It was 30 years ago today

PE Nation of Millions coverAnother anniversary post, this occasion being three decades ago that Public Enemy released their second LP, ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’. This post isn’t entirely about that though but about their debut London gig as part of the 87 Def Jam Tour, supporting LL Cool J at the Hammersmith Odeon, the November before. Also on the bill were Eric B & Rakim (notice the spelling below – and the upcoming Bad News live show posters) and the whole thing was being recorded by the BBC for their ‘Fresh Start To The Week’ rap show.

Hammermith Odean Def Jam Tour 87
Keen-eared listeners will of course know this from the opening lines of the album, MC’d by Fresh Start… host, Dave Pearce, “Hammersmith Odeon are you ready for the Def Jam Tour? Let me hear you make some noise!”. Parts of the gig were interspersed throughout ‘Nations…’ courtesy of The BBC who had already broadcast it by the time the album dropped the next year. Somewhere in among the hollering and whistling were my friends and I as well as many others I would later go on to meet along the way. But first some context:

This was PE’s first trip to the UK, their debut, ‘Yo, Bum Rush The Show’ had been out a while but they’d also released the iconic ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ on the B-side of their last single, ‘You Gonna Get Yours/Mi Uzi Weighs A Ton’. They were supporting LL Cool J on this trip alongside Eric B & Rakim (who were having their own hits like Paid In Full). PE rose up the ranks with incredible speed though. Their first single, ‘Time Bomb/Public Enemy No.1’ was a real oddity, the album dropped in February ’87 and was even weirder but was released on Def Jam so was given perhaps more time than an unknown. When they dropped ‘You Gonna Get Yours’ with the crazed Terminator X Getaway Mix and ‘Rebel…’ on the B side, it was a done deal.

‘Rebel’ was an instant classic – a summer anthem – and more of the same followed. In the autumn, ‘Bring the Noise’, (from the Less Than Zero soundtrack) proved they could do it again and once ‘Nation’ dropped to unanimous acclaim, they were premiere league. By the time they came back to the UK they were either headlining or co-headlining with Run DMC who were still riding off the back of their world-smashing ‘Raising Hell’ album and easily the biggest rap group in the world apart from the Beastie Boys, who still looked like a novelty at that point. But Run DMC’s star was fading and PE – arguably – replaced them.

Winding back to November ’87, they were still the new kids but they’d put quite a show together to make a good first impression. Before we even entered the venue, the unexpected happened, Chuck and Flav appeared outside – behind a barrier and escorted by S1Ws – and chatted with fans. At first they were hesitant but there was such a clamour that they embraced it for a bit, well, Flav did as you can see below.

Chuck + S1W outside
Flav signs autographsFlav + fansFlav + fans 2

Kev + Flav London 1987

That’s me above on the left in the black Kangol hat, what you can’t see is the black body warmer I had on over my leather jacket with a hand-painted Public Enemy stencil logo on the back. This was back before the band even had merch for sale. Chuck was impressed. Below is the concert ticket with a message from Flav scribbled on my train ticket. In hindsight, I think they were perhaps a little overwhelmed at how the UK embraced them on that first tour (remember, ‘Yo, Bum Rush the Show’ was their current record, hence the faded intro on the opening segment on ‘Nation…’). But once the second album dropped, with its BBC recordings and copious thanks to DJs and artists from the UK alongside PE’s US peers, it seems that we made as big an impression as they did.

DefJamTourTicket+autograph

Public Enemy were on first – the stage was packed, there were air raid sirens and the enormous PE logo. Terminator X flanked by two gun-toting, S1Ws on pedestals either side, Professor Griff stalking in the shadows with Chuck and Flav in bright white, bounding all over the place. It was a full on, high octane experience from start to very quick end (about half an hour I think), a scrappy, stop-start show that didn’t let up, and if it did then the whistle and foghorn posse just filled in the gaps as can be heard on the recording.

PE arriveChuck+Griff+S1WFlav+Griff+S1W+ChuckGriff + S1W S1W TerminatorX RocknRoll

Above is the ‘Terminator X!’ moment from ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ which the crowd went absolutely nuts for.
You can see actual footage of the gig on the DVD, ‘The First London Invasion 1987’.

In the middle we had Eric B & Rakim who seemed dwarfed by the huge stage with Eric B largely static, high up on his DJ pedestal and no backdrop graphic, leaving only Rakim to prowl the stage for visual entertainment. I’ve actually cropped more off these photos but wanted to show the enormity of the space they occupied. The sound was poor and Rakim called for more volume a few times.

Eric B + Rakim 2 Eric B + Rakim

After this slightly underwhelming middle act it was LL’s turn and at this point he was the bonafide star of the show. At the top of his golden era hip hop peak with his second album, ‘Bigger & Deffer’, out and the forumla-breaking but uneven ‘Walking With a Panther’ yet to come. His intro blew nearly everything before it to pieces. Set in a mocked up Farmer’s Boulevard street scene (his home, referenced on countless numbers of his rhymes), bookended by two DJ booths, a huge, flashing mothership of a boom box descended from the ceiling to the theme tune of ‘2001’ as his DJs, Cut Creator and Bobcat, scratched over the Original Concept’s ‘Can You Feel It’ until the ‘legend in leather’ walked onstage.

LL Boombox descends

Oozing youthful arrogance, you could see why there were a LOT of women in the audience there for him, here was your first young hip hop heartthrob, only just out of his teens. He was in amazing shape too (see bottom photo) and knew exactly how to work the crowd with a choreographed set involving both DJs (Bobcat even played hype man I seem to remember). His one misstep was to do ‘I Need Love’, the soppy, skip-it-please-ballad from the second album, and he was booed mercilessly for it by a large proportion of the crowd from where I was standing, eager to get back to the high-testosterone beats and cuts. At that point, love ballads had no place in hip hop such as this but the joke’s on all of us as LL and Def Jam had seen some sort of future where RnB would slowly blend with rap so as to become one. James Todd Smith can claim to be a pioneer of that scene, for good or bad, (he didn’t do too badly out of it).

LLCoolJ arrivesLL Cool J 1LLCoolJ 2LL Cool J shirt off

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