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The Navigator

Can rap group return from reality to relevance?

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published March 23, 2007


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There once was a time when Public Enemy was not only relevant, but revolutionary.

When the group's ferocious sonic assault was matched only by its incendiary lyrical assault.

When Flavor Flav wasn't a reality show star or, depending on your perspective, buffoon and Chuck D was the most dangerous man in rap music - perhaps even all popular music at the time.

A lot has changed since PE's late-1980s, early-'90s heyday. And when Chuck and Flav take the stage tonight at St. Petersburg's Jannus Landing, I won't expect a revolution.

Actually, I don't know what to expect. But I can't wait to find out.

I remember hearing all the hype about the PE when I was fresh out of high school almost, I'm pained to say, 20 years ago. The album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was all the rage among pop music critics.

Flav rapped the lead on the single Don't Believe the Hype, and on my first listen to Millions, I agreed with him. What was this noise, these repetitive, nonmelodic samples, sirens and whistles and alarms? What in the name of Kool Moe Dee was going on here? Granted, even before I got into Millions, I was mesmerized by the voice of Chuck D (real name: Carlton Ridenhour). So deep, so powerful, so rich and so impossibly authoritative.

There were other rappers in the day with a great flow, but no one had that command. And while hit rap groups like Run-DMC and Beastie Boys were rapping about Adidas and fighting for their right to party, Chuck was talking about a revolution.

The universal theme, almost without exception, was about the challenges facing the black community. But individual tracks on Millions and its classic followup, Fear of a Black Planet, explored seemingly every one of the myriad variations on that theme.

Politics. Religion. Civil rights. Class warfare. Relationships. Black leadership. White leadership. Economics. Radio play- lists. Prison. Emergency services. Media bias. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Name a topic, Chuck was on it.

It took a lot of listenings to discover Millions' aural delights. Luckily, I had a lot of pizzas to deliver through college. And a lot of years. I was on the four-year plan: I was a freshman for four, a sophomore for four ...

(And yes, I'm lame, I have used that joke before. But I really like it. And it's true.)

As a white kid who spent his adolescence in lily-white (at least at the time) Spring Hill, about an hour north of Tampa, I knew exactly nothing about most black experiences. I couldn't relate.

But Chuck made me care. And when the melodies finally revealed themselves over repeated listenings, everything came into focus:

The power of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos. The funk of Night of the Living Baseheads. The rock of She Watch Channel Zero. The near-danceability of Prophets of Rage. And the just-plain-perfection of Bring the Noise. PE's production team, the Bomb Squad, was making music out of pure noise.

I wore through Millions on cassette (yes, I'm old) twice. Granted, I also had it on CD (I'm not that old), but I didn't have a CD player in my car then (okay, I guess I'm pretty old).

Of course, I picked up Fear of a Black Planet the day it came out in 1990 and wore through it just as quickly. From Brothers Gonna Work it Out to Fight the Power, it's brilliant.

The next disc, Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black, wasn't the equal of its predecessors, but it still kicked the stuffing out of just about anything else out at the time.

In 1992, I saw PE live for the only time - until tonight. They were an opener, on a U2 tour. (And if that sounds strange now, imagine how odd it was then.)

So I saw them in the rain, in the old Tampa Stadium, from something like a million miles away. They sounded okay, but it was a little hard to get into the set.

Then, everything changed. PE went on hiatus. Flav (real name: William Drayton) was battling drug addiction and getting into all sorts of legal trouble. The next disc, 1994's Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, not only is one of the worst album titles ever (step aside, Fiona Apple), but just wasn't very good.

Since then, PE as a band has popped with some music here and there, though it really hasn't had anything resembling a hit since He Got Game in 1998.

Chuck has written books and lectured, and hosts a show, Unfiltered, on Air America Radio. And of course Flav, to the chagrin of Chuck and many others, has become a huge reality TV star.

From The Surreal Life to Strange Love to Flavor of Love, a whole new generation knows the clock-wearing rapper entirely separate from his PE roots.

All of which makes me wonder what we'll get tonight at Jannus Landing, and how many patrons will attend just to watch Flav be wacky. I'm hoping many more come out to see one of the best rap groups of all time.

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.

 

. if you go

Public Enemy with X-Clan

8 tonight (doors open at 7); Jannus Landing, St. Petersburg. Tickets $28.

 

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 07:53:58]


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