Best to Know Thine Enemy
Myrie, Russell, The Independent (London, England)
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
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. …