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For all its forcefulness on record, hip-hop in a live context is too often reduced to “wave your hands in the air” banality, so the chance to see rap’s great firebrand collective perform in a small studio space before an audience of just 125 held great promise. But how would the New Yorkers’ brand of angry, politicised rap translate to the leafy west London suburb of Chiswick and an audience of VIPs and “Super VIPs”?
First signs weren’t good. The small crowd, some stuck behind glass in a “control room”, struggled to satisfy the announcer’s demands to “make some noise” while he reminded them that “this is a hip-hop show y’all”, at first encouragingly, then plaintively. He needn’t have worried. All doubts were dispelled once Public Enemy’s de facto leader Chuck D took the stage, launching into “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” from their 1986 debut album.
Scanning the space, he immediately got the measure of the crowd: “Makes me feel like I’m Robert Plant – BBC, 1971 . . . You probably paid $6,000 for this shit.” The audience instantly relaxed, even the camo-clad sentinels who flanked the stage cracking a smile as D introduced the band who these days augment the DJ’s twin turntables. But D didn’t make his name as an amiable raconteur and he switched back into rabble-rousing mode with “Welcome to the Terrordome”, his flow as forceful as ever, effortlessly riding the chopped-up funk breaks that the band impeccably recreated.
Still, there was something missing: the man with the clock. Even at 55, Flavor Flav lives up to his job description as “hype man”, bringing his leery gold-toothed grin and an antic intensity to the stage that lit up the crowd further. But he also introduced a cold dose of contemporary reality, dedicating the show to victims of conflict in Ukraine, Gaza and Nigeria. “And those people up there,” added D, looking not heavenwards but at the onlookers beyond the glass. “What have you got up there? Air conditioning? Hors d’oeuvres?” he asked, and, unable to resist a dig at the bling culture rap has succumbed to since Public Enemy’s heyday, added: “Is P Diddy up there too?”
While some of his angry contemporaries such as Ice Cube and Ice-T have forged careers in TV and films, and even Flavor has become an unlikely reality TV star, D has never shifted focus, still railing against racism and corruption on hard-hitting albums, two released in 2012 alone. His freestyling over Flavor’s surprise drumming, and an a cappella battle between the two were among highlights. However, as the show stretched past the two-hour mark there were missteps. Largely they involved Flavor: his call for ladies to join him on stage sent most scurrying, and a heartfelt tribute to Michael Jackson degenerated into a violent diatribe against the late singer’s doctor.
Throughout these digressions D maintained a dignified distance offstage. Returning, he surveyed the flagging crowd with fatherly disapproval. Some were clearly fighting fatigue when “Fight the Power” threw them into re-energised raptures. It’s clear that hip-hop’s longest-serving street preacher isn’t ready to take up a cosy sinecure just yet.
Photograph: Keith Hammond GigShooters.com 2013