At the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday, May 27
If there were any lingering doubts about Public Enemy being a band that’s all about its fans, they were erased at the tail end of Thursday’s marathon show at the Commodore.
The New York City hip-hop legends had just spent over two hours powering their way through their iconic 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet. Having blown the roof off the club for large stretches of that time, Public Enemy could have been forgiven for retreating to the tour bus to tally up the merch-table take. Instead, we got Flavor Flav—who left no question on this night that he’s more than a Chuck D sidekick—standing at centre stage, holding court.
The show was over by that point; in the background, the group’s touring DJ Keith Shocklee was busy disconnecting turntable and laptop cables. Nonetheless, rap’s most successful reality-TV star stood there delivering an extended monologue on the evils of racism, the power of peace and love, and—shamelessly—the brilliance of himself. And then, after a good 10-minute spiel, he gave his fans a little more, addressing the many disciples who had shown up to at Commodore wearing giant clocks around their necks. Even with the crowd filing out, Flavor Flav made an announcement. “Y’all got some markers?” he asked. “I can sign those clocks.”
To the surprise of no one, he had plenty of takers. After all, Public Enemy was a full-on love-in, with both Chuck D and Flavor Flav spending as much time slapping hands with thrilled fans as they did rapping.
Things were off the charts right from the moment a roadie strode to centre stage carrying a vintage boom box the size of a 1976 Oldsmobile. Making a grand show, he produced a cassette copy of Fear of a Black Planet, popped it into the ghetto blaster, and cranked the volume. All hell then broke loose, with the crowd giving Public Enemy the kind of response most bands are lucky to get for their encores.
The hits came fast and furious, with a bludgeoning “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” followed by a dance-floor-detonating “911 Is a Joke” followed by a massive and menacing “Welcome to the Terrordome”. Well into its current tour, Public Enemy was beyond well-oiled, with Shocklee and the group’s duelling MCs backed by a tighter-than-tight bass-drums-and-guitar combo.
Sporting gleaming white sneakers, a camouflage T-shirt, and a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap, Chuck D had zero interest in going through the motions. The 49-year-old barrelled through “Burn Hollywood Burn” like a pissed-off drill sergeant and proved himself capable of bringing the funk during a slow-burn take on “Who Stole the Soul?”.
He also showed why he’s revered as one of the smartest guys in hip-hop. Sermons of the night took aim at Americans who couldn’t find Canada on a map if they tried and cultural imperialism that’s been going on since the days of Christopher Columbus. Chuck D’s knowledge of ancient history didn’t stop with the discovery of America; at one point he paid tribute to the founders of Canadian hip-hop, giving shout-outs to Maestro Fresh-Wes, Choclair, and the Swollen Members.
Disappointments? Well, no surprise considering this was the Fear of a Black Planet anniversary tour, there was no “Night of the Living Baseheads”, and there were no late-period should-have-been-hits like “Harder Than You Think”. And, as much as Chuck D made a point of the group giving fans more bang for their buck than 99 percent of touring acts, there’s no denying the energy flagged a couple of times during the set.
But as you might expect from genuine legends, Public Enemy had enough heavy artillery to make sure that things ended with a bang, saving “Fight the Power” and “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man” for late in the night. How into it was the crowd? Well, let’s just say that, even as the show approached the two-hour mark, there was no shortage of clocks being hoisted high.