Editor’s Note: In news that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my work ethic, I’m still not finished with my guide to the discography of Public Enemy (though you can read the introduction in my recent guest post on Andresmusictalk). So, I’m going to do what I always do in situations like this, and post a vaguely-related stopgap that I wrote over a decade ago. Here’s my review of MKLVFKWAR Manchester UK Live, a concert DVD released in the wake of P.E.’s underrated 2005 album New Whirl Odor. As you can see, I wasn’t a fan–and I was also writing in a moment of cynicism about the state of hip-hop, which is pretty fucking hilarious coming from a 22-year-old white boy. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether my criticism was on-point or insufferable; in any case, I’ll be back with a fresher take on the Enemy tomorrow. – Z.H.
Which is a stranger thought: that Public Enemy’s days as rap music’s most important, relevant group have now been over for more than twice as long as they’d lasted? Or that Public Enemy was ever important and relevant in the first place? It’s my hope, at least, that the majority of readers would have answered with the former; P.E.’s glory days may have taken leave of them long before the dawn of the 21st century–a glance at VH1’s program schedule is enough to confirm as much–but their importance to hip-hop history, popular music history, and just plain history is one thing that can never be overstated.
These guys were, at one point in time, the cutting edge for rap: an incisive Molotov cocktail of street rhymes, dense samplescapes, and radical Black politics, the likes of which has never been seen before or since. I’m not saying political rap didn’t exist outside of Public Enemy, either before or after the release of their 1987 debut LP Yo! Bum Rush the Show; but I am saying their prescient combination of progressive lyrics and even more progressive production has never been fully replicated. Public Enemy always was ahead of their time, but there’s still a nagging sense that “their time” never actually arrived.
That’s why the mere appearance of MKLVFKWR, a DVD capturing a complete concert in Manchester from the now three-year-old Revolverlution tour, is a little disappointing. Back in their heyday, the Enemy would never dream of releasing three-year-old material, not even as a stopgap video collection. This was a group who sang about what was happening today, to be listened to tomorrow; a group so supremely of-the-moment that when snippets from a 1987 Hammersmith Odeon concert appeared on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they were a mere five months old–and that was in the vinyl era! Meanwhile, in a day and age when bootleggers can videotape a concert on Friday night and have it captured and uploaded to YouTube by Saturday morning, here’s Public Enemy putting out a video that predates George W. Bush’s second presidential term. Times have certainly changed.
Indeed, “times have changed” seems to be the theme for Manchester UK Live; arguably the most interesting thing about this DVD is the opportunity it provides to see just how a P.E. show goes down these days. For starters, the Security of the First World appears to have been downsized to two guys standing stock-still in berets (they’ve traded in their Uzis for nightsticks, too, unless that’s a coy reference to the U.K.’s gun control laws). More distressingly, the group’s trademark rapid-fire barrage of samples is sometimes bolstered, sometimes replaced with live drums, bass, and guitar. This makes for some radically different, more rock-influenced arrangements for many classic songs–which, incidentally, are often condensed into the kind of “get ’em out of the way” medleys Prince has specialized in since back when he became a Symbol.
(Editor’s Note: The above performance is not from the DVD, but from another show on the same tour. From what I can recall, it’s basically the same.)
Maybe that’s why the show starts a little slow; something about the truncated takes on “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and “Bring the Noise” which open the set just fail to connect. But on the other hand, maybe there’s something more depressing at work here. There are more than a couple of wince-worthy moments on this DVD, moments when I caught myself wishing Public Enemy would just cash in their chips after 20 years: like when Chuck D raps along with a prerecorded track of his younger self on “Public Enemy No. 1” and gets short of breath, or, worse yet, when Flavor Flav attempts to hold his trademark “yeah boyeeeeeeee” for a minute or so, and ends up sounding like a severely out-of-tune violin.
Even the band’s politics, while certainly not dulled, have lost something in the way of execution since the days of “Fight the Power.” I’m aware there’s always been an element of kneejerk reactionism to Public Enemy, but when the best they have for us is “Fuck George Bush! / Fuck Tony Blair!” (“Son of a Bush”), it just makes me embarrassed to admit that I still believe in these guys. But the bizarre thing is, I still do. Even when the crowd shots reveal a depressing surplus of skinny white dudes mouthing Chuck’s lyrics; even when Flav is doing what he does best by making an ass of himself (most spectacularly with a series of a capella “previews” from his mercifully still-forthcoming solo debut); I still believe that Public Enemy has more good music in them.
(Editor’s Note: Again, not from the DVD, but close enough.)
Part of that, of course, is because I know the end of this story: last year’s New Whirl Odor was, despite the usual mixed reviews (and the terrible title), a surprisingly solid latter-day achievement; and while I haven’t listened to this spring’s collaboration with Paris, Rebirth of a Nation, what I’ve heard about the album has indicated that it’s not a disappointment. But even rewinding to Manchester in 2003, MKLVFKWR contains flashes of the quasi-revival to come: from “Shut ‘Em Down” to “911 is a Joke,” the P.E. captured on this disc is on, delivering old songs and new (“Revolverlution” actually sounds better than some of the more vintage material in this context) with their trademark energy and power.
Granted, this brief hot streak–five songs, all told, with “He Got Game” included only with some trepidation–comes near the end of a largely lukewarm set, after which we are subjected to solo sets from Flav, his boring cousin Timbo King, and even Professor Griff, whose “heavy mental” crew, 7th Octave, seems to have forgotten that rap-rock went out with Fred Durst. Even so, the James Brown-ized rendition of “Fight the Power” that closes the main performance is actually pretty sweet, serving as a preview of the jazz-infused Enemy who would later emerge on New Whirl’s excellent album track “Superman’s Black in the Building.”
Maybe I’m being too easy on Public Enemy. There are few other rap artists, after all, from whom I would put up with a set this thoroughly outdated and mediocre. But when you get right down to it, who else is there to believe in? In the midst of widespread backpack backlash, with everyone from The Source to the acne-ridden Pitchfork reader in your dorm decrying the merits of political consciousness in favor of nihilistic “crack rap,” who is our Great Black Hope? Kanye West is too self-absorbed, the Coup too far beneath the radar, and the Roots, while experiencing something of a critical resurgence with Game Theory, have never possessed the same excitement or commercial thrust as prime P.E. So Public Enemy it is, until someone else comes along to pick up the torch. But at this rate, will they ever?
(Editor’s Note: Yep.)