I never heard of this 2007 documentary about Public Enemy until I saw it in the new releases this week. Looks like it was made 3 years ago to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first album. I guess on DVD it must be celebrating the anniversary of their third album. But that’s Fear of a Black Planet, that’s a great album.
This is not the definitive hyper-detailed PE documentary I’d have dreamed about if it had ever occurred to me there could be a documentary about them. I’m sorry guys, I would’ve dreamed about it, but I was too distracted waiting for that Hank Shocklee Making of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back book that never came out. This doesn’t quench my thirst for that one, but it’s not one of these amateurish hip hop documentaries they got either. It’s an enjoyable retrospective with alot of good moments, good photography and editing. Maybe the fonts could be improved, but for the most part it seems professional.
It might be a decent PE intro to newcomers, but only if they’re old enough to care what Tom Morello, Henry Rollins, DMC and the Beastie Boys have to say about how brilliant Public Enemy are. But I’d say it’s more interesting for fans. Most of the footage is not talking heads, it’s following Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Professor Griff in 2007 at airports, radio interviews and backstage while travelling and playing various huge outdoor music festivals. They have them visiting London, which works well since they also use some footage shot there in ’87 when they were there for their famous show that you hear sampled on It Takes a Nation. I think all that stuff is on another DVD I have, but it’s cool in this context jumping back to a youthful, menacing PE being treated like superstars, and since it was shot in black and white it looks like flashbacks.
(an aside to Abbey Road drivers: I know what you mean. I fucking hate tourists too. But do you have to honk at Public Enemy when they’re on that crosswalk? I would give a pass to Public Enemy, in my opinion.)
There’s some history, not too detailed. They talk a little bit about their start as radio DJs. DMC talks about being interview by them and being really nervous around the completely uknown Chuck D because he thought he was “so dope.” Some of the best bits are just little personal anecdotes like that: Rollins telling the story of desperately wanting to meet Chuck D when they played the same festival in the early ’90s, MCA from the Beastie Boys talking about looking down from a hotel window late at night and seeing Flav by the pool acting like Flav even though there was nobody around. And there are nice moments on camera too, like isn’t that Bono Chuck D is having a conversation with in the ’87 footage? And I kinda verged on chills when they showed Ice Cube standing between Chuck and KRS-One, those guys smiling big while Cube talks about their respect for each other. Or what about when Spike Lee is leaving the stage with Chuck and Flav after an appearance at a Terence Blanchard concert or something, and Spike starts asking Chuck basketball questions?
There are holes in this story that happen to be the aspect of PE I’m most interested in: the music itself. I mean, not the lyrical content and all that, that stuff’s discussed of course. I mean those crazy sounds, those blaring horns and punch-you-in-the-gut beats. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those music docs with no rights to play any of the songs they’re talking about. I was nervous at the beginning, but then Rollins hums the opening sample of “Welcome To the Terrordome,” and then buddup buh-puh, buddup buh-puh, bap bah bahhhhhh…. we hear the actual sample and the face-burning nuclear sound assault of the song as modern day PE bombs a crowd with it. But sometime around the turn of the century Chuck started playing with a live band, and the camera crew here is following their ’07 shows, so these are the versions of the songs you hear. It works well at the shows, but you can’t tell the full story of PE without healthy doses of the original Bomb Squad tracks.
This is probly partially an issue of paying for the publishing but not the recordings, and of who is willing to be interviewed, and of not wanting to go into details about their samples to avoid legal troubles. So I don’t blame the filmatists, I’m sure they tried. But the ultimate pipe dream PE doc would have to have Hank and Keith Shocklee talking about and demonstrating how they put those sounds together. Somebody’s gotta do that some day.
In a related issue, the movie is extremely light on Terminator X, since he retired in 1999. The movie spends about equal time (not much) on his replacement DJ Lord, and alot more time on the S1Ws (the onstage security/drill team in the berets and camouflage). I’m sure they tried to interview him, but even at the height of the group you’d rarely hear him speak or even see him take off his sunglasses. Like a mute Kool Moe Dee. So it’s not surprising. Still, somebody’s gotta interview him on his South Carolina ostrich farm. That would be incredible.
Despite those weaknesses I enjoyed this movie for its surprisingly candid, human moments. They don’t ever mention the Professor Griff anti-semitism scandal, but they do spend alot of time on a less written about topic: the how the fuck do you put up with Flavor Flav? issue. The highlight of the movie is a long montage of arguments, old and new, conflicts in getting Flav to show up somewhere or come out on stage at the right time or know his lyrics or know when to stop talking or stop playing songs from his terrible solo album. One part even has a camera set down on a table showing nothing, but the mic picks up Chuck just yelling at Flav about doing his job. Can you imagine being yelled at by Chuck D? The D is for Dangerous.
Time for an anecdote about a Public Enemy show. I’ve been to a few over the years, and one of the most memorable was at the Showbox here in Seattle, I’d guess around ’06. I got there too early and there was a crazy vibe already when the place was nearly empty. The backup band was one of the openers, under the name The Fine Arts Militia. The singer/bassist Brian Hardgroove made some innocuous comment about (if I remember right) Jimmy Swaggart, and a drunk Native American lady in the front got so upset she threw a drink in his face. I mean, as far as drink tossing you gotta score this lady a 10, it was the entire contents of the glass bullseye in the face. As the security grabbed her Hardgroove wiped his face off, smiled, and asked them to stop. He calmly tried to talk to her, tried to win her over, to prove that these things can be worked out peacefully. She wasn’t making any sense though, and a little later she jumped on some other girl in the crowd and got tossed out anyway.
Much later in the evening the place is filled up. The music stops, lights go down, you can see bodies filing in from the backstage door to the right of the stage, climbing up. The Militia with their instruments again, the S1Ws marching, spinning clubs around, doing punches and shit. Flav and Griff are wandering around, DJ Lord playing the Farrakhan Minister Khalid Abdul Muhammad sample from “Night of the Living Baseheads”: Have you forgotten that once we were brought here we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language…
I’m looking around, not seeing Chuck. They must be gonna do some little intro thing before he comes out. And many of us by the way we act, we even lost our minds…
“HERE IT IS – BAM! And you say GOD DAMN! This is the DOPE JAM!”
Chuck fucking jumps out from behind a speaker and launches into one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time. I did not see him or realize he was on stage until the moment he was leaping through the air shouting one of the great opening hip hop lyrics (not the greatest of all time, that would be “Thinking of a master plan / I got nothin but sweat inside my hand.”)
Somehow that memory makes that great song even greater.
There were alot of people there, and everybody was really into it, people of all races and types shouting out lyrics, pumping their fists, going crazy. Rebel Without a Pause, Bring the Noise, Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Shut ‘Em Down, all that shit. But they were saving a few. They got so many classics.
At some point Chuck and everybody left the stage to let Flav do a solo joint. He had his one album out around then, I think the single was called “Shake Your Booty,” so he did that song. Then he does another song. Then he does another song. The shit is terrible. We put up with him because he’s great in small doses. He backs up Chuck, he’s unpredictable, he makes you laugh, he provides lyrics for the old man in GHOST DOG. But in large doses he starts seeming like Jar Jar. In reality TV he has no Chuck to balance him out, he just makes you look down at your feet and be sad.
It became clear that he had more songs. At least half of the crowd left. By the time Chuck took back control the wind was completely out of the sails, and they hadn’t even done “Fight the Power” yet. Fuckin Flavor Flav, man. Somebody please throw a drink in that man’s face.
So you can imagine how hard it would be to have to work with Flav and travel with him. They say he’s gone through alot of handlers whose job it is to make sure he arrives at places on time. In the credits along with the band personnel they list “Flavor Flav Management,” which should probly read as similar to “spider wrangler” or something like that. It doesn’t mean the guy who hooks him up with gigs.
In this footage you can see Flav making Chuck uncomfortable, making him embarrassed. Talking some shit about Chuck’s breath or telling a crazy story from their youth. But as Flav gets deeper into it, more and more manic, you see Chuck’s expression change, you see him break and start laughing. Even Griff, who tends to bristle just talking about Flav, can end up laughing with him when he’s on a tear. Maybe he’ll shake his head like “I can’t believe this shit,” but he’ll be smiling.
It’s clear that despite everything they have had to put up with over the years these guys really care about each other. That’s what’s cool about this movie, because I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect it to be sweet. Even the Terrordome can’t break the bonds of friendship.