PUBLIC ENEMY Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age (Def Jam/Island)

"I’m really glad Public Enemy refused to work with us. I wouldn’t want them wasting time on a poxy white band like us. They’re way above anything we could ever do". So said Nicky Wire, of self-confessed ‘poxy white band’ the Manic Street Preachers, a few years ago, and how right he is. No matter how the tabloids and bodies such as the PMRC may try to marginalise rap by magnifying its misogynistic and violent elements, Public Enemy are continuing to successfully fight the powers and prejudices that be, both on political and cultural levels (collaborations with Anthrax? Certainly!)

Despite having enough of piledriver sonic attitude to make Metallica sound like a Field Mice covers band, the lyrical concerns - apart from the ever-present pro-black stance - are strongly anti-drugs, anti-drink, even, shaded with more contemporary concerns such as carjacking and the information culture on the literally titled "Harry Allen’s Interactive Super Highway Phone Call To Chuck D", chunks of which appeared on BBC2’s recent documentary "The Music Biz". As usual the ‘songs’ are built from deftly filched soul samples, overlaid with Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s inflammatory rapping and monstrous drum ‘n’ bass lines - kind of like "What’s Going On" with an agenda. "Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age" is PE at their heaviest (you could probably use "What Side You On?" to build roads with!) and cleverest: not a chink in their musical armoury, not a flaw in their beliefs. Suddenly Colin Larkin’s decision to include as many as fifty rap albums in his "All Time Top 1000 Albums" book due to "its importance in the 90s" doesn’t look so puzzling.

PUBLIC ENEMY He Got Game (Def Jam)

Another rap band proffering their first album in ages, "He Got Game" is also the soundtrack to the new Spike Lee film, which postulates that the antics of the NBA in trading young basketball players’ contracts are akin to a modern day slave trade. Hmmm. Anyhow, PE provide fine musical support after their uncharacteristic four-year layoff, with a sound that’s less cluttered than 1994’s frenetic, bravado-on-the-edge-of-panic "Muse Sick ‘N’ Hour Mess Age". They seem to be simultaneously looking forward - collaborating with other rappers such as KRS-One and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Masta Killa - and backward, rifling riffs from Buffalo Springfield (plus a cameo from a real live Stephen Stills), The Who and John Barry. It’s a cleaner, harder sound, almost as if they’d got Steve Albini in as producer, and while it possibly hasn’t reached its ultimate exposition here, dictates of narrative getting in the way perhaps, it bodes well for their next album, due before the end of the year.

PUBLIC ENEMY There's A Poison Goin On… (PIAS Recordings)

Public Enemy are one of the most important (if not the most important) rap acts ever to have come together under the auspices of two turntables and a microphone. Their back catalogue is stacked with achievement, from the "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back" and "Fear Of A Black Planet" albums, never far away whenever two or three are gathered together in discussion of classic long players, to their genre-warping collaboration with Anthrax on "Bring The Noise". But recently the trail seems to have gone cold: the last few years have brought only Chuck D's disappointing solo debut "Autobiography Of Mistachuck" and the lukewarm Spike Lee soundtrack "He Got Game". "There's A Poison Goin On…" arrives on vinyl some time after its debut on the internet, a typically forward-thinking Public Enemy act that hastened their departure from long-time label Def Jam.

With due deference to the old adage of books and covers, the first thing I noticed about this album was its scrappy appearance. The NME had already logged the misspelling of millennium in the text, but even the familiar PE logo looked as if it had been knocked up by a four-year-old experiencing the delights of potato painting for the first time. It all seems symptomatic of a lack of pride in proceedings, which doesn't sound like the Public Enemy I know and respect.

And neither does "There's A Poison Goin On…", unfortunately. What it does sound is old, tired, bewildered. Chuck D is undoubtedly still the prophet of rage he was as a younger man, but there seems to be no clarity in how it's channelled here, added to which there are musical moments that sound like the rap equivalent of Debbie Harry's dancing at Glastonbury (check out "What What" or "Kevorkian" for further evidence). And this is just taking "There's A Poison Goin On…" on its own terms: place it in the same room as something as diamond hard-hitting as the last Wu-Tang Clan album and it really does start to smell bad.

The most interesting part of this album is the brief sample of Hendrix's "Little Wing" that flits through the fade-out of "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???" The remaining 52 minutes, however, are a real test of endurance, the kind of record you really have to steel yourself to listen to. And it’s not even as though Public Enemy albums haven't been hard going before now (check out "Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black"). But there's always been something there to remind you how great they are - the way buildings quake and tremble before the metal might of that Anthrax collaboration, for example, or the grim humour and ricocheting rhythm of "Get The F--- Outta Dodge". "There's A Poison Goin On…", sad to say, has none of it.

PUBLIC ENEMY The Ritz, Manchester 7 September 2011


I remember thinking to myself whilst waiting in patient anticipation of what the ticket described as “Public Enemy performing FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET” that it would be enough if they just showed up, played the album – for me still a deathless hip-hop classic two decades after its release -in its entirety and left. Of course, that’s more, and less, than what actually happens.


There’s something of a pantomime element to a 21st century Public Enemy show, as a listen to “Revolverlution Tour 2003”, the live album recorded just down the road from here at the Academy, will attest. Maybe ‘twas ever thus, both with hip-hop shows in general and Public Enemy in particular, but having never seen them in concert in their prime I’ll never know. Certainly it seems admirable on the face of it that, besides turntablist DJ Lord, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are accompanied by a live band (a bassist, a drummer and a decidedly Hendrix-influenced guitarist) but the representatives of Security Of The First World, the band’s military-choreography complex, present, dressed in Mao-chic grey uniforms, appear to spend much of the set trying hard not to get in the way, rather than preparing to take a bullet for their paymasters. And whilst proceedings begin as planned, the band performing an opening salvo of songs from “Fear Of A Black Planet”, Chuck D soon announces that he’s become bored with the concept and steers the setlist off into an investigation of other areas of their back catalogue, majoring on “Black Planet”’s nearest neighbour, 1988’s feted “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back”.


Now, this puts the reviewer into something of a quandary. Certainly it’s nowhere near as misleading as my last Van Morrison gig, which, billed by the venue as “featuring songs from “Astral Weeks”” naturally included nothing from that fabulous album. Yet Public Enemy are and have always functioned as an ethical and moral compass for troubled times, and some might feel short-changed that they’ve reneged on a contract clearly stated on the ticket. In the event they play about half the album through the course of the evening, but would you be satisfied by, for example, a Mahler gig in which the conductor elected to just play the first and third movements of the advertised symphony?


Such considerations aside, a not inconsiderable proportion of the evening is given over to Flavor Flav’s grandstanding, the rapper soloing on bass and drums and demonstrating his vocal dexterity in a Freddie Mercury-style bake-off with the crowd by extending one of his trademark “Yeah, boys!” towards infinity. He also goes walkabout on the balcony during one song, pressing the flesh with the crowd (patting me on the shoulder in the process!) and closes the show with a lengthy peace-positive sermon. It’s also probably the first gig I’ve been to where the audience are issued with a verbal code of conduct (chiefly 1) one love, 2) no violence and 3) no throwing shit on the stage) and given prizes for identifying what song the band are playing.


Quite unlike any other show I’ve been to, Public Enemy can’t be faulted for their passion and commitment, if not for their ability to read a setlist. But much of their good work is dragged down by lousy, distorted sound, in which Chuck D’s pointed polemics are buried under a landslide of industrial rap-metal. It’s an experience, definitely, but not really a musical one.