Public Enemy, Phranchyze, Branzil Warehouse Live December 27, 2013
Nearly 30 years after they bum-rushed their first show, there remains nothing quite like a Public Enemy concert. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers bring a dominating live energy to the stage that is, has been and seems likely to remain unmatched in the annals of hip-hop, more akin to the sensory overload of a heavy-metal concert than a typical rap performance. Whether you're a dedicated hip-hop head or not, Chuck D and the gang are a group you ought to see before you die, lest you go to your grave never realizing how powerful and bombastic rap music can really be in the right hands.
Much of the crowd that showed up at Warehouse Live on Friday appeared fully prepared for what they were about to experience, old enough as they were to remember the group's late-'80s run at the very top of the hip-hop hierarchy. A thick clutch of younger (and in many cases, whiter) fans who may have sadly never seen Do the Right Thing also turned out, ready to find out if it was possible to believe the hype.
A little skepticism was fair: Legends though they may be, Public Enemy aren't exactly spring chickens at this point. Could they really still go?
Before we could find out, a couple of young Texas rappers appeared to warm us up for the onslaught. While any Houston hip-hop aficionado could easily name a dozen or more local artists that would be both incredible and incredibly appropriate to see open up for Public Enemy, what we got instead was a virtual unknown and a guy from Austin. Fortunately, they brought the goods.
Branzil received an introduction from none other than Rocks Off's own Willie D, which certainly got the crowd's attention. The youngster displayed a quick, breathless flow and budding stage presence that belied his absolute lack of notoriety. Later, we'd discover that he's apparently Flavor Flav's godson. With both Willie and Flav in his corner, Branzil might just have the connections he needs to explore his talent on somebody else's dime. One to look out for.
Austin's Phranchyze arrived next to unleash the sharp wit and nimble rhymes that have made him one of the state's most decorated battle-rappers. Particularly impressive was his closing freestyle, in which he managed to name-check both Omer Asik and Case Keenum. Not the most celebrated of Houston sports figures at this moment, perhaps, but you can't say the man doesn't know his stuff.
Talented though the young cats were, any memory of them was completely obliterated by Public Enemy's set. That's no reflection on Banzil or Phranchyze, naturally: PE simply leaves no room left in your brain for anyone else. With a full band and the fierce DJ Lord in tow, the group packs enough sonic firepower to blow your hair back, be it kinky, straight or somewhere in between.
Right off the bat, all the crucial elements that compose Public Enemy were firmly in place. Chuck D was as commanding and authoritative as ever, brandishing a Sharpie like a sword. DJ Lord's scratching absolutely shamed lesser turntablists. The S1W added an air of miltant menace, while the inimitable Flav kept things loose with his happy, off-kilter energy.
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Most powerful, though, were the group's instrumentalists, led by guitarist Khari Wynn. The band delivered incredible rock and roll punch to Lord's headbanging beats, filling every nook and cranny of Warehouse Live with aural fury. It was the most successful, seamless blend of hard rock and hip-hop that I've ever witnessed on stage, and I'm not just talking about "Bring the Noise," either.
The group showed Houston a lot of love throughout the evening, with Chuck D reminiscing that the city was the first out-of-state locale that Public Enemy ever played. After jumping behind the drums to lay down a beat for conscripted hype man Willie D, Flavor Flav embraced the city even more warmly, revealing past years spent living in the Houston area.
"This is where my motherfucking driver's license is from," said Flav in a hilariously touching statement of solidarity.
All the classics were delivered in style, from "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" through "By the Time I Get to Arizona" and on to the indelible "Fight the Power." The volume and energy pouring off the stage were enough to squash heads. Public Enemy may already be in the Hall of Fame, but they damn sure aren't retired.
The Warehouse show may have been just a warm-up gig for the group's impending tour of Australia, but PE didn't appear to need any stretching or calisthenics whatsoever. After Friday night, it's hard to believe they don't spring out of bed fighting the power each morning, translating righteous anger into booming thunder the way most of us hit the button on the Keurig. Long may it ever be so.
Personal Bias: Managed to completely avoid Flavor Flav's reality-show career.
The Crowd: Successful enough to squeeze concert tickets into the holiday buying season.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Yeeeeeeahh, boyyeee!"
Random Notebook Dump: 'Round about the time I noticed the guy next to me in a 10-inch blue Mohawk, I knew for sure I wasn't at your average rap concert.
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