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Public Enemy pumps out harrowing hip-hop at Free State Festival

Flavor Flav (right) and Chuck D of Public Enemy, in London earlier this month (pictured), brought energy to Lawrence on Saturday during the Free State Festival.
Flavor Flav (right) and Chuck D of Public Enemy, in London earlier this month (pictured), brought energy to Lawrence on Saturday during the Free State Festival. File photo by The Associated Press

The incendiary hip-hop group Public Enemy headlined a sweltering outdoor concert at the Free State Festival in downtown Lawrence on Saturday. Thousands attended the free event presented by the Lawrence Arts Center.

Public Enemy’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 rankled rock purists. Yet the group’s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” proved that hip-hop can possess the sonic abrasiveness and lyrical potency of the most inspired rock artists.

As the emcee Chuck D proclaimed in a scorching reading of the landmark album’s “Bring the Noise” on Saturday, Public Enemy and like-minded hip-hop artists are merely reclaiming the sound that “is the father of your rock and roll.”

Born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour in 1960, Chuck D resembled a politician as he addressed various societal ills between songs. His diatribe about presidential candidate Donald Trump was cut short when his longtime comic foil William Jonathan Drayton, Jr., the man better known as Flavor Flav, interjected, “Flavor Flav for president!”

Flavor Flav’s buffoonery offsets the harrowing themes of Public Enemy’s songs. He wore a small clock around his neck, leaped with remarkable agility and played bass on “Welcome to the Terrordome.”

A backing band and DJ allowed Chuck D and Flavor Flav to improvise and ad lib as inspiration struck. “Hoover Music” and “Black is Back,” two of the best selections, illustrated Public Enemy’s penchant for heavy metal. An undercurrent of hard rock also bolstered “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise.”

While an unsatisfying DJ showcase and two solo Flavor Flav songs killed the momentum, Public Enemy’s vital 80-minute outing almost made the glitches that preceded it seem inconsequential.

The heat, the lack of a published schedule and the extended wait for the first act to appear on the main stage failed to sap the spirit of the good-natured crowd. A promotional video that was repeatedly shown on the screen on the primary stage indicated that the event would begin at 6:30 p.m. By 8:30 p.m., not a single act had performed on the stage.

The delay caused laughably brief appearances by the five regionally based ensembles that preceded Public Enemy. The consistently electrifying trio Ebony Tusks was on stage for 12 minutes. Heet Mob, Hearts of Darkness and Lincoln Marshall also had abrupt turns in the spotlight.

Midnight Marauders, a collaboration between three turntablists, focused on classic hip-hop from previous decades. Nothing they played, however, matched the startling vitality of Public Enemy’s crucial performance.

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