A few of the roughly four hundred people who had come to see Public Enemy last Friday night apparently didn’t get it.
“Who keeps saying ‘all right?'” said the MC who introduced the band. “When I say ‘aaaiiiiggghhht?’ you say ‘aaaiiiiggghhht’ … not ‘all right.'”
But the hip-hop 101 wasn’t entirely necessary. Although the intimate, plush venue of Yoshi’s San Francisco (which Chuck D would later associate with “Frank Sinatra and shit”) isn’t the first place one might expect to see the politically charged, old-school hip-hop legends make their comeback, devoted PE fans didn’t seem to care. They may not have known the correct way to say “all right” at a hip-hop show, but by halfway through the set, they had proven they could recite practically every PE lyric ever written. Which had to count for something.
The night was an early-Nineties flashback for many. Public Enemy played up its old-school theme from the jump, beginning with a giant, spotlit boom box cassette player placed at center stage. The sight of the boom box drew a round of “ahhh shit!” from the crowd. Fans immediately pulled out their iPhones to snap commemorative shots.
When the beats started up, two men dressed in camo soldier uniforms marched out on stage, saluting and dancing stiffly in unison. The stern-faced soldiers remained on stage almost throughout the entire set, setting a militant tone that only loosened when the two occasionally broke their steadfast stance to sway along with the music.
PE’s veteran members came out one by one to a round of hoots and hollers: Chuck D, DJ Lord, Professor Griff, and Flavor Flav, who skipped on stage with a child in his arms. The kid, who Flav later introduced as his youngest son, looked small next to the characteristic white-rimmed, saucer-sized kitchen clock hanging around Flav’s neck.
Band members knew they had a lot of ground to cover in their scheduled ninety-minute set. “We have like, what, 23 years of music?” Chuck D said. They also had a long night ahead. After that show, they were scheduled to perform a second set, and then two more shows the next night. Still, Flav promised the audience would get its money’s worth, even if it was, as Chuck D put it, a “super dense compressed version” of a regular PE performance.
The limited schedule meant that some of the group’s most beloved songs (“Bring the Noise,” “Fight the Power,” “Can’t Truss It”) were sliced into teasers. Which was disappointing to fans eager to hear the hits. The rushed, rigorous performance made up for the occasional butchered song. Even so, the emcees and backup instrumentalists — including a bassist, guitarist, and drummer — still got to flaunt their musical chops. One of the show’s highlights was a solo performance by DJ Lord, who has been turntabling for the group since its original DJ, Terminator X, departed in 1999.
But all eyes were on Flav for most of the set. Famously exhibitionist, he stole the show by bouncing around the stage, picking up the bass guitar at one moment, and sitting in for the drummer at another. “Flava FLAV!” shouted fans as they flocked to the stage for a fist-pound. Midway through the set, even the big-money spenders with reserved tables in the back were out of their seats and dancing.
Chuck D appeared happy enough to let Flav take the reigns as lead emcee and tout his reality TV show — aka his “second job” — in a lengthy preamble to the show. “Some people should have a hearing aid and not a microphone,” Chuck D said, before he handed the stage over. Flav reminded the crowd that he brought 7.5 million viewers to VH1 with his shows, but said he probably wouldn’t be back on the network any time soon.
Public Enemy’s legacy is so ingrained that even Flav’s pop culture antics haven’t deterred the group from preaching its politically conscious message. “Culture and music brings people together … beware of the government that says it controls your culture!” Chuck D warned, before launching into “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
While some of those messages have an Eighties-era ring, the group is quick to assert that its politics aren’t stuck back in the day. At the start of the show, Chuck D expressed frustration that the recent events in Arizona appear to be stealing press from the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. As Haiti disappears, Arizona comes back “like Chucky and shit,” said Chuck D. Later, the group played “By the Time I get to Arizona,” which is a song from its 1991 album denouncing states that didn’t recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
Even Flav cut the comic relief and took a moment for some serious reflection at the end of the show. “There are two things that have kept the world fucked up,” Flav said. “Number one is racism and number two is separatism.” When he told the audience to stick their middle finger out to racism and separatism, hundreds of middle fingers went in the air. And when he told the crowd to add another finger and turn the “eff you” into a peace sign, the audience happily obliged.