|Public Enemy - Manchester UK: MKLVFKWR|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 12 September 2006|
Sportscasters often speak about momentum. It is a mysterious intangible, but it is undeniably real, nonetheless. When one team has momentum over another, it can do no wrong while their opponents can seemingly do nothing right. If it is a basketball game, the one squad with momentum on its side cannot miss a shot, while the other team cannot throw a pea in the ocean. Momentum applies to musical careers as well, with Public Enemy being a prime example of an act that had it but lost it. In the 90s, nobody in the rap world was hotter then Public Enemy. So hot were they, in fact, some even referred to them as the Black CNN. They were the act that always told it like it was; they were as informational as they were entertaining. But as the culture moved into the new millennium, Public Enemy lost a little steam and a lot of their initial impact. They were soon out of sight, out of mind.
Leader Chuck D. raps with the voice of authority, and during the Fear of a Black Planet era, he was like Walter Cronkite with a microphone. Tracks like “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Burn Hollywood Burn,” and “Who Stole the Soul” offered the daily editorial page with a beat. Even Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks could not prevent socially active, in-touch individuals from listening closely to every message in Public Enemy’s quickly expanding musical catalogue.
But just prior to the year 2000, Public Enemy left Def Jam. They coincidently also found their socially-conscious rap replaced by gangstas and playas. They still had plenty to say, but the public had moved on to more enticing, lowbrow sounds. Sadly, Chuck D. is no longer the most famous Public Enemy member these days. He’s unquestionably their most talented rapper, but Flavor Flav’s successful series of reality show appearances have made him an “A” name on the B-list celebrity circuit. Whatever momentum Public Enemy had in the 90s, is long gone now. Only Flavor Flav’s flavor of love is the flavor of the week.
Public Enemy’s new, approximately four-hour, double DVD set is centered on a 2003 concert in Manchester UK. Manchester is a city famous for fey rock groups like The Smiths, and gloomy dance practitioners, such as New Order. If PE intended to regain some of their original momentum, why didn’t they return to the clubs of New York City that first gave them birth? Why would a pioneer collective of this staunchly American art form go all the way overseas to create a visual status report such as this one? Public Enemy has always spoken out against racism. And while England has also lived through more than its share of racial episodes, something like “911 Is a Joke,” for instance, is specifically an American issue. Public Enemy neither speaks to, nor for the UK.
Perhaps the biggest connection this American act and these British music fans have is the war in Iraq. Both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have joined forces to end terrorism in the world. Mr. Bush, by the way, takes a character beating during “Son of a Bush,” but Chuck D. also takes this occasion to flip off Blair in the process. The acronym, MKLVFKWR, stands for Make Love Fuck War, and it is a slogan Chuck D. chants often throughout this show. You don’t see too many rap artists taking on global political issues; rappers are more like rhyming Al Sharptons, showing up in any community where the race card happens to have been played. But Public Enemy is not your typical rap group. In addition to bringing attention to the war in Iraq, Public Enemy have been staunch supporters of internet freedom. Had rap been around in the late 60s, you can bet Public Enemy would have been there playing Woodstock.
Public Enemy could have chosen to take the easy (read commercial) route of making a career out of singing about babes and bling. But they’re an act that cares far too deeply about serious social issues to merely think about their bank accounts or pimping their rides. Those that have stuck with Public Enemy during their recent lean years must have been truly serious fans, because PE never makes ear candy.
They’re also a group not afraid to grow and change with the times. For example, their initial lineup consisted of little more than three rappers and Terminator X on the wheels of steel. But this concert finds the group with a drummer, bassist, and guitarist. This expansion gives the music more depth, as well as added flexibility and spontaneity. Terminator X is one of the DJ greats, but DJ Lord—his replacement—is also no slouch. During Lord’s solo segment, he proves to be more than adept at creating fascinating beats—especially when he speeds up the tracks to hyper, Wizard Of Oz, Munchkin speed.
Almost every Public Enemy track you could ask for is included in this package. Popular statements include “Shut ‘Em Down,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Fight the Power,” and “She Watch Channel Zero.” Chuck D. is on his “A” game from start to finish; he’s like Elijah crying in the wilderness, or Noah warning of an impending flood. He’s got something important to say, and the kind of believable voice to say it so that it penetrates like AK-47 shots.
This show’s quality decreases significantly once Chuck D. hands over the microphone to Flavor Flav and Professor Griff for their latter solo sets. Flavor Flav, much like the way Ed McMahon was with Johnny Carson, is excellent in his sideman role. With his bright outfits, colorful caps and that omnipresent swinging clock around his neck, he’s eye candy complimenting to Chuck D.’s brain supplements. Even his whacked-out, loose-limbed dancing is a useful visual accessory. But whenever he tries to carry the show with his self-penned rhymes alone, it’s time to start looking at your watch and counting the seconds until Chuck D. returns. These same sour remarks can be made about Griff, who has ineffectively incorporated rap-metal into his sound. Rap-metal is bad enough when white guys do it. But it’s even worse when black guys water down their raps with annoying guitar riffs.
The sound of this set, especially for a concert DVD, is excellent overall. Naturally, it can’t compete with Public Enemy’s original The Bomb Squad studio production team—but nobody expects it to live up to those high standards. This release also deserves praise for its Tour Diary extra section. This is because—instead of pretending that road food fights are entertaining (they aren’t)—the camera captures the act at such poor locales as Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, to show Public Enemy’s true empathy for these people.
Public Enemy, who once sang “Burn Hollywood Burn,” have not yet gone Hollywood. Instead, these musicians still have a heart for serious social causes. They may never be the “in” thing again, but this live document shows how this Public Enemy is—and always has been—the public’s best friend.