look on Chuck D’s face while Isaac Mutant is spitting that seals the deal; he’s genuinely into it, Chuck is respecting his skills and Isaac can’t believe where he is. Somewhere in the crowd, the chant changes from “Go Flava! Go Flava!” to “Gooi Isaac! Gooi Issac!” It’s a moment that washes all the taint of the willsmithification of hip hop out of my mind and restores my faith in hip hop’s purpose. Respect.
The gig ends with Flava leading a chant of “No Separatism! No Racism!” stirring the exhausted crowd into a conscious fervor probably never seen before at The Assembly. But it’s not over. For about half an hour Chuck D sits on the edge of the stage and just chats to whoever’s keen. No one wants to leave. It’s the kind of gig that makes you wish certain people were there because you want to be sharing the love with them. It’s the kind of gig that is impossible to remember every detail, impossible to put in words.
And then the next night at pastel pink and blue mega club @mospheer in Athlone, they do it again. The audience at @mospheer is obviously a lower income crowd than the Assembly (except of course for the VIP room bunch right next to the stage who Chuck D relentlessly rips off the entire set). It’s a crowd more consistently steeped in hip hop, but a crowd who live a more modern hip hop; more brand than message aware and, logistics aside, it would have been so much more Public Enemy if the two crowds could have come together, would have been much more in spirit with the “we took 23 years to get to your beautiful country and we’re glad to find it at peace” rhetoric of Chuck D.
It’s a minor gripe though because Chuck D and Flava Flav once again, with a slightly different set but with the same energy, rock the joint with the same fervor; calling on different local MC’s, talking the same message with the same unbridled belief and joy. The relentless politicking may be tedious to the once enlightened and now jaded, but those kind are not the heads hip hop wants. True hip hop is about having convictions, the courage to speak them, a cause, consistency and a pure, dogged ability to never give up on them.
*All images © Oliver Barnett.