Review: Public Enemy @ Tramshed, Cardiff
Public Enemy are playing Cardiff? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. One of the most legendary hip-hop groups playing my hometown in the small, recently-opened venue, The Tramshed? This was unbelievable news – there was no doubt I’d be there.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Public Enemy’s longevity and relatively solid relations over the space of more than 30 years. Their musical existence has been a very omnipresent one. As well as never-ending touring, they tend to release a new album every 2-3 years, their longest gap being five years. A group that has never lost passion for their cause and never failed to make music sounding like no other, being at the frontline of hip-hop greats since their conception.
Upon entering the venue on a very rainy night in Cardiff, a DJ is onstage spinning a few classic hip-hop tracks (’The Next Episode’ anyone?) and remains there for just under an hour. As the crowd accumulates during his set, I notice they’re a mixture of ages, which was expected. The audience is mostly white – and that’s putting it politely – but this is Wales after all, a place famously lacking in diversity. Men are also in the majority but not overwhelmingly so. After the DJ’s done, a rapper called Obeah (pronounced ‘obey’) comes on. He acts as the pre-show hypeman, using the typical call and response method as he raps about various social injustices and gets everyone pumped for who we’re all here to see.
Once he’s finished, we now all wait wide-eye for Public Enemy. Slowly, the group assembles onstage. DJ Lord (who replaced Terminator X in 1999) is already up and running from his set with Obeah. He’s joined by ‘Minister of Information’ Professor Griff and other members of the militant dancing crew. Guitarist Khari Wynn and bassist Brian Hardgroove follow them. Now we wait for the two frontmen. The beat well and truly kicks in and Chuck D walks on, sending the crowd into ecstatic screaming – we all know who we’re watching: one of the most respected and important people in music. He tells us: “It’s been a long time since we’ve been here. We’ve been touring with The Prodigy, but we had to make sure we stopped off at Cardiff to play a special night for y’all”. (This is their only UK tour date without The Prodigy).
With still no sign of Flavor Flav, the group launches into ‘Miuzi Weighs A Ton’. Everyone is immediately out of control. Their music is so infectious – how could anyone not want to move to it? About two-thirds of the way into this opener, Flavor Flav flies out of nowhere and joins in the erupting energy, sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd.
Second song ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ drops with the same freshness as when it first graced humanity’s ears in 1987. After this, I lose track of which order the songs came in. Classics like ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, ‘Bring The Noise’, ‘Welcome to The Terrordome’, ‘Fight The Power’, ‘Can’t Truss It’, ‘911 Is A Joke’ and ‘Show ‘Em Whatcha Got’ seem to come from left, right and centre. The crowd is loving every second.
A true highlight was a superb version of ‘Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos’. Everyone singing along to the opening line “I got a letter from the government…” filled the air with so much positivity. Khari Wynn completely owned that song, shredding right down the middle of it with such ease. It is his day job after all.
At one point in the show, Flavor Flav takes a moment to remember all victims of terrorist attacks happening all over the world. Another moment sees him pull out a fan who he remembered from the group’s last visit to Cardiff. Although one of his more questionable moves is when he pulls six random female attendees out of the crowd and encourages them to “shake their booty” on stage. (Interestingly, and understandably, Chuck D was momentarily offstage when this happened.) At this point I was pretty much at the back of the crowd (it was very hot and intense) so couldn’t quite see what was happening, but Flavor has always had his dodgy moments.
Penultimate song, ‘Shut ‘Em Down’, was probably my favourite along with ‘Black Steel’. Feel-good closer ‘Harder Than You Think’ is a perfect ending. I was unable to stay for the encore but leaving a show that good leaves one with a strong feeling of completeness. They are the best of the best of the best. Passionate, compelling and not any less potent as when this group first landed on this planet louder than a bomb.
Though it’s worth pointing out that Public Enemy most definitely do not make music that you can just have a good time to. Let’s not forget what they’re is really all about: black power, questioning everything from the media to your own parents, equality and justice, suspecting the government, and so much more. Innovators musically, lyrically, methodically, ideologically and culturally. And no matter how entertaining people find Flavor Flav or whatever, that shouldn’t override what this group really stands for.