Nancy Hogg reports on Public Enemy – The Junction, Cambridge 24 May 2008

public enemy
Public Enemy
Yeahhhhh boyzzzzzzzz! (and girls) the most influential rappers in the history of hip hop, Public Enemy, played Cambridge Junction on Saturday 24th May, to perform their landmark 1988 album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in its full and glorious entirety.

The current vogue for bands to perform ‘classic’ albums could be seen as a clever marketing ploy serving to elevate a humble gig to the realms of an artistic ‘event’. But whereas this current trend has seen many bands who haven’t released anything new in donkey’s years tour the country, it is also an opportunity for fans to hear rarely performed album tracks.

It’s hard to believe Nation... is twenty years old. Following hot on the heels of Yo! Bum Rush The Show the album reiterated Chuck D’s exceptional talent for rhyme and lyrical wordplay. The fact that original members Chuck D and Flavor Flav are also 20 years older seems, on the strength of tonight’s performance, largely immaterial.

After the opening Countdown to Armageddon, Public Enemy explode onto the stage with Bring the Noise with Chuck D’s visceral boom of a question, ‘Bass! How Low Can You Go?’ setting the tone for the evening. The crowd start dancing from the outset as Chuck D and Flavor Flav jump about the stage with the energy of men half their age. Next is the funky anthem Don’t’ Believe the Hype, followed by Cold Lampin With Flavor Flav (maybe this whole album business isn’t always such a good thing?). However, the crowd love Flav and his comical stage presence is still unrivalled.

At times throughout the evening you feel that Chuck D’s vocal force is on the wane, only to be amazed again at the vocal ferocity he can muster. Highlights include She Watched Channel Zero, a dark treatise on the dangers of watching soap operas whilst ignoring your own culture: the message lessened somewhat by Flav’s plea that he wants to ‘watch the game’. However, this two-pronged lyrical approach, juxtaposing Chuck D’s harder more political wordplay with Flavor Flav’s more comical lyrics, still works powerfully.

Other highlights of the album include a rousing version of Rebel Without a Pause and Party for Your Right to Fight. When the album is finished they return to the stage to play other tracks including Shut Em Down and Public Enemy No 1. Although the show has been energetic up until now it is these final tracks that seem to take them on to another level.

It’s hard to believe that in the space of two decades probably one of the most vibrant musical forms of the 20th century has been reduced to insipid paeans on materialism thanks to artists such as 50 Cent and P Diddy (who was apparently once an accountant…). Seeing a band perform an album as classic as Nation... can conjure such feelings of nostalgia that often serve to detract from the message of the album itself. Public Enemy had, and still do, have something to say. They communicated this via the rich and varied musical form that was hip hop. Whether any hip hop band will produce an album of this calibre again is doubtful. It seems that, after 20 years, you still can’t ‘disable the power of their label’.

Writer: Nancy Hogg