Know thine Public Enemy
So, Chuck D's a workaholic, Flavor will bust your ribs, and you can have a laugh with Griff. Russell Myrie, Public Enemy's official biographer, tells of life on tour with the legendary hip-hop crew
Friday 26 September 2008
I joined Public Enemy's 55th tour in October 2006 to conduct the first interviews for my authorised biography Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin'. The line, which sums up their ethos, is from their classic 1988 single "Don't Believe the Hype", one of the best songs from their album, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. That album is widely considered the best in hip-hop's history.
Meeting your heroes can be tricky, but thankfully PE are different. They are one of the few groups who have always walked the walk and backed their chat. Few have consistently spoken truth to power in the forceful, and funky, way Public Enemy have always done.
Of course, they haven't lasted 20 years without attracting criticism, some justified, some not. But their standing as one of the most important groups of recent times, regardless of genre, was assured a long time ago. For many black people across the Western world, they were a godsend, the closest thing our generation had to a Malcolm, Martin or Huey Newton. Indeed, the name Public Enemy is derived from J Edgar Hoover's famous proclamation that The Black Panther Party for Self Defence were "public enemy number one" in the late Sixties. It's crucial to remember that the Panthers were initially formed to combat police brutality.
The likes of Public Enemy, Krs-1, and later Brand Nubian and X Clan are the main reasons why the big record companies chose to, shall we say, prioritise those rappers who are content to wallow in, and in some cases celebrate, the worst aspects of ghetto communities. It was a lot easier to deal with than all this black consciousness stuff.
But that has never been the full extent of the PE story. Principally through their groundbreaking tours with rock acts like The Sisters of Mercy, U2 and Anthrax, they have done a lot more for race relations than may initially be supposed. Today, the crowd at a PE show looks a bit like a Benetton advert. Which is a beautiful thing when you consider how hard it was for them to secure venues in North America for their joint tour with Anthrax in the early Nineties.
I joined the tour in Glasgow, a day or two after it began in Marseille. On the way to the venue, the crew reminisced about their first Glaswegian show in the late Eighties. Back then, the crowd would spit on you to show appreciation. Unfortunately, you also got spat on if they hated you. Being from New York, Eric B & Rakim, one of the acts on tour with PE, didn't know this. Within seconds of the first globule hitting their dapper clothes, they'd jumped into the crowd to physically demonstrate their lack of appreciation for even friendly saliva. This being Glasgow, they were met with a more than enthusiastic response.
Nothing of the sort happened this time around. A couple who'd attended that 1987 show came backstage to share some of their memories.
Liverpool was probably the best stop of the two-week tour. Of all the very friendly places up north, it was the most friendly. As big Beatles fans, PE incorporated some special touches into their shows, like an impromptu rendition of "Come Together", to pay homage.
In Sheffield, I was the first person to play Flavor the then-new Jay-Z single "Show Me What'cha Got", which uses the same Flavor Flav vocal sample first employed on Tammi Lucas's new jack swing classic "Is It Good To You". He was over the moon. A day or so later, Flav rocked the mic at a club in Cambridge. But as I didn't want to risk waking up late, I had to wait until breakfast the next morning to hear about it.
Anyone hoping for an exposé is going to be disappointed. Everyone was very nice to me, and nothing remotely scandalous happened. PE's groupies are more likely to ask about their politics than their room numbers. The big box of fried chicken is the most unhealthy thing present in the backstage area.
Chuck D's work ethic is something else. Every morning, he was the first on the tour bus. Most of the other crew members were a little late. Unlike me, they had the luxury of knowing that the bus wasn't going to go without them.
I'll never forget my last day of the tour. After performing in Wolverhampton, we drove back to the Hyatt in Birmingham. Everyone headed for bed, but Chuck sat up with me for a two-hour interview. That finished at 3am. He then spent an hour handling business on his laptop. But at 6.30am the next day he was first down to breakfast. Then he travelled to Ireland, where there was no doubt more media work before that evening's performance.
Flavor is just as he is on record – one of the best personalities you'll ever meet. Chill with Flavor for even half an hour, and he will make your ribs hurt very much. I was a little bit nervous of having a practical joke played on me. Luckily, I escaped unscathed.
Griff is far from the austere killjoy he's sometimes portrayed as. He's a serious brother – they all are – but you can have a laugh with him. DJ Lord, the man who somehow managed to fill Terminator X's shoes, is probably the second flyest member behind Flav. The way he freaks classic scratches like the one on "Rebel Without a Pause" is a sight to behold. Great DJ.
S1W's James Bomb and Pop Diesel are the wrong dudes to mess with but, like everyone else, they were never less than cordial. Soundman Brother Drew is probably the second-loudest member. His tales of touring with Ice Cube and Da Lench Mob made for an excellent addition to the chapter on Cube's seminal Amerikkka's Most Wanted.
The Banned add an important dimension to PE's live show. Drummer New York City Mike is one of the few that can successfully play to hip-hop fans reared on drum machines. Khari Wynn, from Memphis, Tennessee plays his guitar with all the heart and soul you'd expect. Bandleader Bryan Hardgroove holds the whole thing together while strumming some killer basslines.
I was lucky that Malik Farrakhan, the head of security, took me under his wing. Malik is hilarious but he commands the respect of the whole camp. In the book, I liken him to Eddie, Cedric the Entertainer's character in Barbershop. He has that kind of seniority. He is also very interesting. As Tony King (before he changed his name), he and his older brother Charlie were the first African-American siblings to play professional football for the same team. As an actor, he has starred in films such as Shaft, Hell Up In Harlem and The Godfather.
Downstairs on the tour bus, Malik would regularly show documentaries on everything from Motown and Stax to ancient Egypt. When it was time for a laugh, black and white episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies would appear on the screen. Tour manager Brother Mike also deserves a fat shout out for insisting that I was to stay at the same hotels as the crew. I was very grateful for that, and I still am.
The best thing about Public Enemy is that they're not done yet. Even in these times, you could safely bet your house that a new, and seriously good, album will appear at some point in 2009.
' Don't Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin'' by Russell Myrie is out on Thursday (Canongate, £17.99). Chuck D appears at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre on 10 October, 7.30pm (0870 380 0400)
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