I am not into rap, hip-hop, urban. I never did.
The g-culture, ghettos, gangs, guns is not my culture, it couldn’t be.
I am white, I am from Rome, I am 38. In the end all these things sum up.
My credentials to be part of this music, understand it to the point of talking about it, is quite impossible. It is like asking a Bronx gang to listen to Italian folk or Balkan dance and write a comprehensive review.
Everything to me is even complicated by the hip-hop slang and their use of singing.
I have been in UK for quite a while but I still cannot understand many of the rap lyrics, which doesn’t help to get into the experience while listening to an album or a gig.
Nevertheless I can still take photo, photography jumps more easily the barriers of languages and cultures, doesn’t it?
On top of this, Public Enemy are well beyond a simple rap squad. Public Enemy have been for more than twenty years the model for any political group, a crucial reference for any urban act and each militant band that followed.
Their legacy goes much beyond rap and black culture and has influenced cross-over acts since. We would not have Rage Against The Machine, Living Colour, Korn, Beastie Boys and even Red Hot Chili Peppers wouldn’t be the same without Public Enemy storming the music scene.
Politically inspired by the seminal Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry, musically urbanizing the funk of George Clinton and Sly Stone’s families, radicalizing the DJ disco sounds of the eighties and flirting with rock guitars, Public Enemy beat has been the voice and the symbol of black American rebellion.
I have always been interested in USA social issues, I have always been critic about USA politics, I am interested at black fight for emancipation, I love blues and jazz, their social history and the way it permeates their communities. No doubts it is PE radical aspect the most appealing side to me.
By a mere coincidence I just finished reading Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, a week before this gig, so I was totally in the mood for such a night.
“Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, c’mon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be”
[Fight the Power – Public Enemy]
Chuck D is not only the mind behind Public Enemy, the frontman, a legend for rap lovers and the creator of political rap. Coming from an activist family he is personally involved in actions, lectures and likes to define himself a “raptivist”.
So critical against American governments to be compared to Black Panther’s manifesto, Chuck D (D stands for Dangerous) has been on the blacklist of American power for his plain-spoken statements “Governments are the cancer of civilisation…government and culture are two diametrically opposed forces – the one blinds and oppresses, the other uplifts and unites” (the Observer)
On Chuck D side, Flavor Fav with its big plastic clock hanging over his neck is his stooge and Public Enemy most memorisable figure.
Public Enemy image has always worked because of the perfect balance between Chuck D strong declarations and the “cartoon role” of Flavor Fav which, instead of making fun of the whole thing, strengthen Chuck D meanings, engage the audience and make Public Enemy live show a brilliant act and not only a political demonstration with a DJ sampling songs on a drum base.
The ATP “don’t look back” series of concerts showed in years to be a successful format, giving the fans what the fans any concert hope.
Historical bands have been asked to play live, in their track-by-track entirety, their most famous albums.
So far mostly concentrated on white american alternative scene: Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer, Slint, Dinosaur Jr, Patti Smith, Sebadoh, Lemonheads, Sophia, Mudhoney have all delighted their fans performing their magnum opus.
It was quite surprising to read that Public Enemy were asked and agreed to perform their masterpiece for the very first time.
The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the release of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Chuck D, Flavor Flav and their entire posse came to UK to play what has been described, by almost any music magazine, the most important rap album of all times.
More than enough to fuel my curiosity, challenge my English and get my cameras loaded.
“Cause the D is for dangerous
You can come and get some of this
I teach and speak
So when its spoke, it’s no joke
The voice of choice
The place shakes with bass
Called one for the treble
The rhythm is the rebel
Here’s a funky rhyme that they’re tappin’ on
Just thinkin’ I’m breakin’ the beats I’m rappin’ on
All they tell us is lies
And when I say it they get alarmed
‘Cause I’m louder than a bomb”
[Louder than a bomb – Public Enemy]
On stage Public Enemy are a drummer, a DJ (Lord), a guitarist, a bass player, three “kind of” samurai performing war dances in a Public Enemy mimetic uniform and, of course, the wonderful pair, Chuck D and his alter ego Flavor Flav. No wonder why they name themselves a bomb squad!
As soon as the album starts, with the immortal Bring the Noise, the crowd feels the moment and burst in euphoria. They forget nostalgia and realize that good music is ageless, so simply ageless that many forgot to be in their forties and started to dance wildly many years since they did last time.
Chuck D confessed the song was such a good opener that the original LP sides would have been inverted but they didn’t to keep it at the start.
The concert continues furious and passionate in its track by track splendour. It follows with Don’t Believe the Hype, a statement made famous recently in UK by the Arctic Monkeys, and hit by hit closes with the anthem Party For Your Right To Fight.
“To those that disagree it causes static
For the original Black Asiatic man
Cream of the earth
And was here first
And some devils prevent this from being known
But you check out the books they own
Even masons they know it
But refuse to show it, yo
But it’s proven and fact
And it takes a nation of millions to hold us back”
One of the best bits of Public Enemy gig is Chuck D and Flavor Flav constant interaction with the audience.
It can happen for a song, but it doesn’t happen to have a band having such an incessant physical contact with their audience throughout the set. It is a fantastic chance to freeze some of these moments.
It is one of the most challenging aspects of concert photography. Usually photographers don’t have many occasions on three songs and even if it happens there are many potential (but frequent) obstacles, this time you need all you skills.
These kinds of shots are difficult but the results are very catchy. The interaction keep the eyes of the viewer constantly moving from one side to the other of the action being stuck to the image longer.
The best chance to have artist-public interaction is with bands that have a singer who doesn’t play an instrument (and it is not Mark Lanegan). On average they are less busy and tend to interact more with their fans.
The ideal place is a small venue which has a photo pit where you are allowed staying and taking photos. Pit doesn’t have to be too wide, so that the artists can reach their fans without jumping down from the stage.
If you are to this point, your main problem become, in fact, the other people with you in the pit. Security and other photographers usually make pits quite crowded areas.
You don’t want to frame unwanted individuals, who make pictures messy and distracting and are quite complicate to remove even if you are a photoshop wizard.
The right moment is when you and all photographers are on the same side. You can arrange with them in advance, since it is in their interest to try catching this too, otherwise just follow them. Security guys are usually rigid and heavy as marble statues, they will not move so you have to go around them. The one in the centre is usually the biggest and the most annoying, after all he is the air-traffic controller, paid to catch the landing of surf-crowders. You can’t blame the management.
Now, step aside, preferring the area that gives the picture the darkest, neater background; this helps the final result and, eventually, the photoshop session.
Mount a lens (or a zoom) wide enough to include the artist and the public. It depends on the distance between the stage and the barrier; usually a mild wide-angle lens, 28mm or 35mm, works for me. It goes without saying the faster the better.
Monitor the lights usually the audience is quite in the dark so, if you can’t use flash, to have details of the hands you have to spot the right moment that, as any concert light, last no more of a fraction of a sec. Be ready and very quick.
Don’t get nervous and have fun. It is not an easy one. Quite a lot of experience, patience and luck must concentrate on the same night before you get the image you dream. Don’t be discouraged keep trying and trying again, it will happen.