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LIVE: Public Enemy (Pitchfork ’08)

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Chuck D.JPG

Because I grew up on Public Enemy, and because It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all-time, I was both thrilled out of my mind and scared to death to see P.E. perform it in its entirety.

(left: Nothing like taking pictures of Chuck D on the jumbo-tron when the lighting gets bad.)

On one hand, if done correctly, by letting the Bomb Squad’s instrumentals breath freely on the turntables and hoping that Chuck D and Flavor Flav could co-exist in perfect harmony, this performance could be downright legendary. On the other hand, if Public Enemy’s backing band decided to overpower the turntable mix–and if Flavor Flav was given too much free time to self-promote on the microphone–this performance could be a car wreck. Why such cynicism? Well, let’s just say I saw a TV show once where Bridgette Nielson joined Public Enemy on stage and it almost made me weep.

Though Public Enemy’s live backing band was present, they did a good job (most of the night) of letting the legendary beats on It Takes A Nation do all the talking. I was overjoyed when the set began with “Countdown To Armageddon”–English announcer guy, sirens, the works! I was also excited when P.E. played the album version of “Bring The Noise,” rather than the Anthrax remake appearing on Apocalypse ’91 (you’d think with a live band they’d be tempted to do the latter).

The performance of “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” was one of my favorites of the night, and though Terminator wasn’t on hand, Chuck D did preface the track by dedicating it to their “Hall-of-Fame DJ who retired in 1998.” Another stand out, probably just because P.E. doesn’t break it out that often, was “Night Of the Living Baseheads.” Hearing Chuck D say “BASS!” never gets old.

To my surprise, Public Enemy was very faithful to It Takes A Nation, everything from the intros and outros to the interlude tracks like “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” and “Security of the First World,” where the S1W’s stood center stage and performed a military step routine.

Throughout the set Chuck D was also treating the crowd with some Public Enemy trivia. I almost didn’t believe it, but before “Caught, Can We Get A Witness,” Chuck D said that this was the first time P.E. ever performed the song live in America. Before “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor,” Flavor Flav explained that the sample at the beginning of the song was of New York City DJ, Mr. Magic, who called the group a bunch of suckers after playing P.E.’s first single on his radio show. “Cold Lampin'” was a response to Mr. Magic’s diss. Later in the set, Chuck brought out Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad and told the following story:

It Takes A Nation was an album created for tape, hence Public Enemy crafted two sides. Up until the album was being mastered, the first side was going to be the second side and vice versa, meaning the album’s opener was originally going to be “Show Em Whatcha Got,” with the second side beginning with “Countdown to Armageddon” and ending with “Caught, Can We Get A Witness.” At the last second Shocklee decided the album needed a little more bass and speed at the beginning, so he swapped sides.

Oddly enough, the only time Public Enemy didn’t stay consistent with the studio recording of It Takes A Nation was during its signature track, “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.” Without that classic-sounding piano loop and back-masked record beat, the live drums and bass just didn’t stack up. The only rock-influenced song on the album, “She Watch Channel Zero?!,” curiously didn’t use Public Enemy’s backing band. Hmm?


For the most part Flavor Flav behaved himself tonight (at least during the It Takes A Nation performance). There was only one time during the set when he talked about being the #1 reality TV star in the world. After hearing some boos from the crowd, Flavor got defensive and angrily asked the crowd why they weren’t happy for his success. I don’t think the crowd was discrediting Flav’s accomplishments, but I believe the heckles were unleashed because some of the reality shows he’s been a part of could ironically be the same type of programs rallied against in P.E.’s “She Watch Channel Zero?!” (Falls a fool–for some dude–on a tube.)

(above: Flavor Flav only talked about being a reality TV star once tonight, he did however, plug his new sitcom a handful of times.)

All in all though, I thoroughly enjoyed Public Enemy’s performance of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I even enjoyed their surprise encore for a brief moment.

Following “Party For Your Right To Fight,” Chuck D told the crowd, “And after that, we wrote this.” P.E. then launched into Fear Of A Black Planet’s “Welcome To The Terrordome,” followed by Apocalypse 91’s “Shut ‘Em Down,” which would have been a perfect and logical end to the evening, but Public Enemy, as they’ve been known to do with their live show over the last 10 years, don’t know when to call it a night.

Public Enemy, claiming to have only a few more minutes of set-time left, ended with:

“He Got Game”
“911 Is a Joke”
“Harder Than You Think” (a more recent P.E. offering)
“Can’t Truss It”
“Public Enemy No. 1”
A five-minute DJ Lord solo
Flavor Flav drum solo (Neil Peart he is not)
“Fight the Power” (extended soul jam version)
A lengthy self-empowerment speech delivered by, you guessed it, Flavor Flav

Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing P.E.’s back catalog, but on a night celebrating the 20th anniversary of It Takes A Nation, I just wanted to savor the magic they delivered earlier in the evening.

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But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 33: Twins

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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