Friday: Public Enemy Loosens Up Its Songs at the Regency, Calls Out V-Nasty and Mistah Fab
Public Enemy at the Regency Ballroom Friday.
August 19, 2011
Better than: Watching old VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps.
Early this year, the hip-hop legends of Public Enemy got plenty of love from the Bay Area during two sold-out nights at Yoshi's in San Francisco that were packed with sweaty fans throwing down to a parade of golden-era classics. The question raised by Friday night's Regency Ballroom show: Could the crew pull off the same kind of magic at a far less intimate venue?
Delivering what Chuck D at one point termed "a loose show" -- versus the hyper-condensed sets that Yoshi's audiences experienced back in January -- Public Enemy relied as much on rock guitar riffs as it did big beats Friday, as the group stretched out for a more than two-hour performance.
After a brief warm-up set from DJ Lord got the crowd energized, Chuck D emerged with three-piece live band, two S1W dancers, and longtime support member Professor Griff to the familiar sound of an air-raid siren. Ripping through debut album gem "Public Enemy #1" and a wah-wah powered "Prophets of Rage," Chuck and Griff raced across the stage while tossing their mics back and forth mid-stride and mid-verse.
Despite that intensity, the biggest early cheer of concert came during "Can't Truss It," as Flavor Flav finally made his first appearance. Though he sometimes seemed as much of a hype man for himself as for the group -- thanking the audience for making him "the number one reality television star of the decade" and pausing several times to flog his new autobiography -- Flav still had the crowd behind him during spotlight songs "911 is a Joke" and "Cold Lampin' with Flavor."
Luckily, Chuck D balanced out Flav's self-promotion with a number of pointed comments. He took local MC Mistah Fab to task for defending Kreayshawn cohort V Nasty's use of the N-word, railed against superstar rap materialism amid economic crisis, and brought former Black Panther Party head Elaine Brown onstage to salute her as a longtime hero.
While the Regency was far from full, with the floor at about two-thirds capacity, the enthusiastic response made up for the crowd size, as the group was able to forgo the medley approach of its Yoshi's shows with more full-song performances. Fiery takes on classics like "Night of the Living Baseheads" and "Louder Than a Bomb" inspired mass pogoing that bowed the ballroom floor.
The live band reconfigured several key tracks in ways that may have disappointed some hardcore hip-hop fans. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" lost its menacing piano-driven sample in favor of a more Rage Against the Machine-style approach that brought guitarist Khari Wynn to the fore, while "Power to the People" segued into a riff-heavy interpolation of Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie."
The rock quotient stayed high for more recent tune "Black Is Back" (a Run-DMC-style twist on AC/DC's "Back In Black"), and even DJ Lord's spotlight found him juggling the White Stripes ("Seven Nation Army") and Nirvana ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"). But purists got theirs with a pared-down version of "Timebomb," featuring Flav on drums backing Chuck with a tough beat. Faithful takes on "Shut 'Em Down," "Rebel Without A Pause," and "By the Time I Get To Arizona" built the show to an ferocious climax, with a closing "Fight the Power" that morphed seamlessly into the Isley Brothers' song (of the same name) that inspired the Public Enemy anthem.
Personal bias: The lyrics to most of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet remain tattooed to my brain from heavy rotation in college.
For love of the fans: Chuck D was tireless when it came to showing appreciation to those in attendance, using every moment of downtime to sign autographs, shake hands, and take photos with cameras and cell phones. He even coerced the autograph-shy Flav to sign a battered 12-inch sleeve and brought the lucky fan onstage to deliver "media assassin" Harry Allen's line during "Don't Believe the Hype."