4 out of 10: A murky let down from a band that can no longer muster up the rage that drived them
The classic Public Enemy T-shirts are on sale at the front of the room and Chuck D enters from stage right with a boombox across his shoulder. Twenty years ago Public Enemy delivered their second groundbreaking work of sonic rage and righteousness, Fear of a Black Planet, and at the Corner tonight, Public Enemy are celebrating that achievement by turning Flavor Flav’s clock back and playing a show devoted to that era and that album.
The double punch of Contract on a World Love Jam and Brothers Gonna Work It Out kick off proceedings, just as they did on vinyl all that time ago. Chuck D and Flavor Flav are still their sprightly selves and two of the original S1Ws are patrolling the stage in military lockstep. But although the most visible elements of Public Enemy are still in full effect in 2010, aurally there’s something very wrong.
The screaming Prince sample on Brothers Gonna Work It Out is unheard. Chuck D’s deep, resonant voice is muffled. The live guitar, bass and drums — what seems like a great idea — sound like they’re competing rather than melding with the production. The mix is a wash of indistinctness, the muck clearing only when the sound is pared back considerably. For a band whose success was founded on its huge wall of interlocking sampled sound, the murky mush is criminal.
Be that as it may, Public Enemy have a back catalogue that kills. She Watch Channel Zero and Bring the Noise are but two classics they mine from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the latter song ending with an a capella reprise of the exquisite rhymes of its first verse that has the exultant crowd roaring happily that “once again back is the incredible” Public Enemy. Flavor Flav’s hijinx are as effervescent as they’ve ever been, Cold Lampin’ With Flavor and 911 is a Joke highlights of the night. Nevertheless, while Flav’s ebullience are pitch perfect for those signature tunes of his, Chuck D’s equally high spirited if not quite as humorous approach to the show renders anaemic much of Public Enemy’s more aggressive material. Public Enemy are too friendly, too jovial, too comfortable. Chuck D once was hip hop’s finest fire-and-brimstone preacher, but the rage has dissipated, and with it too has much of Public Enemy’s righteous, furious edge.