Seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy — never ones to shy away from politically charged lyrics — wasted no time blasting a particularly polarizing Republican presidential candidate at South by Southwest. “Black Lives Matter! F— Donald Trump,” Chuck D yelled, holding up a middle finger for crowd-pleasing emphasis, just four songs into Public Enemy’s concert on Saturday.
“So far, the election is a bizarre show — I won’t make my decision until October, but seriously, the country is in turmoil,” the 55-year-old rapper told Billboard backstage just minutes before performing “Welcome to the Terrordome” as the set’s opener at Samsung’s Galaxy Life Fest.
After the concert — which featured backup dancers in military attire — his fellow “Fight the Power” rapper Flavor Flav elaborated on the fiery jab at Trump.
“I’m not really the politician of the group,” Flavor Flav, 56, told Billboard while cooling down in his trailer. “There’s a lot of people talking a lot of shit about Trump, but guess what? He’s winning. The man is winning. I ain’t gonna lie, but listen, the United States has been ran a certain way for decades and decades and decades. You never know: Maybe Trump could possibly do something. Maybe he might step in office and do something. I’m not going to doubt him.
“Put it this way: If this was really, really a foot race, Donald Trump would be the first one to the finish line, but they won’t let him cross it first,” Flavor Flav continued, with his trademark clock dangling from his neck. “That’s the way I feel, you know what I’m saying? Because he’s winning fairly, but they still don’t want him to be president. They’re going to try to block that man from being president. If Donald Trump does become president, there’s only one thing we all can do: just sit back and let the man do his job.”
It’s been 26 years since Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, one of the most culturally important albums ever, tackled political oppression and abuse of power, but that album’s themes still resonate in today’s society nearly three decades later with the current Black Lives Matter movement in the spotlight.
Public Enemy first brought those songs — “Fight the Power,” “Terrordome” and “911 Is a Joke” — to SXSW in the early 1990s, during the formative years of the festival.
“That crowd tonight was incredible,” Flavor Flav said. “We haven’t done this since 1993. Not only is today’s crowd a different generation from last time, but what we talked about back then still pertains now after the fact.”
Public Enemy also performed recent material such as the title track from 2015’s Man Plans God Laughs, and it hasn’t been difficult for the group to consistently write about political issues after all these years.
“Life is its own political topic,” Chuck D said. “If you’re paying attention to it, you’ll already have the answer to it, so political means just understanding what’s happening around you.
“For example: How old are you?” he asked.
“29,” this reporter responded.
“You’re an old dude, so you vote?”
“You pay taxes?”
“You got kids?”
“So you already have political things in life that you do that either you do or you’re f—ed,” he reasoned. “It’s not hard to be political if you’re over 21.”
The group’s latest album — Public Enemy’s 13th studio effort since dropping Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987 — was inspired sonically by Kanye West‘s Yeezus and lyrically by socially conscious artists like Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels.
“Kanye is always pushing the envelope, which a good thing,” Chuck D said when asked about his thoughts on Kanye releasing The Life of Pablo solely on Tidal. “You want to give the option of a bunch of different things, but Kanye has people tied into it and he has to do his thing, but he also has to have people justify these decisions.”
Flavor Flav, who has been making new music including a collaboration called “OG” with Snoop Dogg and E-40, touted several rappers. “I always love my Kanye. Kanye stays in the game and stays on the ball. Kanye is a bad motherf—er. I love me some Kanye f—ing West. F— that. That’s my dude.” He also rattled off Kendrick, Jadakiss, Jay Z, Eminem (“my favorite of all time”), Busta Rhymes, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Travis Scott and J. Cole as inspirations.
“I’ve got new stuff I’m working on. I’ve got some bangers,” Flavor Flav said, adding that he wants his label to partner with another label for this release, for which he currently has eight tracks ready. “I could go to Interscope — maybe they would want to mess with me — or maybe Atlantic in New York. I’ve got some stuff right now I want to put on the radio.”
Public Enemy — who opened for headliners ColleGrove (the new rap duo of 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne) — performed during SXSW Interactive, the tech portion of the festival, where this year virtual reality has taken over as the hot buzzword.
“Virtual reality is never going to replace sweat,” Chuck D said before asking Flavor Flav, “You think virtual reality will ever replace sweat?”
“What kind of question is that?” Flavor Flav responded in disbelief. “No.”