IT’S 11 years since Public Enemy last played in these parts – then a flurry of excitement greeted the appearance of the ‘Rolling Stones of rap’ at Leeds University, the same venue where The Who famously recorded Live at Leeds.
The YEP described it –somewhat breathlessly – as “one of the most prestigious gigs Leeds has ever hosted” and it seems Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff & co didn’t disappoint – more than a decade on the show is still fondly remembered.
In the next few days they make their long-awaited return to Yorkshire, with gigs at the Tramlines Festival in Sheffield and the O2 Academy Leeds.
Chuck D, the band’s frontman of 28 years, promises “a new component of Public Enemy” when they reach these shores, with the addition of something they’re calling PE 2.0. “We’re trying to work this particular person into the show but there’s a passport issue that’s holding things up.”
As regards the setlist, he says: “You’ve always got to play your hits. We kind of always use the records as a base for the set.”
The songs that resonate most with audiences derive from their classic albums It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, two records that summoned the fury of black America against the racial and social injustice they saw around them in the late 1980s.
“Welcome to the Terrordome and Bring the Noise – that probably says it all,” says the 53-year-old New Yorker succinctly. “Welcome to the Terrordome – we’re probably ready to go, yo.”
Public Enemy marked their 25th anniversary with the release of two albums, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything. Chuck reveals they began working on new material in January. One album is called PE 2.0: Project Experience Millennium. “It’s a Chuck D record – though I don’t say the word ‘solo’. It’ll be out on my birthday – August 1.”
The other is Black in Man. “Johnny Cash was the Man in Black – this is the Black in Man,” Chuck explains. He’s recorded a song for it with gospel and soul legend Mavis Staples called Give We the Pride.
Elsewhere there are apparently “a whole bunch of projects” featuring various offshoots from the band. “There’ll be a new Public Enemy album in 2015,” he promises.
For those that were there in the 1980s the impact that Public Enemy made was seismic – angry and articulate, with an unprecedented arsenal of samples, beats and scratches to reinforce their point, they were as provocative and uncompromising as the Sex Pistols had been a decade earlier.
For Chuck, the band’s debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show and its successors Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet were simply giving voice to something that had been bottled up in US society since the late 1960s.
“I was fully reflective on the first three albums to say what was going on and what was not being said. By the fourth and fifth albums I didn’t feel I’d said it all but I could go into finer details. I was no longer following the concept of making an album to sell; I just wanted to make albums as a process to give.
“It changed after Fear of a Black Planet. I didn’t want to go to somebody and tell them, ‘You got to get this album’. I never agreed to be a sales person for music. We were in the middle of structures saying, ‘We got to sell it’. I personally lost the desire to sell my art after Fear of Black Planet. I was not interested in selling, but receiving and giving.”
He’s now at the stage, he says, where he want to “provide a service to artists around the world – our [internet] rap station is a major component of the big give-back, it’s a service for rap music, hip-hop, to make it a legitimate music”.
He looks back on the period when Public Enemy dominated the British music press with fondness, jokingly comparing it to the impact of The Beatles and the Stones on the USA in the 60s. “It was the British invasion – on the flipside.”
It seems the British fondness for Chuck and his band is reciprocated. “London has always been our base – period,” he says. “The UK has always been our base – period. Even when we might have been in different parts of the United States, culturally our point of reference London is more of our base than New York, LA or Atlanta.”
Just as politics and social comment were an integral part of his early heroes’ message, they remain important to Public Enemy today. There are still injustices to be fought.
“Twenty-eight years is a long time but it’s not really a long time when it comes down to Planet Earth,” he says. “Certain things are the same, some things have changed. A weird dynamic goes on – you have to pay attention to it.”
The band may now operate outside the major label system – releasing records on their own Slamjamz imprint – but it’s worth it, Chuck says.
“It’s the most liberating, freeing thing I’ve ever done. Trying to match it with the partnership of commerce has always been sort of a task but if you can always have a learning process it’s something that’s helpful, it makes it all fun – though sometimes it might be difficult for the partnership,” he laughs.
Deep down Chuck is an optimist about social change. “You have to be,” he says. “There’s no proper way you can keep banging your head against a wall, that’s not going to be helpful.
“You make changes then step back and breathe a bit.”
Nod to the old school
Chuck D credits two old-school hip-hop artists, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Kurtis Blow, for making him want to become a rapper.
“Their records were very powerful,” he says, “they made me want to become a recording artist.”
Public Enemy play at Tramlines Festival, Sheffield on Saturday, July 26 and the O2 Academy Leeds on Thursday, July 31. http://www.publicenemy.com/