Last night as I was crossing the street in downtown Boulder, a cab pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and made eye contact with me, his urgency and concern clear. "Is Flavor Flav here?" he said.
Public Enemy played a free show in honor of the Democratic convention, and rumors in the line which began to form around six o' clock outside the Boulder Theater were that the ticket price had been waived because the clock-accessorizing sidekick/reality-TV star had gone AWOL. It's been known to happen. But indeed Flav was in the house, as were Chuck D, Professor Griff, and two of the original S1W's.
The group's output slowed in the mid-90's as hip-hop fashion passed them by. Chuck's angry but reasoned verses began to seem tame in the face of gangsta, and the crazy-quilt, squealing-siren sound of the band's Bomb Squad production team was supplanted by the more minimalist, repetitive sound prevalent today. It's too bad. Hip-hop peaked artistically around 1993, and with the way the legal status of sampling has changed, it's almost certainly never going to reach those heights again.
The 1988 album that launched rap to that peak, one that would continue in the next few years through Paul's Boutique, Straight Outta Compton, Three Feet High and Rising, The Low End Theory, and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Here in 2008, with a black candidate about to accept a major party's nomination for president, P.E. presented live performances of every track from the classic -- in order. In addition to getting to hear Enemy standards like "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," and "Night of the Living Baseheads," this also meant that some album tracks that hadn't been performed in nearly 20 years made the setlist. Chuck admitted to being nervous about doing "Louder Than a Bomb": "They don't make records this fast any more."
As for Flavor, he made a big point about P.E. not lip-synching any of their songs, but then later in the evening he had a technical mishap when the recording playing in his ear started feeding back. Not that it matters: Chuck obviously doesn't mime to a backing track (standing near enough to the stage, you can hear him without the PA) and Flav's rapping was terrible even when he wasn't completely cracked out. The point of Flav is always to lend wacky contrast to all of Chuck's studied seriousness, and on that point he delivered. Probably the evening's non-musical highlight was when Flavor delivered a long, rambling endorsement of the politician of the moment (and character attack on his worthy opponent) that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Flavor Flav knows absolutely nothing about Barack Obama except that he's black and even less about John McCain.
(Of course, I've been watching Obama speak and following the campaign on a near day-to-day basis for more than a year and I still feel like I barely know anything about him except that he's black.)
It was cool to hear "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic" and several of the instrumental DJ tracks from It Takes a Nation of Millions... both since they're almost never played live and because Terminator X has long since been replaced by the phenomenal DJ Lord, who demonstrated his cutting and scratching skills while sampling the original tracks. It was fun watching the S1W's, the band's military-themed dance/security team, trying to remember their stage moves for 20-year-old songs.
The band ran into a bit of a curfew crunch towards the end of the all-ages show. They had to drop a few verses from "Party for Your Right to Fight," the album's last song, and then powered through a medley of some other favorites, closing with "Fight the Power." Then they continued to fight the power for several minutes when the venue's security came onstage to kick 'em off. P.E. crazy, crazy P.E.
I'm not one wrapped up in Obama-mania, to say the very least, but as a fan of rap and music history, it was hard not to feel moved when Chuck announced they'd be doing all of It Takes a Nation of Millions. My friend and bandmate Khurrum, normally a pretty retiring guy, gave me a leaping two-handed high-five when we heard.
That was the first rap album I ever listened to all the way through and the first one I ever really fell in love with. I had a dubbed cassette version my friend Jake made me when I was 12 and I'm pretty sure I wore it out. "Bring the Noise" is the only rap song I can remember all the lyrics to without having to have the record on in the background. But given my intense sense of rap's history, it was weird at the end of the night to look around behind me and see less than 200 people watching the most important hip-hop band that ever was play their greatest song. Yeah, it was almost 2 in the morning on a weeknight, and the place was packed when the headliners started, but still. They use to fill stadiums. Now, even though their recent records are only, say, a few hundred thousand times better than Soulja Boy instead of eight billion times better, it's bittersweet to see them in a little theater. Of course, it was cool that they played within walking distance of my house.