[13 July 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“Peace. Armageddon has been in effect, go get a late pass… step. This time around the revolution will not be televised step. London, England… consider yourselves… warned!”, Professor Griff intones, as an alarm siren wails in the background.
So begins Public Enemy’s classic (if that’s even strong enough a word) 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and so begins the concert that makes up the bulk of the Public Enemy DVD It Takes a Nation: The First London Invasion Tour 1987, recorded at Hammersmith Odeon in London, November 1987. It Takes a Nation captures hip-hop invading London, via footage of Public Enemy’s set on one of the first major hip-hop tours to reach that side of the ocean. As the opening act on the tour, supporting LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy are the first foot soldiers in that “invasion”. The first image they present to the audience is suitably militaristic in tone: Professor Griff and S1Ws (the Security of the First World), dressed in their Black Panther/Fruit of Islam-inspired security outfits, walking through a carefully planned series of steps, as Griff gives his fierce introduction. Minutes later the crowd is witnessing Chuck D and Flavor Flav, bounding across the stage in all-white outfits, clocks hanging around both their necks. Public Enemy took the stage like a firecracker, ready to light the audience on fire. They were, as Chuck D puts it, “fearless”.
This was no real invasion, though: the London audience members were willing victims. Public Enemy are greeted with hysterical cheers from the large audience. In the DVD’s commentary track Chuck D describes the audience as “a raucous hip-hop crowd.” The film—a combination of concert footage, interview footage, and backstage footage—strives to give the impression that the UK audiences were more receptive to PE than most US audiences would have been at the time. “I see that London is the capitol of the world of hip-hop,” Chuck D declares from the stage to rev up the crowd. In interviews with the British press he seems awe-stricken at how into hip-hop the people he meets are, and particularly by the fact that people in London seem to really ‘get’ Public Enemy, that they understand the lyrics and the sound. In the US, he says, “the sound has to cut through first”, before people listen to the message. There’s one scene in the film where you can see his brain working overtime, trying to figure this out. “I’ve got flame in my eyes, I’m obsessed with this London thing,” he says.
Though intermittent and brief in the film, PE’s interviews with the press capably demonstrate where their heads were at, where their intentions lay at this point in their career, in between their first album Yo Bum Rush the Show—a much-delayed release which PE thought sounded out-of-date by the time it came out—and their bolder, more confident, more aggressively pro-black second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. “Our main objective is the preservation of the young black mind,” Chuck D explains. They want to make black youth understand their history and culture, he says, not just for the sake of knowledge but to make the black community stronger, to show “black people we’ve got to love each other.” They want black people to not just say they’re ‘proud to be black’, “but to know why and how.” Even the perennially goofy Flavor Flav turns serious in front of the journalist’s microphone, explaining the group is “out here to serve a purpose”.
If Chuck D’s statements about the group’s quest to spread knowledge and understanding prefigure the lyrics of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the overwhelming sonic attack of that album is likewise prefigured in Public Enemy’s energetic live show. In this concert (shown cut-up through the film but also included on the DVD in its entirety), the group works overtime. They’re giving everything they’ve got to keep the crowd energized and happy. They run powerfully through many of the songs on Yo! Bum Rush the Show, plus a couple that will end up on It Takes a Nation upon its release the following April: “Bring the Noise” and “Rebel Without a Pause”. The performance overall shows PE to be hard-working showmen in the tradition of James Brown. They’re pushing the right buttons to keep the crowd loud and keep the energy level high: yelling “all the people who love the prime minister, be quiet!”, pulling the “I heard racists want to stop this concert, what do you all think?” trick. They’re relying on classic call-and-response techniques, but shifting them in an anti-authority, socially conscious direction.
In a way, It Takes a Nation offers a blueprint for rap showmanship more than musical performance. This is by no means a “pure” hip-hop performance. In other words, Chuck and Flav rap along to their own recorded voices, and often the recorded voices are much higher in the mix than the live ones. They’ve been doing this their whole career, and Chuck has admitted that it’s because his voice isn’t strong enough to carry a whole show (and few voices are, as evidenced by the number of MCs who have anonymous friends helping out by rapping along with everything, beefing up the vocal sound). But while this might be a useful tactic for maintaining a high-energy live performance, it doesn’t translate well to a concert recording. The image of Public Enemy performing is the star of the concert portion of the DVD, more so than the sound.
Public Enemy are seen by some as a monstrous live act, as amazing live performers… and they are. But watching this DVD, and listening to the audio version of the concert that’s included as a bonus CD, will get you thinking about what makes a performance “great”, about how much it really has to do with the music alone. The pleasures here are more about the energy, the group’s presence than how skillfully they’re presenting their music. The importance also comes from the group’s stance as meaningfully rebellious entertainers, about what they were choosing to do with their minutes on the stage. Chuck D says in the DVD commentary that they created Public Enemy to be in the tradition of socially aware black musicians, from Bob Marley to Curtis Mayfield to Aretha Franklin, and also notes that this was “unprecedented” in rap. Nowadays it’s easy to compartmentalize Public Enemy as part of some subgenre of “political rap” or “positive rap”, but what they were doing at the height of their career went beyond that. They weren’t simple preachers or lecturers; they were entertainers, making music that moved people across the globe. It was bold, powerful music, but it also had a point rather than just to make the musicians richer. That point wasn’t to convert people to a political ‘cause’—it was to make people really think about the world around them, to make us see the world as it is, not as governments and corporations want us to see it.