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Monday, January 17, 2011

Saturday Night: Public Enemy Rocks the Pulpit at Yoshi's

Posted By on Mon, Jan 17, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Pics from Friday night's Public Enemy show by Richard Haick
  • Pics from Friday night's Public Enemy show by Richard Haick
Public Enemy

January 15, 2011

@ Yoshi's SF

Better than: VH1 marathons.

Twenty-four years, 12 albums, and 71 tours into the hip-hop evangelism project known on multiple levels as Public Enemy, there's little left to be said about the resonance of the group's songbook and the significance of social landscape-altering songs such as "Fight the Power," "The Terror Dome," and "Don't Believe the Hype." This outfit's music has inspired a generation of politically charged rappers and artists working in various mediums and styles -- all with a similar ideology.

This weekend at Yoshi's -- an increasingly hip-hop-focused venue, but also a vibrant epicenter of the S.F. jazz scene -- Public Enemy squeezed four shows into two nights, running through a Cliff's Notes version of its catalog. The emphasis was on the hits in this shortened format, but what really struck a chord Saturday night were long-winded sermons delivered by the two Public Enemies-In-Chief: Chuck D and Flavor Flav.

  • Richard Haick
More Howard Zinn than Jay-Z, Chuck D checks all sense of subtlety at the door when he holds court. Dude can still flow, but when his full band took the occasional break Saturday night in the intimate Fillmore club, the avuncular Chuck was most comfortable and assured. He preached at length. He spoke about the importance of supporting the local arts and music community (of which he is professorially aware, discussing Bay Area musical demigods such as Too Short, Easy E, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, and beyond) and also addressed immigration, self-empowerment, and civil rights. He let his clothing do some of the talking, too, revealing mid-set a T-shirt that read "Justice for Oscar Grant." With Chuck D, the lines in the sand are never obscured.

  • Richard Haick
D's no stranger to the soap box, either, having been a vocal champion of civil rights both in and outside Public Enemy's music since the group first cut its debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show back in 1987. And while his message is still as relevant today as it was then, it remains unclear to whom the Public Enemy torch will be passed. Rap music is mostly a well-paying game to the stars of the genre (whom Chuck D referred to as "rats"), and while there is plenty of social commentary in the studio and on the streets in 2011, few others have the pointed edge and argumentative clarity of Chuck D.

  • Richard Haick
Of course, there is another side to the Public Enemy campaign team. Chuck D said he guessed that characters such as Flavor Flav are part and parcel to every black family (or every race, he clarified): the eccentric who keeps us on our toes. The flavor is spicy, odd and usually lovable. Flav reminded us early in the set of his basic cable-aided world dominance. He's much the same character he was when MTV first introduced viewers to the scrawny guy with the oversized clock necklace, winning hearts while Chuck D won minds, and literally shaking hands with fans from the start of the show to the end, as if he intended to run for President of VH1.

  • Richard Haick
When he wasn't telling stories -- the best of which concerned late radio disc jockey Mr. Magic, whose on-air diss of Public Enemy was recorded by Flavor Flav and played back on the track "Cold Lampin' with Flavor" (Flav still insists Mr. Magic "shouldn't have done that") -- he was showing off the multi-instrumentalist within, bouncing on the bass and filling in on the drums. Towards show's end, he took the pulpit, decrying the influence of racism and separatism with a stream of profanity.

  • Richard Haick
What really defines the current incarnation of Public Enemy is the live band, or rhythm section, or unit, or whatever Chuck D called it. Bass legend Davy DMX and showboatin' spinner DJ Lord were two of ten hired guns onstage (all appropriately introduced with Bone Thugs-esque gunshot salutes). The stage was crowded, and so was the sound. Power in numbers works in politics, but not always over the PA, especially when the lyrical genius is the main driver of the music.

  • Richard Haick
After a merry-go-round procession of solos, an aside about the state of the state of Arizona -- "it's not the people who are fucked up, it's the governmental policy" -- Chuck D gave one last shout out to the man of the day, MLK Jr., a source of influence as profound as any other in their music, as far as we can tell. That lineage is direct and clear, but the future of muckraking rap seems murky at best. Kanye? Das Racist? Lil Wayne?

TBD, for now.

  • Richard Haick

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