Public Enemy: Leeds O2 Academy – live reviewPhoto above and all others on this page © Saffron Tree

Public Enemy

Leeds O2 Academy

31st July 2014

A bludgeoned Leeds crowd is left in no doubt that if you want intelligent, politically-charged rap that’s louder than the apocolypse, then look no further than Public Enemy.

Raised on a diet of Boney M and ABBA it took 1987’s RAP Trax compilation (“20 Mega Rap & House Trax”) to awaken something inside myself, an awakening to a chapter that has in effect become my life ever since, a passion for music. Though the compilation album may now be long forgotten its legacy, for me at least, remains. Buried in the middle of Side One of the compilation was a song entitled Don’t Believe the Hype by Public Enemy. At the time I didn’t know what hype meant; I only knew that the looped beats, squeaks, hard rhyming and THAT chorus (if you can call it a chorus) would in effect become my Year Zero as far as developing an enthusiasm for quality music.

Naively growing up in the conservative white middle class town of Harrogate, Public Enemy opened my mind to the politics and inequalities that not only a large proportion of black people in America had been experiencing for hundreds of years but the difficulties other ethnic groups have been forced to endure as well. We may be thirty years further down the line, the game of life may have altered somewhat but the twisted rules of inequality continue to exist contrary to what we are led to believe. It’s no exaggeration when I say that I and many others learned more about the state of the world from Public Enemy than we did from any of our school teachers.

Often misunderstood, misquoted and perhaps even sometimes somewhat misguided Public Enemy has rightfully and deservedly earned its place in the annals of popular music. Once described as being “The Most Dangerous Band in the World”, the group fronted by Chuck D, Flavour Flav and Professor Griff took on the establishment and marched their way around the world leaving pandemonium and controversy in their wake. Production duties by the legendary Bomb Squad provided a cacophony of noise that appalled, shocked and enthralled its audience in equal measure.  The true spirit of the Black Panthers fused with The Clash provided the world with some of the most ground-breaking and fierce music ever made.

Public Enemy: Leeds O2 Academy – live reviewThe video for the 1989 single, Fight the Power, is often cited as being the greatest hip-hop video of all time, the song synonymous with the acclaimed Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. Public Enemy was also the first band to truly embrace the internet as a medium for music, the forward thinking band were having conversations with Harry Allen (hip-hop activist and media assassin) as far back as 1993 on how the internet was going to change the playing field forever – is the world’s longest running band website.

That Public Enemy managed to appeal to a wide spectrum of fans and genres and worked alongside diverse artists such as Anthrax and U2 on the Achtung Baby tour showed the respect they amassed in a relatively short space of time. Rap music was never meant to be louder than war let alone the apocalypse, Public Enemy soon remedied that.

That the band (or ‘Banned’ as Chuck D has previously dubbed Public Enemy) is still in full flow in 2014 playing worldwide major festivals and tour dates is impressive to say the least. The majority of their peers may have crashed and burned but Public Enemy are still fighting the power and articulating the disgruntled thoughts of the masses in what is still, in effect, a world affected by isms.

So, the UK has been treated to a number of live dates this summer by the legendary crew, including outings in Sheffield and Stockton. The band has played Leeds a handful of times (something Chuck D appeared to forget as he made reference to not playing Leeds before during the evening of the gig). A show I attended in2003 featured an extraordinarily long set at the Stylus Bar, a venue buried deep beneath the Leeds University Refectory which resulted in me having to leave when the band were still onstage engaging with the audience long after the music had ended.

The Leeds O2 Academy is a fair sized venue which has played host to all and sundry over the years and prior to the main event the eager audience was treated to a number of DJs and MCs who managed to crank up the atmosphere with some good natured rap battles. Advertised as a 20:45 start the arrival of Public Enemy was delayed by some 20 minutes until the house lights dropped and the 1991 track Lost at Birth with its shuddering beat and Four Minute Warning sirens signalled that “THE FUTURE HOLDS NOTHING ELSE BUT CONFRONTATION”. It was blatantly clear to the uneducated that this was a million light years away from any Will Smith track.

The band members prowled the stage like caged animals; the indomitable presence of Chuck D who is still clearly one of the most recognisable people in the world of not only rap but music in general still has a voice that can make the ground shake; a deep booming voice that resonates with sincerity. Public Enemy Number 1, a song from their first album Yo! Bum the Show signalled the arrival of Flavour Flav as he bounded onto the stage like a child on excess sugar to a rapturous reception, his trademark clock hidden underneath his tracksuit top. It wouldn’t be until later in the show that the clock would be revealed to a mighty roar of approval.

After a few songs one of the stage handlers brought a young man on to the stage called Jairobi, he couldn’t have been any older than fourteen and had been bravely hanging onto the barrier from the off. Jairobi was given the honour of contributing towards the “Harry Allen, I gotta ask him…” part of Don’t Believe The Hype. Clearly nervous, the young man performed the task in hand and spoke clearly into the mic stating “Don’t believe the hype!” It succeeded in increasing the intensity of the show, a brilliant and somewhat touching moment that hopefully Jairobi and his parents or whoever was with him will cherish for a long time. The fact that he remained on stage for the rest of the show gave him the best seat in the house (although no seat was actually involved, obviously he was stood up!).

The band scythed their way through their extensive back catalogue and not to be seen solely as a heritage act for the curious and faithful, they played more contemporary material which certainly managed to stand toe to toe with the rest of their output. Well known tracks such as Don’t Believe The Hype, Welcome To The Terrordome, Bring The Noise, Can’t Truss It, 911 Is A Joke, He Got Game, Shut ‘Em Down and Fight The Power were delivered with the aplomb that only the grandmasters of rock and funk could summon up. Public Enemy has clearly transcended rap and morphed into a timeless R’N’B juggernaut (rhythm and blues, not rap and bullshit).

So, though low on jokes and comic banter there was at times, dare I say it, almost a goofy vibe to the evening, the source of which was evidently Flav with his live wire dance moves and inimitable presence. Chuck D clearly provides the perfect Ying to Flav’s Yang, both conscious and subconsciously bouncing off one another. Flav’s onstage persona is the perfect counterbalance to the imposing yet warm and affable Chuck D whilst members of the S1W’s (Security of the First World) managed to keep the audience in check with their military garb and watchful eye. Public Enemy are probably the only band in the world that insists on having their own security on stage instead of beneath its lip.

It may come as a surprise to some but Flav is a more than accomplished musician and he demonstrated some of his abilities by dropping lines on the bass guitar as well as taking on the role of the funky drummer by clattering away on the kit; DJ Lord transformed the O2 into a huge house party with his world class scratching and mixing. During his time with the band he has left his own indelible mark and, although, he may have been stood on the stage riser at the back his contribution to the show’s aesthetic was perfect.

Public Enemy: Leeds O2 Academy – live review

A swarm of females from the audience cheekily graced the stage during Shake Your Booty from the 1998 soundtrack to another Spike Lee film,  He Got Game. Though not quite Strictly Come Dancing some hard core manoeuvres were on display with Flav slinking his way through the excited throng. Flav devoted some time expressing his love for the late Michael Jackson and adorned a t-shirt that was emblazoned with an image of the two of them together. Though the song performed in honour of Michael was sound enough the lack of a massive round of applause at the end perhaps indicated the confusion of the audience at this overly heart on sleeve display of emotion.

The atmosphere throughout the evening was good natured even with all the pushing and shoving during the more raucous numbers. The band clearly fed from the energy of the audience and vice versa, you would think that after several thousand shows that some of the enthusiasm they had earlier in their career would have diminished a tad but it’s fair to say that the complete opposite has happened.

As a band with a political conscience and agenda the evening was clearly peppered with comment and reflection, world affairs were raised throughout the night with much focus upon some of the recent atrocities that have taken place in Ukraine and Gaza, but Flav on several occasions reminded the audience of news that has perhaps slipped off the radar such as the 200 Nigerian girls recently kidnapped in the name of money and extremism.

The days when the onstage presence of Public Enemy solely consisted of shock, horror and intimidation have passed but this does not mean that the band is any less imposing. A wall of sound was created with each stage member acting as an integral part of the show right down to S1W James Bomb dropping down and giving us 20 press ups. It was like a military boot camp soundtracked by “music’s worst nightmare”, as the legendary music producers The Bomb Squad described the unmistakable sound created. Much respect to the rest of the band including the well-respected Brian Hardgrove, Khari Wynn et al who proved to be the backbone Public Enemy.

The two and a half hour long set concluded with the surprise UK No. 4 hit Harder Than You Think, an uplifting, Shirley Bassey sampling track that soundtracked the awesome spectacle that was the 2012 Paralympics. It’s clearly now become a key track for the band and  funny how a song from the past can suddenly catapult them back into the wider public arena but that’s exactly what Harder Than You Think has done, in the UK at least. Other territories will clearly have their own key track, this is ours.

A long set that started later than expected and finished way later than advertised resulted in a performance that was heavy on value for money. Why the show was not a total sell out is a mystery. Throughout the night the sound to the right of the stage was at times rather muddy, the bass simply overpowering the venue’s sound system. Some bands just need to be on a big stage that can carry the copious layers of noise. I’d be happy to wager that Public Enemy will still be with us in another 20 years and still challenging thought processes as well as fighting the power in whatever guise it takes. Public Enemy, not only still the CNN of the black community but a voice far wider than that, the voice of a world that’s clearly on the brink of a very serious and worrying nervous breakdown. Consider yourselves warned.


You can discover more from this lot at their website here:

They’re on Twitter as: @MrChuckD@FlavorFlav and @DjLordofficial and Facebook.

All words by Sean Hornby and all photos ©  Saffron Tree. Sean can be found on Twitter and his Louder Than War archive is here.

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Sean Hornby is a north Leeds based nurse and music fan. His first ever gig was Carter USM at the York Barbican in 1992. His book (written under the pseudonym of John Ormond) ‘Destiny Calling: Twenty Years Living With James’ was released in 2012.


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