By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell
Public Enemy are invariably described as "controversial," and controversial they are. But among rap fans, there's not much controversy about one thing--they're the best. Their black nationalist rhymes have changed the rules of rap braggadocio, and while not everyone emulates their dissonant music, its dense textures exemplify rap's new "hard" aesthetic. What's more, their stage show has always avoided the static visuals of what has become a very record-oriented genre.
On Fight the Power, however, Public Enemy don't settle for the concert video they could have gotten away with, especially given director Hart Perry's evident gift for crowd shots. The tape does focus on a triumphant show at the group's home arena, Nassau Coliseum. But not only does it shock the living room with quick cuts as hectic as the buzzy undertones and polyphonic crosstalk of their music, it ups the energy with all kinds of gimmicks--historical footage of black heroes, flashed keywords, looped images, bits of skit, black-and-white inserts of the group itself, snatches of performances from Japan to Riker's Island. And it breaks things up with three promo clips, including the Spike Lee-directed title song, and a running joke about something called PETV.
Big man Chuck D is his usual admonitory self throughout. Professor Griff, whose anti-Semitic pronunciamentos (which are never reflected in the music) almost destroyed the group last June, gets a few cameos. But the tape belongs to heroic sidekick Flavor Flav, the star if not the proprietor of PETV. Musically, Flav usually plays the young loudmouth who urges Chuck D on. But here he's an irrepressible clown--from the clocks around his neck to the whiskbroom coif beneath his headgear to the spastic grace of his perpetual motion to the humanely silly wisdom he spouts at any opportunity.
PE isn't the first group to trick up a concert video, but they're damn near the first with the stuff to make you like it. No matter what you think you think of rap, you should subject yourself to this version.
Video Review, Sept. 1989