When filmmaker Spike Lee introduced Public Enemy at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, he riffed on the genesis of the group’s hit song, “Fight The Power,” which served as an anthem for Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.”
“In the summertime there’s always one song in New York that, if it’s a hit, you can hear it everywhere — on the subway, cars, in front of people’s houses,” Lee said. “I wanted this song to be an anthem that could express what young black Americans were feeling at this time.”
The track, a caustic hodgepodge of samples and loops — including a solo by Louisiana saxophonist Branford Marsalis — was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance. Its lyrics, shocking to some and empowering to others, decried racism and police violence, while resonating with many young African-Americans.
Almost 25 years and 16 albums later, Public Enemy still delivers a bombastic fusion of politically conscious poetry and gut-busting beats. They will play the Congo Square Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell at 5 p.m. on Friday.
The group is composed of lyricist and frontman Chuck D, hype-man and occasional lyricist Flavor Flav, DJ Lord and Professor Griff, who are typically joined by a full band. Public Enemy has performed over 2,000 concerts. This summer they will head to Europe for about a dozen dates in support of their 2012 record, “The Evil Empire of Everything” and “Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp.”
“The Evil Empire of Everything” opens with a recording of the 911 call George Zimmerman made minutes before he shot Trayvon Martin. The eerie-sounding artifact is spliced with a crooning soul singer and a volley of short, staccato beats. Chuck D then delivers a onslaught of fierce lyrics, setting the tone for an album where the legacy of Martin is clearly influential.
“No arrest warrant and no weapon found, one eyewitness, black body down,“ raps Professor Griff on a track titled “Beyond Trayvon.”
On “Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp,” Chuck D fires away at mass media culture.
“It (the album) speaks volumes, especially in a time where celebrity is the virtual drug of America and its western world,” he wrote on the group’s website.
While it’s Chuck D, 53, that is the driving force behind Public Enemy, the animated Flavor Flav, 55, has long given the group panache with his wild behavior and penchant for wearing a clock around his neck.
Despite a turbulent stretch in which he found himself in the midst of serious drug addiction and mounting legal problems, Flavor Flav has been fundamental in his role as hype man for the group, energizing the crowd and contributing the occasional verse.
His presence, along with occasional security guards/dancers, “The Security of the First World,” give the band’s gigs a vibrancy heralded in a recent concert review in the Sacramento Mercury.
“It wasn’t just Chuck, however, who made the Public Enemy set so stupendous,” Jim Harrington wrote last May. He described the band’s production as “riveting.”
Since its debut in 1982, Public Enemy has garnered four gold or platinum albums and was ranked number 44 on the Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. They’ve managed to keep their angst-fueled sound relevant and powerful across almost three decades, an accomplishment Chuck D touted in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone.
“It’s a nod to the longevity of our accomplishment,” he said, talking about the group’s induction to the Music Hall of Fame. “When it comes to Public Enemy, we did this on our own terms. I imagine this as a trophy made out of crystal. I’d like to smash it into 10,000 pieces and hand each piece to a contributor.”