Pitchfork Music Festival 2008: Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions… Will Not Be Overshadowed, Not Even By Flavor Flav

“Cut for cut, track for track … It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.” Even the most basic statements of fact come from Chuck D as poetry, with the right rhythm, at the perfect pitch. It’s why It Takes A Nation… is a stone cold classic, and it’s why last night Public Enemy’s set lit up Union Park with sheer awesomeness. Before PE hit the stage, the Bomb Squad — the production team behind Enemy’s beats — amped up the crowd with 15 minutes of earth shaking beats. You could feel the bass in your nostrils, which I’m pretty sure means it was good. A few minutes later, it was Public Enemy time.

This record meant a lot to me as a kid, and in thinking about this set, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my fear that this set would be overshadowed — if not hijacked — by the insane exploits of VH1’s most bankable celebreality star. Sure enough, during a tone-setting “Bring The Noise,” Chuck D prowled the stage alone at the mic, backed only by his DJ and his dancing bodyguard guys the S1Ws; Flav could be heard, but not seen. “Where the fuck is Flavor Flav?”

Chuck asked afterwards. And then Flav made his inevitable, grandstanding entrance. Instead of it being a tense moment, though, D scolded him playfully while Flavor explained: “Yo Chuck I was trying to get my family into the park!” I was worried for a minute, but ultimately that wasn’t giving enough credit to the record, or Chuck, or the night in general: There was no way Friday was going to be about anything else but Public Enemy.

Flav has always been the hammy hype man, and on that stage that lunatic shtick once again seemed, sensible. Like, more than wearing horns and generally being lecherously batshit crazy for the benefit of the Viacom corporation’s bottom line, here he had a function with actual utility: to punctuate the assault of Chuck D’s lyrics, to balance his disciplined clarity and gravity with that absurdist, anarchic edge. Flav told us the story behind “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor,” even remembering the name of the radio DJ (Mr. Magic) whose on-air dis the track was a response to (which is really impressive since earlier Flav mangled the name of his own album, calling it It Takes The Nation Of A Million To Hold Us Back; oh, words). Later in the set he lit it up on “911 Is A Joke.” And he closed the set by being better than you on the drum kit. Now I don’t feel so bad for thinking there was something to the guy all those years ago.

After PE were done holding us back, they ripped out Apocalypse ’91’s “Can’t Truss It,” and closed it all with a “Fight The Power” that morphed and closed out horned-up soul revue style. Again, Flav stepped into the spotlight: “Put two fingers in the air, and on the count of three say what that stands for.” The crowd boomed in “peace.” Yep, Flavor Flav actually commanded an inspiring moment. After hearing that album, though, there was just no other way to end it. So many photos await.