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Public Enemy at Ram's Head Live: Still Great Art

by Jesse Fask
As Tuesday had turned into Wednesday, I looked down from my posh V.I.P. balcony and the crowd looked like a multi-ethnic grunge pit. Fists pumping. Crowd surfing.
Somehow I found myself in the V.I.P. section of a Public Enemy concert with some guy named Paul serving me drinks as I watched the show, notebook in hand, from a plush leather couch on a balcony. A discount scalper outside of Ram’s Head Live sold me a $50 V.I.P. ticket for twenty. General admission was twenty-two. It had already been a good night.

The first time I heard Public Enemy was on my eighth grade class trip, when my friend Kyle Funn let me listen to his fresh new cassette "Fear of a Black Planet." It absolutely blew my mind. It was all I listened to for a whole summer and beyond. I watched "Do the Right Thing" religiously and now, seventeen years later, I was seeing them live for the first time.

I couldn’t find anyone to go with me, so I found myself in a unique situation, my first concert in a V.I.P. section and my first concert alone. X-Clan, the opening act, came on and I felt a little like Leonard Bernstein at a Black Panther party. I loved it. It smelled of the remnants of a time when rap music was political, underground, and much more of an art form. The V.I.P. section was mostly filled with mostly very well-dressed men, a few of them with dates. I was the by far the most underdressed, in a plaid shirt, jeans and black Chuck Taylors. The V.I.P’s were mostly older than I am and seemed like longtime P.E. fans.

X-Clan waved a red, black, and green flag as Paul got me another beer. It was a great thing seeing your favorite band from when you were thirteen almost two decades later, as if my aunt was going to see Elvis in the seventies or my dad seeing Buddy Holly in heaven. A tall guy in a black Public Enemy t-shirt and a shaved head that helped him to favorably resemble Chris Webber asked me what I was writing. I told him what newspaper I wrote for and told him that I was a big P.E. fan from when I was a kid.

“Me too,” he said. “This is a very racially mixed crowd. Everybody’s just chillin.”

I nodded and agreed.

“It’s just getting started,” he said. He grabbed his Oriole 1983 World Series jacket from the couch and got a better view. The X-Clan African flag continued to wave as the group asked the crowd to hold their cell phones in the air. The digital glows reflected off the red, black, and green as the X-Clan quoted Marcus Garvey.

“Ten minutes until Public Enemy was announced. Classic rap songs from the eighties and nineties were played. Eric B. and Rakim. The crowd roared with approval. I sing along to the Ol’ Dirty Bastard track, “Ooh Baby, I like it raw...” Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. Naughty by Nature. L. L. Cool J. “If you love hip-hop, put your hands up...” When it became apparent that "V.I.P." meant that Paul was only bringing me drinks and would not hold out a pot for me piss in, I found the urinal where a guy in a “Free Huey Newton” t-shirt hummed along to Biggie Smalls as he relieved himself.

The DJ continued... “Takin it to the Queens... Takin it to Brooklyn side...” I look for Paul for another beer... “Bo knows this, Bo knows that...” The crowd knows all the words, as did I. “Who’s that? . . . Brown!” And then I found Paul.

I couldn’t believe no one else would come to this. I wondered whether I should tip Paul as he brought me beers. I regretted having to be at work at 8 AM next morning. I hoped my 8 AM client didn’t read this. I hope my editor will print this. The leather couch was perfect for my posture as the DJ played a Boot Camp song. I got a text message from my friend Mike that said, “You are literally living like Puffy!”

“Check one. Check two...”

“Public Enemy is now in the fucking building!”

“Put your fists in the air...”

Chuck D, the group’s front man, bounded out and the place goes crazy. Muscles rippled, though he must have been fifty years old. He broke into “Welcome to the Terrordome,” and I knew all the words as I wrote furiously. Professor Griff entered the stage wearing a beret, and then the crowd erupted for reality TV show star and the group’s legendary hype man, Flavor Flav. Militant-looking men in camouflage fatigues took the stage. An eighties style metal guitarist soloed like Marty McFly as the soldier posed and danced. It was quite a spectacle.

Paul asked if I was a journalist as I scribbled away. I nodded. Flavor Flav screamed nonsensically. I was thirteen years old and I was drunk, which I’d never been before. It was great. Flav bellowed like Tarzan and the crowd followed. Then Flav explained some comments he had made earlier.

“The reason I had said, ‘Fuck George W. Bush,’” explained Flav,” is cuz he got us in a senseless war. What he needs to do is bring those troops back home.”

“And the new heads thought that he was just a TV star,” said Chuck about his band mate and star of VH-1’s most popular reality TV show, as Chuck dedicated the show to James Brown.

Flav came into my line of view with his trademark giant clock around his neck and baseball hat to the side. A cute freckled brunette sidled up to me, introduced herself as Betty Ann and said that she was frustrated with all the anti-Bush rhetoric coming from Chuck and Flav. She explained that she was a Republican Texan, now living in Pasadena (Maryland, not California), and had spent a lot of time at the Bush ranch. She said that she wanted more old-school P.E. songs and then began to criticize Maryland welfare laws as her boyfriend pulled her away from me. Chuck D referenced the Furious Five as I looked for Paul.

Chuck stated that the guitar was “the brother’s turntable in the twenties and thirties... B. B. King . . .Jimi Hendrix...” as the guitarist goes into a Hendrix-style guitar solo that I loved. Betty Ann waved at me as she was dragged away and I was at a Megadeth concert as the guitarist “from Hollis-Queens, home of Run DMC, L. L. Cool J.” goes all Eddie Valen, as Paul brings me another beer.

Chuck introduces “the Gilbert Arenas of the turntables,” not Terminator X, the original member, but this guy does okay. Chuck badmouths Reagan and Bush and somewhere Betty Ann winces. Paul brings another beer and gives me complimentary tickets to an upcoming reggae show. I guess I’m now a V.I.P. Chuck continues to sermonize. He introduces Flav as “the world’s oldest teenager” as he covers Kool N the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging.”

Chuck D had boundless energy. He announces he is forty-six years old. Flav introduces the DJ who proceeds to murder the turntables, behind his back, sped up, slowed down, “Another One Bites the Dust” at thirty-three and a third.

My buddy Chris Webber sits next to me and tells me about the first time he saw P.E. at the Philadelphia Spectrum, which no longer exists and was where Rocky Balboa first fought Apollo Creed, and he saw Public Enemy there in 1989. He said that they are just as good now.

“Flava is timeless,” he says. “And Chuck, he’s a new man tonight.”

He says he has to go. He says that he has to be at work at 6 AM. He introduces himself as Eddie from South Jersey and tells me to “paint a pretty picture.” He exits as Flav breaks into “Cold Lampin with Flavor.”

An hour later, Public Enemy is still playing. Of the dozens and dozens of hip-hop shows I have been to, this ranks right at the top. The choreography of the S1W’s (short for Security of the First World), Public Enemy’s armed dance troupe in camouflaged fatigues, posing and dancing with the outrageous metal guitar behind them, Flavor’s ridiculous charisma, and Chuck D’s classic Marv Albert-influenced voice, as they all break into “Fight the Power,” ushering in hour three of their performance with their famous song from Spike Lee’s "Do the Right Thing."

Flavor announces that it is P.E.’s twentieth anniversary. He said he loves Baltimore and all of his “friends and family out in Woodlawn County.” With midnight long gone, I notice that some of the Tuesday night crowd has left, but most still remain. The band shows no sign of concluding as they play “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.”

In my final trip to the can, a bald man with a red mustache and a Dundalk accent turns to me and says, “One hell of a show! Chuck said it when he said, ‘Anyone comes in here and gives you a thirty-minute show, boo them off the stage.’ I’ve followed these guys for years and they rock.”

“One of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” I said.

“Me too,” he says. “I love these guys!”

As Tuesday had turned into Wednesday, I looked down from my posh balcony and the crowd looked like a multi-ethnic grunge pit. Fists pumping. Crowd surfing. It was quite a sight.

The last song they plated was a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin.” Flav announced that he had worn “this clock since 1987 and it was going into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. He followed that with another soliloquy about bringing the troops home from Iraq, before he and the group left the stage.

Public Enemy, dinosaurs from another era, showed me that what I had first heard on the way to Hershey Park one day 17 years ago that had stayed with me to this day was really great art.
I was the last person to leave the V.I.P. section. Even Paul was gone. Public Enemy, dinosaurs from another era, had showed me that what I had first heard on the way to Hershey Park that day seventeen years ago that had stayed with me to this day was really great art. And even though I’m thirty now, and walking out of the show and into a weird wonderland of chain clubs and cheesy contrived downtown nightlife, I was reminded that hip-hop was once great—and also that being thirteen again was not bad either.
Jesse Fask, a Baltimorean, is a graduate of Beloit College and the University of Maryland School of Social Work. When he was a student at Baltimore City College high school, he was an intern for this newspaper.

Ram's Head Live! is at the Power Plant on Baltimore's harbor.

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This story was published on March 29, 2007.