Image for Public Enemy @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (4/1/2011)

Public Enemy @ Metro Theatre,Sydney (4/1/2011)

It’s hard to underestimate Public Enemy’s influence on hip-hop. Exploding out of New York in the late 80s, they were both internationally (in)famous and overtly political – something that arguably no hip-hop act has been able to achieve since, at least to the same degree. And they continue to hold plenty of clout for reasons both likely (their ongoing influence and live reputation) and unlikely (Flavor Flav’s lucrative reality TV career).

So it’s no surprise when Ozi Batla appears super stoked to open for them. Often a particularly political MC in his own right, he initially impresses with solid, old school influenced beats and a smooth, comfortable flow. But he doesn’t do a lot with it, and it all starts to sound very samey. He seems to loosen up towards the end with a few more varied beats (including his crew The Herd’s breakthrough single 77% ), but much of the set lacks definition or swagger and it’s all a bit meandering.

Public Enemy, on the other hand, have a 20 year career in hype and have no trouble turning the crowd into a mess of excitement and flailing limbs. Core MCs Chuck D and Flavor Flav complement each other perfectly, with Flavor Flav’s almost jester-like antics making him the perfect fall guy to Chuck D’s overtly political, masculine stage presence. As a pairing, they surpass the sum of their parts by a mile.

Coming onstage to instrumental intro Contract on the World Love Jam and launching straight into Brothers Gonna Work It Out, they sent the crowd into a frenzy by recreating the opening six tracks to their seminal third album Fear Of A Black Planet. The production on that record is already an incredible, noisy and at times almost claustrophobic onslaught, and live that’s ramped up, leaving the crowd engulfed in layers of samples, instruments, turntablism and vocals. It’s the perfect opening to the show, which is a celebration of the record’s 20th Anniversary.

Contrary to some expectations, the show didn’t involve a complete Don’t Look Back -style performance of the album, which was actually a gift rather than a curse. Being a celebration of the album, the set contained most of the tracks, with Welcome To The Terrordome, Burn Hollywood Burn and unexpected renditions of Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man and War At 33/3 being particular highlights. But it also allowed them to keep a sense of spontaneity and play some of their other hits like Bring The Noise, Fight The Power and Don’t Believe The Hype.

In fact, the show’s formidable two-and-a-half hour length doesn’t just allow for a huge setlist, but also plenty of opportunities to mix it up. Flavor Flav plays bass and drums at points in the set, and Chuck D invites local MCs to come on stage and freestyle over Dead Prez’s famed Hip Hop beat. And somewhat interestingly, the majority of MCs are women, with Killaqueenz’ Kween G among them. Most of them spit great freestyles, leaving Chuck D to rave about our female hiphop musicians onstage…. and he continued to the next day on Twitter!

All of these diversions meant that the show’s length, which is somewhat staggering for a hiphop show, never felt too long. Also helping was the group’s excellent stage setup, with core members Chuck D and Flavor Flav complemented by DJ Lord, a 3-piece band (who often jammed out the end of songs and helped to make the show feel spontaneous) and the S1Ws – a somewhat unusual and in some ways ridiculous pair of men who often marched and saluted in time to the music, adding a sense of theatre to what was already an impressive stage show.

As the set wound to a close, Flav took centre stage one last time, giving the crowd a stirring speech about togetherness and the destructive power of racism. It was a subdued but endearingly personal end to a long, but terrific show that justified the lofty reputation that Public Enemy enjoy. They were exciting, they were challenging and they were a straight-up brilliant live act. Pretty impressive for a 20th anniversary show.

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MorningAfterboy said on the 9th Jan, 2011

Great write-up! This sounds like it was a great gig.