From the moment it was announced, it was dubious that Public Enemy was on tour – and even stopping in Spokane – for the following reasons:
A. Flava Flav has gone from being one of the most infectious hype men in hip-hop to Vh1’s flagship reality TV curiosity.
B. Professor Griff has returned to the Public Enemy fold after being booted out of the group in the wake of making anti-Semitic statements.
C. P.E.’s anchoring deejay Terminator X is no longer with the hip-hop political rap pioneers.
D. The Rock the Bells tour last week at Big Easy was canceled on the day of the show, and there was skepticism that Spokane’s market could support golden-age hip-hop the way it does gangsta rap or hip-pop.
But hey, it’s Public Enemy, and how can you go wrong when the legendary hard rhymer Chuck D. is steering the ship?
Despite speculation that this might be a paycheck tour for the aging hip-hop icons, Public Enemy was one of the most memorable – and most slept-on – concerts at the Big Easy in recent memory, with a tiny turnout of about 250 heads in the crowd.
The show got off to a puzzling start, with an opening set by P.E.’s backing band, The Banned, an all-African American metal band (there’s something you don’t see at your typical rap concert). But fellow Afrocentric hip-hop trailblazers X-Clan redeemed the night with a get-up-stand-up-and-shake- your-butt funkin’ lesson led by Brother J.
X-Clan excited the audience even without the signature “vanglorious” rants of the late Professor X, who died in March due to complications from spinal meningitis.
It was a fitting pre-funk for Public Enemy, who exploded onto the stage with a triple-hit combo: “Night Of The Living Bassheads,” “Welcome To The Terrordome,” and “Bring The Noise.”
As soon as Chuck D. uttered the words, “Here it is – Bam!” there were no more doubts. It was on, and Public Enemy was – in the tradition of Run-DMC or Sir Mix-A-Lot – as much rockin’ as rappin’.
It took a couple of tracks for Flava Flav to get onstage, and once he did, he looked like a half-dead cockroach that had been suddenly revived to life. Flav was in full form yelling “yeah boy-eeeeeees” with expected fervor for the crowd to holla back, his scrawny neck weighted down by a gigantic clock (set to Pacific Standard Time) and all.
After a run of Public Enemy classics, the concert hit one of few lulls when Chuck D. went into his more recent slam-poetry style bashes amidst upping middle fingers to Bush, Cheney and Schwarzenegger, taking turns with Flav’s irreverent wailings on the mike and The Banned’s self-serving intervals of Hendrix and P-Funk rip-off riffs.
P.E. was at its best when retreading familiar material like “Shut ‘Em Down” with a metallic twist.
As always, Flava Flav – whom Chuck D. described as the world’s oldest teenager – was a constant contradiction to his rhyme partner’s staunch sobriety. While Chuck donned red, black and green wristbands and preached to the crowd to stay away from drugs and alcohol, Flava was wearing a yellow T-shirt adorned with a big ol’ pot leaf. It’s hard to imagine Griff tolerating Flava’s irreverence, especially when he spent last year touring college campuses on the lecture titled “Has Public Enemy lost its Flava?” But Griff was little more than a background vocal presence while Flav was the needed comic relief.
Flava’s bodyguard held him up by the waist of his jeans while he leaned out into the crowd signing ticket stubs and passing out sips of water. When he had total control of the stage while Chuck was taking a break, Flav would take a timeout to warn the kids in the audience to stay in school and respect their teachers in a “Wu-Tang is for the babies” ODB kind of way. Then he kept his freak show going by jumping on the drum kit and playing a five-minute solo – badly.
After more than two hours it was evident that Public Enemy wasn’t messing around, of course excluding Flav. But that’s what he’s there for: to break up the political tension as a true symbol of freedom of expression, which upholds the P.E. message in its own distorted, whacked-out way.