The dramatic unveiling of Flav’s trademark clock-face necklace reinforced just how iconic a presence they possess.
Contrary to the enjoyable warm-up set that cherry-picked from the vaults of classic hip-hop, the early evening saw the O2 Academy’s dance floor looking dishearteningly sparse, despite the best efforts of the DJ and MC on stage. This was all the more notable when compared to the abundant hip-hop contingent that’d packed into Public Enemy’s last local headline gig – at Bristol’s Motion -some eighteen months previously.
Though the supporting duo’s orchestration of headphone giveaways and Will Smith-inspired dance-offs entertained the patchy crowd, it was only as the arrival of Public Enemy became imminent that the room filled with a mass arrival of latecomers. Seizing the remaining floor space, the last-minute stampede quashed the lingering doubts that’d manifested in the empty gaps within the O2 Academy, re-animating the venue with a renewed energy and purpose.
Whilst only reaching a disconcertingly timid simmer before, the intensity soared immediately with the arrival of Chuck D, whose very presence stepped proceedings up a gear. With Flavor Flav joining slightly after, the injection of an excitable buzz into the air was near-tangible as the newly-packed audience hustled themselves further forward, eager to see one of hip-hop’s most pioneering duos return to the South West.
Having recently enjoyed their 25th Anniversary, a slot at the world-famous Glastonbury Festival and an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Public Enemy’s legacy continues to expand, spearheaded by their accomplished live show. Comfortably surpassing their inevitable nostalgic appeal in Bristol, their stage-presence was quickly established and highly impressive of its own accord. Whether the timeless, authoritative tonality of Chuck D or the mischievous presence of loveable rogue Flav, their passion, character and impact was great to watch.
This brilliant ‘yin and yang’ juxtaposition of personality and vocal tones remains as superbly complimentary now as it has for decades. Chuck D still punches the air with intent and projects vocals with an invested purpose, whilst Flav’s antics remain relentlessly entertaining and often startlingly athletic (as witnessed with Bristol’s three stage dives!). Equally respected, fans stretched out towards the stage for fist bumps and high-fives with the pair, even handing over readily-armed smartphones to grab high-tech, video-selfies from the obliging old-skool rappers.
Of particular note, the sheer delight and riotous cheers in the room during the dramatic unveiling of Flav’s trademark clock-face necklace reinforced just how iconic a presence they possess; one cannot help but be swept up in the tide of their living, breathing hip-hop history.
Backed by the cool record-scratching of band-mate DJ Lord and some particularly stunning lead guitar solos from Khari Wynn, the variety of the performance was commendable (particularly for a rap gig), and this was reflected in the enthusiastic clapping and cheering around the room. With Chuck D cycling the spotlight and praise amongst those involved, the experience felt very much like an inclusive team effort, from the choreographed ‘military’ presence of the S1W’s to the sound of the funky drummer.
This variety of performance continued throughout the evening, most strikingly with Flav’s chant-starting stints on the drums and bass guitar, Chuck D’s dip into blues harp and the welcoming of a fan to the stage to rap-a-long with them (winning himself some headphones in the process). Whilst the novelty of these occasions easily outweighed their outright musical quality, they offered a fun diversity to the evening, toying with the anticipated format to the entertainment of those on-stage often as much as the beaming crowd.
Met most excitedly though were Public Enemy’s biggest hits, including ‘Bring The Noise’ (complete with a breakdown of chugging guitar and an explosively engineered crescendo) and the classic ‘Fight The Power’, which was fully embraced by the lead duo, their animated team on-stage and the jumping audience. Whilst decades have passed since their inception, the sentiment and energy of the tracks still commands an impressive reverence.
Allowing some breathing space with an interlude of sorts, vinyl-juggling maestro DJ Lord toyed mercilessly with a beat to the sound of cheers from the crowd, who responded to his increasingly outlandish skills on the turntables. Following this, Flav took to the mic to perform a few solo tracks which, whilst enjoyable, eventually felt bereft of the interweaving dynamics and audible contrast offered by the on-stage partnership with Chuck D.
With their potent partnership soon restored as unwelcome news of the looming curfew came to light, they began wrapping up their set firstly with the powerful ‘Shut ’em Down’ and finally with their recently resurgent anthem ‘Harder Than You Think’. In an energetic finale, Public Enemy parted the stage to chants of “Just like that!”reverberating appreciatively around Bristol’s O2 Academy.
Having thrown his shirt and towel to a young fan in the front row as a sweaty memento of the action-packed gig, a returning Flav concluded the night with a few penultimate words that assertively condemned racism and separatism, before properly departing with a pro-unity message to a final resounding round of applause. With the unmistakable intro of ‘War (What Is It Good For)’ pumping from the speakers, the house lights returned, illuminating a smiling audience that looked markedly more entertained and – one would assume – inevitably more inspired than they’d arrived.
Though perhaps no longer occupying their status-quo troubling, cutting-edge status of old, Public Enemy’s live show is still undeniably crafted of an enduring cultural history and remains amongst the most charismatic and enjoyable tours on the road today. With the addition of their passionate, empowering message and brilliantly invigorating performances, it seems their fire is still burning strong, casting its light on fans both old and new alike.
Words and images by Darren Paul Thompson.
Check out ‘Harder Than You Think’ right here: