“Like a Tumblr blog in which each photo, scrap of text, or embedded video is posted without context, contributing a single point to the overall aesthetic, the swag life encourages you to take cultural artifacts that speak to you — be they punk rock or crunk rap, secondhand sweaters or designer shoes — and fit them like novel bricks into the multicolored wall of your own image.”
“When we first heard we were gonna play Yoshi’s,” said Chuck D last night, after “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” opened the set, “we knew it was a historic jazz club. We said, ‘We know we can’t rage against the machine in that motherfucker.’ What do I do, wear my Sam Cooke suit? Do some Sonny Rollins shit?”
It must be a common question for the many who’ve played Yoshi’s since it began regularly hosting hip-hop shows a couple years ago, from names like the Pharcyde and Foreign Legion to Mos Def and De La Soul: how to adapt? Or is it even required, since Yoshi’s seems to be adapting to hip-hop? It only makes sense for the Bay Area’s most famous jazz club to embrace the next great American artform, and the venue works well for it. Yes, the sound system was designed for Steinways and not Serato (Bass: How low can you go? Not very low), but the small stage, standing room and temporary bars on either side of the crowd fit the scene perfectly.
To a totally sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Public Enemy played a 90-minute set of every hit one could want to hear. “911 Is a Joke,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “Burn Hollywood Burn”—and yes, most of the songs were over 20 years old. Age coupled with the red-velvet environs gave the night a nostalgic vibe, and on top of two decades already taking the incendiary edge off these songs, they were mitigated further by a general onstage playfulness.
The set featured Kool & the Gang and White Stripes riffs; an ongoing game of “toss the mic”; a James Brownian rule that anyone who messes up has to do 10 pushups; an “invisible studio fader” routine and of course, the ongoing antics of Flavor Flav. “I wanna thank y’all for makin’ Flavor Flav the number-one reality TV star of the decade!” he shouted at one point, during a long monologue about his “second job” on a television show (involving girls defecating on the floor, among other things). And yet it wouldn’t be Public Enemy without him—Chuck D even gave a little “every family has one” defense of Flav, if anyone doubted their closeness.
As for the music? The night was billed as Public Enemy “with a live band,” but as Chuck D pointed out, they’ve been playing with a live band since 1999, inspired by a tour of Japan with the Roots. Chuck D has said in interviews that he wasn’t ever really into jazz, that it was more his dad’s thing, but there was plenty of flash to go around last night. New bassist Davy D at one point let Flav take over for “Welcome to the Terrordome” while the guitarist played solos behind his back; Flav even hopped on the drum set at the end.
And though Chuck D didn’t break out any freestyles (“I’m the least talented member of the group,” he quipped), his between-song improv touched on the importance of the Bay Area, referencing Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Etta James and Johnny Otis right on up to Too Short, DJ Q-Bert and JT the Bigga Figga. “Bay Area independent hip-hop always did the thing,” Chuck D said in homage, “and they just never got support of local radio.”
It’s knowledge like that which separates Public Enemy from the rest. By the end of the set, Chuck D was wearing a “Justice for Oscar Grant” shirt and Flavor Flav was railing against racism and separatism. In the shadow of a chilling live version of “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” and the shooting there last week, it was clear that the progress Public Enemy fought for twenty years ago is still elusive. While everyone in the place threw hopeful peace signs in the air, set closer “Fight the Power” felt more like a party than a war, but there’s still a lot of bite in Public Enemy. Relevant bite, at that. Even in a jazz club. Thank goodness.
EXTRA POINTS: I dunno if it was P.E.’s doing or what, but playing the great Funky Riddims compilation Bay Area Funk before the show was a nice touch. (“Foxy Girls in Oakland.” Listen to it!)
CELEBRITY SIGHTING: Those eyes didn’t deceive you—Aesop Rock was in the crowd.
Photos by Liz Seward.