KOKO, London, Thursday July 25
“Brace yourself, London,” announces DJ Lord, “for Public Enemy.” Sound advice, as it goes. Because Chuck D and the gang, who 26 years ago set out to become, in their words, “The Clash of hip-hop”, have lost none of their power to enthrall and incite. As those big Public Enemy sirens go off inside London’s KOKO, several thousand Londoners raise their fists in the air and Brooklyn’s favourite militant radicals stride onstage like living monuments of granite, to the sound of ‘Lost At Birth’.
What happens next is live hip-hop of pitiless intensity and riotous fun, where dancing is a political act, where fight and funk are one, and where the vitality and incendiary politics of hip-hop wash over you in an awesome wave of sample-punk and atomic jazz. Heritage acts? Nostalgia market? Bullshit. This is how you keep the fire. The politics are fresh (Chuck’s polemics focus on social media and the Trayvon Martin murder case) and the music, even now, sounds futuristic. “Twenty-six years spent tellin’ the truth,” hollers Chuck, at which point everyone in KOKO is ready to storm Downing Street.
By the time the hits arrive – ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, ‘Fight The Power’ – things are next level. Flavor Flav is screaming “Fuck the United States!” and dancing clown-faced like James Brown. He’s flanked by security-team-cum-stage prop the S1Ws who, expressionless and garbed in full Desert Storm fatigues, enact their famous cyborg-soldier dance or do press-ups during ‘Bring The Noise’’s exploding breakdown, itself bolstered by a guitarist playing Van Halen-grade solos using his teeth. DJ Lord scratches like Michelangelo paints, and then there’s Chuck, who is a revelation. The 52-year-old is a grinning party monster who, when not throwing his mic in the air or boyband dancing with Flavor Flav, is running around like a puppy. Between the harmonica solos, his moshing to Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ and some eloquent, righteous speeches, he does everything in his power to guarantee a good time, short of handing out balloons.
What began with angry defiance ends in love, as a final one-two comprising ‘He Got Game’ and ‘Harder Than You Think’ is a reminder that beneath the rage is true compassion, social concern and a word to the coke-rap materialists of today to say the dispossessed need a voice. As ‘He Got Game’’s chorus has it: “It might feel good, it might sound a little somethin’, but fuck the game if it ain’t sayin’ nothin’”. This is real hip-hop. Here’s to another 26 years.