GULF SHORES, Alabama — On a festival bill that swings from acts just breaking through (Twenty One Pilots, Wild Cub) to icons like Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy definitely fall into the legend category.
The group’s hype man, Flavor Flav, said PE fed off the energy of the crowd during their hour-long show, which found the young audience shouting along to such anthems as “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “911 is a Joke.”
“We’re the Rolling Stones of the rap game,” said group leader Chuck D after the set while chilling backstage with MTV News’ Sway Calloway. “Not braggin’/Lips bigger than Jagger/Not saggin’/Spell it backwards, Imma leave it at that,” D rapped.
Chuck was talking about the relative youngsters on PE’s upcoming summer package tour featuring Ice Cube, De La Soul and LL Cool J, but Flav added that with seniority status comes some pressure as well. “We ain’t trying to leave ya’ll on pins and needles/But we just as big as the Beatles,” he freestyled.
One of the difficulties of achieving longevity in the game is that you have to learn to appeal to new audiences who might not have even been born when you started, as well as the old-school fans when you’re putting together a set list.
How does PE pull that off?
“We study people like the Rolling Stones, the Who,” Chuck said. “You see what they do and also you think as a fan, too. Your fans are all across 30 years, you gotta [think] like, how they would see it? Like, when I go see the Rolling Stones, I gotta hear ‘Satisfaction.’ ”
Which is why even after 30 years, if you go see PE, you will hear such key tracks as “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise.” But even with chest-caving songs like that to fall back on, D said the catalog is just one part of the equation.
“You’ve got to perform up there, you can’t rely on the song, you’ve go to kick your song in the ass,” he said just a short time after proving it with a hit-packed set that had both rappers working the whole stage and giving the crowd plenty of energy to feed off of. “You can do any song if you kick it in the ass.”