Freeze Festival, London, October 27
If hip-hop is supposed to have come a long way since the scratch-heavy hustle of ’80s rap, no-one told Public Enemy. The Long Islanders have, across their 25-year career, stayed defiantly true to the big-beat sound and political fury that made their ’88 classic ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ such a thrill. This, despite the fact that in recent years mainstream rap’s turntables and testosterone have been replaced by slick production and mopey Prozac-poppin’ existentialism.
So when Public Enemy returned earlier this year with new album ‘Most Of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp’, they did so as hard-edged and old school as ever, as if 53-year-old hype man Flavor Flav’s trademark giant necklace clock stopped 20 years ago and time has stood still for them ever since. It’s surprising he’s even here tonight, given he was arrested in Las Vegas recently after allegedly threatening his fiancée’s 17-year-old son with a knife. But he and 52-year-old mainman Chuck D plough through a greatest hits set that entertains but fails to wow, which is a shame because the timing couldn’t be better for a triumphant London performance. This is the city which made their 2007 song ‘Harder Than You Think’ an unofficial anthem after it was used in a Channel 4 advert for the 2012 Paralympic Games, sparking a new wave of appreciation for the band. But that’s not to say their set is a total washout. Roaring through songs like ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ and the still classic ‘Bring The Noise’, Chuck spits his sermonising rhymes with unerring conviction while Flav hops between instruments, even playing bass on a brief blast of Sugarhill Gang’s legendary ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Later the spotlight shifts to turntablist DJ Lord, who turns Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ into a violent scratch odyssey before a rendition of ‘Shut ’Em Down’ is, er, shut down when a man climbs to the top of the huge metal pillar keeping the tent aloft.
Finishing with a rowdy revisit of ’89 single ‘Fight The Power’, Chuck D warns not to “let your government fuck with your culture because when they fuck with the culture, they fuck with the truth”. They haven’t been at their best tonight, but even on a bad day there’s no fucking with Public Enemy.