Public Enemy hasn’t mellowed much with age. Wednesday at a near-capacity House of Blues, the reengaged rap ensemble stormed through a 70-minute set that frequently resonated with the intensity of a hardcore punk concert. Absent auxiliary flash or calculated posturing, the group’s concussive material exploded on impact, with a live band and deejay building dense walls of sound over which the yin-yang tandem of Chuck D and Flavor Flav exchanged verses.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary and recent nomination for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Public Enemy isn’t taking the career benchmarks lightly. The collective released two new records in the past months and organized its current tour as a revue featuring similar golden-era hip-hop acts. Speaking as the event’s master of ceremonies, Chuck D played history teacher and intellectual advocate. He interviewed opening artists, praised Chicago’s early adoption of hip-hop and cited several local figures (George Daniels, Pinkhouse) for helping develop the genre.
Reflecting his provocative and prolific presence on Twitter, the emcee refused to hold back or back down. In a venue renowned for catering to such interests, he assailed celebrities, VIP sections and high-priced tickets. The commentary paralleled socially resilient messages on in-your-face tunes like “Shut Em Down,” “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Can’t Truss It.” Rooted in classic soul grooves and smothered in percussive beats and turntable scratches, songs teetered on the brink of chaos and raged with heavy-metal rawness. Chuck D’s booming voice, seemingly hooked up to a built-in megaphone, increased the ferocity. Words were thrown akin to a prizefighter’s punches. He landed verses as quick jabs, and turned refrains into uppercuts.
Where his partner evoked drill-sergeant intimidation, Flavor Flav provided balance via goofy humor, physical antics and exaggerated diction. Wearing a mink jacket, titled baseball cap and multi-striped shirt, he was a hype man, court jester, sidekick and con man rolled into one. For all his annoyances-an overlong stopover on drums, rambling banter, repeated interjections-Flavor Flav contrasted starkness without distracting from the music. Along with Chuck D, he ran and jumped around the stage, both displaying an excitability that at one instance witnessed them collide mid-leap with one another.
Fitting for a group that blurs distinctions, Public Enemy invited funk artist Steve Arrington to sing parts of his oft-sampled “Weak at the Knees” during “Fight the Power.” Augmented with a wailing saxophone, the anthem became a free-jazz jam, a call to awareness in which every instrument and voice shouted on equal terms.