Public Enemy has, for upwards of 26 years, put out rousing music that incites the masses both on recordings and in a live setting. Last night at the Ogden Theatre, though, the crew showed out as if they had something to prove. Don't call it a comeback. They've been here for years, and they tore the roof off the joint using the same classic material as always.
I arrived at the Ogden right at the end of Chali 2na's set from Jurassic 5; the only remnants of his performance were the DJ tables, low lights, and a thick layer of marijuana smoke that apparently impeded the start of Public Enemy's show. The opening hype man informed the crowd that they would have to "stop smoking because Chuck is sick and he does not like weed smoke."
After a few moments of "This is hip-hop, do it for unity," the smoke cleared and the party got started. As is the Public Enemy on-stage tradition, the set began with two strapping gentlemen in military uniforms coming out to very nicely choreographed soldier stepping/salute routine before the bassist, the legendary Bass Davy D, kicked the joint into high gear.
Chuck D let the band play with the beat down low while he introduced each person, from DJ to security (who were wearing "Fight the Power" T-shirts, and mean-mugging the crowd with a relaxed focus), and got the crowd most hyped for, you guessed it, Flavor Flav.
As the reality-TV star emerged from the back wearing a sweatshirt and his signature clock, the crowd went absolutely wild. Packed from front to back and top to bottom, the Ogden just erupted for Flav.
Thanking the people for supporting him throughout his "second job in television," he gave the spiel for his latest business endeavor, a Kennedy Fried Chicken joint, which are found on blocks all over New York City.
He could have been advertising cyanide and these folks would have eaten it up. After running through a few rough cuts and a medley from Apocalypse 91, Chuck D told the band to kick it up, and they roared through the rest of the set.
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It began like a hip-hop lesson: telling the story of how the first dis' track from Flav directed at New York City radio master Mr. Magic came about, right before he launched into "Cold Lampin With Flavor" and it was so incredibly classic. This was not lost on the audience, who could have fist-pumped into eternity. Musically, Chuck D, Professor Griff and Flavor Flav (who took his turn on the bass for "Don't Believe the Hype" and wailed on that thing) are in top shape. Physically, for Chuck D, this is also true. Returning to the stage in a T-shirt and Adidas shorts, he stepped to the microphone stand and slayed the hits like the consummate professional he is.
The cuts from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back found Public Enemy on stage jamming in enjoyment -- the highlight being "Don't Believe the Hype," in which a man in a business suit got to come from the audience to belt out the hook.
Fear of a Black Planet tracks were definitely crowd favorites. "Fight the Power" damn near started a riot, as usual, "911 (Is a Joke)" was as forceful as ever, and "Welcome to Terrordome" is still the perfect music for a superhero.
Chuck D used every opportunity possible to thank hip-hop, calling Jurassic 5 "the best hip-hop group in history," thanking local artists who hold down the hip-hop scene -- including DJ Cavem, who was on stage support -- and, of course, thanking the adoring crowd.
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: This show was a total hip-hop history freakout for me. Public Enemy is the root of every single hip-hop crew or posse I admire, from Wu-Tang to OutKast. They paved the way, and it was awesome.
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By the way: I have never seen that many people at the Ogden.
Random detail: Maybe it was the lighting, or the drinking, but either way, I witnessed four people completely bite the dust moving about the Ogden.