As you might not expect from a thirty-one-year-old white guy who grew up in the middle of conservative, redneck Alberta, Canada, I am a big, big fan of Public Enemy. As an adolescent, I had a pretty closed-minded view of music: the music I liked mainly consisted of Weird Al, John Denver, and The Beatles. It was only in junior high that my musical tastes slowly began to branch out.
It was during junior high or high school, probably at least sixteen years ago, I discovered "911 Is A Joke," a song done by P.E.'s high-energy hype man Flavor Flav. Which, in retrospect, could possibly be the best P.E. song for a Weird Al fan to listen to. Flavor Flav's delivery was funny, even though the material was serious, and that pulled me in. It was only later that I really began to appreciate the sound that The Bomb Squad and Terminator X produced: the multiple samples that in other hands could have just been noise but actually became something beautiful. And of course, there was the main voice of Public Enemy: Chuck D. The man's lyrics were amazing and his delivery was powerful. I got sucked in. I loved it. I even turned my younger brother on to them, although if you ask him he would say he was the one who introduced me to the group. No matter. The point is: Public Enemy was a big deal. I played Fear of a Black Planet over and over again all that summer, and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back became my all-time favourite album for quite some time. Public Enemy slapped me out of my musical complacency, and became one of the most influential artists or groups on my musical and personal development. And all because of one silly-sounding song.
* * * * *
Eleven years ago, a friend of mine said that Public Enemy was going to be performing in Edmonton, and asked if I would like to go to the concert with him. I immediately said yes; after all, I lived in Edmonton. What were the chances that Public Enemy was ever going to come back to Edmonton, for crying out loud? This was probably my only chance.
We went to the show, and it was pretty packed; a lot of people were standing on the floor, and we pushed as far as we could from the foot of the stage. And when Public Enemy came out, they were everything I wanted them to be: loud and enthusiastic and amazing. Chuck D announced that Terminator X wasn't able to make it across the border, but they'd found someone to replace him for this leg of the tour, DJ Lord, and although I was a little disappointed I found that he was a very acceptable substitute. I don't remember much about that night, only that my friend and I danced as hard as I could, so hard that we hurt for days afterwards. At one point during the show, I bumped into someone who used to go to high school with me: he looked shocked at first, his face incredulous, as if to say, "Really? You're here?" But I just smiled and shouted "Isn't this GREAT?!", and he smiled and nodded his head. At some point during the show I even caught an autographed LP that Professor Griff threw into the audience, and somehow managed to keep it in good condition through the rest of the concert. When it was all over, I was so excited that I immediately ran to the merch table and bought a concert t-shirt to commemorate the event. I was on an incredible high all night; I couldn't get to sleep, and my younger brother - who was my roommate at the time - stayed up late with me as I told him all about the show. I actually got to see Public Enemy. I could die happy.
* * * * *
Five years ago, I was listening to CJSR - the local campus and community radio station - and they announced that Chuck D would be doing a reading at the University as part of their visionary speakers series. I asked Ninja Stan if he wanted to go to the lecture with me, as he loves Public Enemy almost as much as I do (the two of us have been known to do a mean "Bring The Noise" at karaoke nights). He immediately said yes. We were extremely excited; I wore the shirt I'd bought at the concert years before, and yes, I know that's kind of a nerdy thing to do, but I couldn't help myself. I was very excited. I also brought a couple of P.E. CDs for him to sign; one for me to keep and one to give to my younger brother as a Christmas present. We arrived early in order to close to the front of the line, and when they let us in to the hall, we made it down to the very front of the rows of seats. We were both so giddy that you could feel our entire row of seats shaking from our bouncing up and down. Chuck was set to be introduced by a local author and CJSR radio personality, someone whose work I rather enjoyed, and when he came out to make the introductions, my breath caught in my throat for a second.
The speaker talked about how important Chuck D was on music in general, and on himself in particular. It was very obvious that he was a fan, a bigger fan than me, obviously, but that's okay. It wasn't a contest. We were all there to listen to the man and enjoy the evening. And then, just before he introduced Chuck, he said something that almost ruined the whole evening for me. I can't remember his words exactly, but he said something about how "Chuck D and Public Enemy were there to take hip-hop back from the middle-class white kids that had co-opted it."
It was like a punch to the gut. My blood ran cold. I didn't know what to do. I was sitting there, in the front row, ready to hear one of my idols talk about music, society, and anything else he felt like, and all of a sudden I was thinking, "Do I even belong here?" I felt like getting up and leaving. But I didn't. Because then he brought Chuck out and the place erupted, and I remembered why I was there. I remembered that it didn't matter what people thought of the chubby white guy in the front row wearing a concert t-shirt. All that mattered is that I got to see Chuck D.
He talked for over 2 hours. At first, he just spoke, but later, he took questions from the audience and then used them to springboard onto new topics. He talked about race, about music, about culture, about politics, about Canada, about the economy, and on and on. After the two and a half hour mark, he was told that he was going to have to wrap it up, because he had a plane to catch in the morning and they wanted to make sure he made it to his hotel and had a decent amount of sleep. So he said that anyone who wanted an autograph should come up and stand in line, and he'd keep talking until the line was done and/or he ran out of questions, whichever came first. I immediately got in line, clutching my CDs, and waited.
When I finally got to the front of the line, he took my CDs from me without really looking, very businesslike, which made sense: he had to hold a number of things in his head to sign stuff and keep lecturing. I asked him to sign my "Revolverlution" album to me, and my "It Takes A Nation of Millions" album to my brother. He looked up at me to ask how to spell his name, and then when he was done, he handed them back, and was about to go back to his speaking, but I somehow blurted out, "Thanks for making great music and for being an inspiration for this middle-class white kid." Then he looked back up at me, then at my shirt, then back to me.
"Were you at the concert?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat. "Yes, I was. It was great."
He cocked his head, frowned amusedly, and looked at me, like he was thinking, "Really?" Then he asked, "You want me to sign your shirt?"
I must have lit up like a candle. "Sure!"
He laughed, and said "What's your name, man?" I told him, and after he was finished signing my shirt, he shook my hand, smiled again and said, "Thanks, man," and he seemed really genuinely grateful, if a little confused, that I liked him and his group. I turned and went back to my seat, shaking a little. I couldn't believe it. I had shaken hands and talked to Chuck D. I could die just a little bit happier.
* * * * *
A couple of months ago, I was walking down the street, and saw a poster that said that Public Enemy was coming to Edmonton. I freaked out a little bit, and resolved to go to the concert. That resolution was made considerably easier when Ninja Stan said that he would take me to the show for my birthday. I was very on-board. And I know what you're thinking: no, I did not wear my concert t-shirt. I didn't want to look like a giant dork. I wore my Strong Bad t-shirt instead.
We showed up early, because Ninja Stan is a big gimp who walks with a cane and can't stand for a show, so we got a table to the left of the stage and watched the opening acts, who varied from "not bad" to "screamingly hilariously awful, seriously, this has to be a joke, right?" We sat and ate some pizza and talked, but then, it was time for the show. And I wasn't going to sit for it.
I made my way to the middle of the group that had gathered at the stage, and then, BAM! DJ Lord, who had since become a permanent member of the group, started playing, and then Chuck D and Flavor Flav came out, and then the BAND came out. They had a three-piece band with them as well, and they played the whole show. Chuck had a sore throat at the beginning of the set - "I blew out my throat in Saskatoon!" - but after he spent twenty minutes sipping on some hot tea and drinking some medical concoction in between songs, his voice popped back in, and they played for another TWO HOURS AND TEN MINUTES. Nothing but songs off of "Nation of Millions" and "Fear of a Black Planet," my two favourite albums; I danced, I shouted, and I cheered with every song.
When it was finally over, I made my way to the left side of the stage to get Flavor Flav's autograph on my ticket stub. It took a while, as there were a lot of people there who had obviously become fans through his "work" in reality television. After about five minutes I finally got a signature and a quick handshake, and then I made my way to the right of the stage to get Chuck's autograph. When he took it from me, I somehow got the urge to say, "Chuck, I was here at the concert the last time you came through, and I saw you speak at the University, and I wanted to say thank you very much, man, I really really enjoyed the show."
And he looked down at me, head cocked, amused frown on his face. "You were here ten years ago?"
I smiled. "Yes."
His frown turned into a small smile. "And you were at the University?"
I smiled. "Yes."
He smiled a little more and nodded his head in approval. "What's your name, man?"
I told him, and he held out his hand. "Thanks for coming to the show, Devin." I shook his hand, thanked him, and then ran back to the table to show off my ticket to Ninja Stan, happy to have come to the concert, happy to have my autographed ticket stub, and happy to once again have been a source of amusement for Chuck D.