Public Enemy puts spotlight on skid row
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At Operation Skid Row, Chuck D and Public Enemy, and other acts bring attention to downtown Los Angeles’ homeless district with a politically charged free show.
The concert stage for the Operation Skid Row festival was set up on Gladys Avenue between 5th and 6th, in the heart of downtown L.A.'s homeless district. As a white SUV turned onto Gladys, a murmur rippled through the crowd, turning into a roar as the hip-hop legend, elder statesman and co-organizer of the event, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, exited the vehicle.
The goal of the free show Sunday was twofold: for hip-hop artists to perform gratis for skid row residents, and to spotlight the economic and political plight of L.A.'s homeless. It was no coincidence that it was scheduled the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. As speakers would pointedly note from the stage, this is also the 20th anniversary year of the Rodney King riots and the 25th anniversary year of Public Enemy’s existence.
After leaving his vehicle, Chuck D spent a good 15 minutes walking through the crowd (a mix of skid row residents and fans from across the city), hugging attendees and posing for photos.
The necessity of erasing lines of privilege between celebrities and civilians, rich and poor, was a point Chuck drove home repeatedly in his roles as master of ceremonies and performer. His group Public Enemy headlined the largely old-school, West Coast-heavy lineup, kicking off the four hours-plus show and setting the performance bar so high it was only intermittently reached again.
With Public Enemy’s Flava Flav, Professor Griff and scowling S1W in tow, and backed by a full band and DJ, Chuck D led the collective through a blistering set that included classics ‘Shut ‘Em Down,’ ‘Can’t Truss It,’ ‘Bring the Noise,’ ‘911 Is a Joke,’ ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona,’ and — of course — ‘Fight the Power.’ The scaldingly political and timely (if not timeless) lyrics, along with the group’s high-octane energy level (yes, middle-age black men can jump) sent the crowd into a frenzy that held from the first note to the last.
Other highlights included Brother J of the East Coast-based black nationalist rap collective X-Clan scolding the gathering, ‘Y’all late. These kinds of movements have been going on for years, and y’all ignored them,’ before launching a mini-set that proved yet again that funkiness and social awareness can coexist. Iconic Chicano rapper Kid Frost led the crowd on a sing-along performance of the brown pride anthem ‘La Raza,’ while Yo-Yo, one of L.A.'s OG breakthrough female rappers, kicked a deep party groove with ‘Bonnie & Clyde Theme’ and ‘You Can’t Play With My Yoyo.’
L.A.'s trailblazing Egyptian Lover did deadpan renditions of old-school hip-hop moves while performing ‘Egypt, Egypt’ (‘That’s hip-hop history, right there!’ exclaimed Chuck as Egyptian Lover exited the stage) and Digital Underground’s Money B. almost stole the night with his rendition of Pac’s ‘I Get Around.’ Former Death Row artist Kurrupt closed things out with a raucous ‘Ain’t No Fun.’
Unfortunately, momentum was continually thwarted, as organizers — who included social activist General Jeff and the homeless advocacy group LA CAN (Community Action Network) — were able to secure only a festival permit as opposed to a concert permit. That meant speakers had to take the stage between acts and address the crowd with non-musical presentations. That allowed for elucidation of the issues affecting skid row residents: police harassment, racial profiling, etc., but it also gave the event a stop and start effect. Likewise, the inclusion of up-and-coming local artists on the roster was a good gesture, but few of them were able to command the stage with the power of the vets, and audience energy sagged during most of their sets.
And in an afternoon in which all manner of politics were addressed from the stage — calls for black and brown unity; denouncements of anti-immigrant attitudes and policies — Chuck D exhibited elder statesman swagger when he brought a slyly withering critique to hip-hop itself. Early in the show he remarked, ‘Jay-Z says that now that he’s got a daughter, he’s going to stop using the b-word. We commend you, brother, in your 42nd year of life, on that decision. But you had a mother....’
-- Ernest Hardy, Special to the Los Angeles Times
Images, from top: Flava Flav, the crowd at Operation Skid Row, Chuck D, and a graffiti artist creation during Sunday’s concert. All photos: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times