Which is a stranger thought — that Public Enemy's days as hip-hop's single most important, relevant group has now been over for more than twice as long as they had lasted? Or that Public Enemy was ever important and relevant in the first place?
It's my hope, at least, the majority of you would have answered with the former; PE's glory days may have taken leave of them long before the dawn of the 21st century — a glance at VH1's program schedule is enough to confirm as much — but their importance to hip-hop history, popular music history, and just plain history in general is one thing that can never be overstated.
These guys were, at one point in time, the cutting edge for rap music: an incisive Molotov cocktail of street rhymes, dense samplescapes, and radical Black politics, the likes of which has never been seen before or since. I'm not saying political rap didn't exist outside of Public Enemy, either before or after the release of their 1987 debut LP Yo! Bum Rush the Show, but I am saying their prescient combination of progressive lyrics and progressive production has never quite been replicated, not even after more than a quarter century of rap music at its highest profile. Even if Public Enemy always was ahead of their time, there's still a nagging sense that "their time" hasn't quite arrived.
That's why the mere appearance of MKLVFKWR, a DVD which captures a complete concert in Manchester from the now three-year-old Revolverlution tour, is in itself a little disappointing. Back in their heyday, Public Enemy would never dream of releasing three-year-old material, not even as a stopgap video collection. This was a group who sang about what was happening today to be listened to tomorrow; a group so supremely of-the-moment that when snippets from a 1987 London Hammersmith Odeon concert appeared on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, they were a mere five months old — and that was in the vinyl era!
Meanwhile, in a day and age when bootleggers can videotape a concert on a Friday and have it captured and uploaded onto YouTube by Monday, here's Public Enemy putting out a video that predates George W. Bush's second presidential term. Times have certainly changed.
In fact, this could be said to be the theme for MKLVFKWR: Manchester UK Live in general. One of the most interesting things about this DVD is just getting to see how a PE show goes down these days. For starters, the Security of the First World seems to have been downsized to just two guys standing stock-still in berets (they've traded in their Uzis for nightsticks, too, unless that's just a coy reference to the UK's gun control laws), while Public Enemy's trademark rapid-fire barrage of samples is sometimes bolstered, sometimes replaced with live drums, bass, and guitar. This makes for some radically different, more guitar-driven arrangements for many classic songs, which, incidentally, are often condensed into the kind of "get 'em out of the way" medleys Prince has specialized in since he became a Symbol.
Maybe that's why the show starts a little slow; something about the truncated takes on "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," "Welcome to the Terrordome," and "Bring the Noise" which open the set but fail to connect. On the other hand, maybe there's something a lot more depressing at work here.
There are more than a couple of moments on this DVD that are definitely wince-worthy, moments when I caught myself wishing Public Enemy would just cash in their chips after 20 years — like when Chuck D raps along with a prerecorded track of his younger self on "Public Enemy No. 1" and comes off as a little short of breath, or, worse yet, when Flava Flav attempts to hold his trademark "yeah boyeeeeeeee" for a minute or so, and winds up sounding like a severely out-of-tune violin. Even the band's politics, while certainly not dulled, have lost something in the way of execution since the days of "Fight the Power."
I'm well aware there's always been an element of kneejerk reactionism to Public Enemy, but when the best they have for us is "Fuck George Bush! / Fuck Tony Blair!" ("Son of a Bush"), it just makes me embarrassed to admit that I still believe in these guys.
The bizarre thing is, I still do. Even when the crowd shots reveal a depressing surplus of skinny white dudes mouthing Chuck's lyrics and even when Flav is doing what he does best by making an ass of himself (most spectacularly with a series of a capella "previews" from his mercifully still-forthcoming solo debut), I still believe that Public Enemy has some more good music in them.
Part of that, of course, is that I know the end of this story — last year's New Whirl Odor was, despite the usual mixed reviews, a surprisingly solid latter-day achievement, and though I haven't listened to this spring's collaboration with Paris, Rebirth of a Nation, what I've heard about the album has indicated it's not a disappointment. But even rewinding to Manchester in 2003, MKLVFKWR features flashes of the quasi-revival to come: from "Shut 'Em Down" to "911 is a Joke," the PE captured on this disc is on, delivering both old songs and new ("Revolverlution" actually sounds a lot better than some of the more vintage material in this context) with their trademark energy and power.
Granted, this brief hot streak (five songs all told with "He Got Game," included only with some trepidation) comes near the end of a largely lukewarm set, after which we are subjected to solo sets from Flava, his boring cousin Timbo King, and even Professor Griff, whose "heavy mental" crew, 7th Octave, seems to have forgotten that rap-metal went out with Fred Durst. Even so, the James Brown-ized rendition of "Fight the Power" that closes the main performance is actually pretty sweet and serves as a preview of the jazz-infused PE who will later emerge on New Whirl's excellent album track "Superman is Black in the Building."
Maybe I'm being too easy on Public Enemy. There are few other rap artists, after all, from whom I would put up with a set this thoroughly outdated and mediocre. When you get right down to it, who else is there to believe in? In the midst of a widespread backpack backlash, which sees everyone from Vibe magazine to the acne-ridden Pitchfork reader in your dorm decrying the merits of political consciousness in favor of nihilistic "crack rap," who is our Great Black Hope?
Kanye West is too self-absorbed, the Coup too far below the radar, and the Roots, while experiencing something of a critical resurgence with Game Theory, have never possessed the same excitement or commercial thrust as prime PE. So Public Enemy it is until somebody better comes along to pick up the torch. But at this rate, will they ever?
MKLVFKWR: Manchester UK Live also features over a disc of bonus material, including classic footage of Public Enemy performing "Can't Truss It" at the 1992 "Stop Sellafield" concert, as well as a "PETV" montage of video clips, and two tour diaries: one from the Revolverlution Tour and one from 1988. Despite being in need of a heavy editing job, Revolverlution does contain some interesting footage, including PE meeting with Jesse Jackson during his second presidential campaign. For a casual or non-fan, it's pretty much minutiae. For someone who enjoys Public Enemy even when they're not at their peak, however, it could be a gold mine, something that could be said about the DVD as a whole, actually.
- Zach Hoskins