Heavy D., who preceded Public Enemy on stage Thursday night at a sold-out Pavilion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the crowd that some folks had said he, a rather jovial rapper, should not tour with the militant rap group.
”I see black kids, white kids, whompin` and bompin` like this,” he said, grooving his wide hips, ”so don`t tell me I shouldn`t be on tour with Public Enemy.”
If anything, the five-act bill demonstrated how wide a net rap music can throw. Silk Tymes Leather, in its brief set, was straight female dance rap. Kid `N Play, featured in the hit movie ”House Party,” proved a fluorescent duo in baggy pants, constantly engaging in one-upmanship to impress the ladies.
Digital Underground, whose ”The Humpty Dance” hit had everyone humpty-dancing, was a parent`s worst nightmare with its constant profanity and X-rated innuendo.
Heavy D., with ”The Overweight Lover” written in lights behind him, was actually light on his feet. In a bright purple suit and sunglasses, he was likable, although he lipsynched some songs, and his set dragged by the end.
But the crowd had the most invested in Public Enemy, the musical spokespeople for black nationalism. The group tends to have ”controversial” stuck before its name, partly because of a former member`s anti-Semitic comments, partly because of the group`s continued embrace of the Nation of Islam and Minister Louis Farrakhan (Louis Jr. was introduced on stage), partly because the group attacks racial issues with no mincing of words.
Sometimes leader Chuck D.`s messages, delivered in his bullhorn voice, can be muddled, as on the frenzied ”Welcome to the Terrordome,” which opened the show. And at one point he had everyone make peace signs as his background ”posse” pointed plastic Uzis at the crowd.
But at their core, many of his songs deliver positive, anti-violence, pro-tolerance messages while giving voice to issues rarely heard in popular music. Much of their power derives from their relentless, densely layered grooves that can feel like a jackhammer in the head.
Recorded layers, however, become a loud blur when blared in a sports arena. ”Bring the Noise” became a literal description of itself, and the crowd did a lot more fist-pumping and head-nodding than butt-wiggling.
Chuck D. stalked the stage in L.A. Raiders garb. Flavor Flav, his comic foil, brought his trademark clock, worn around the neck; his red sunglasses and cap; and his penchant for saying, ”Yeeaaaaah, boyyyzzz!”
The acoustics didn`t really blur Public Enemy`s message because much of the audience knew the words already. Besides, the leads spent as much time talking about jobs, homelessness, health care, education and police as rapping.
But late in the set Heavy D.`s point was illustrated Public Enemy-style, with blacks and whites whompin` and bompin` together, fists in the air, chanting ”Fight the power.”