In what was one of the most anticipated tours of the year, Shaun Ponsonby sees a trio of hip hop icons descend upon Manchester Arena.

As a veteran of classic rock shows, these kinds of bills aren’t foreign to me.

Multi-band package tours of heritage artists – usually with incomplete line-ups – are fairly common with ageing rock acts. This writer has seen versions of Deep Purple with Styx and Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper headlining with Motorhead and Joan Jett, Scorpions opening for Judas Priest and at least one of the fairly regular Whitesnake and Def Leppard shows. All were enjoyable nostalgia fests, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. 

But it is a new phenomenon in hip hop, which is why this Gods of Rap show seems to be such a novel idea.

Looking at the bill as advertised, it was easy to see why the very thought captured people’s imaginations; De La Soul, Public Enemy and Wu Tang Clan. Short of the unlikely return of Biggie and TuPac, you probably couldn’t get a line up with as much clout. Each act has been vital to the development of hip hop in their own way, and to see them together? Damn, that turns Academy-level acts into an arena spectacular.

Arriving at Manchester Arena, it was clear how far the enthusiasm had reached. De La Soul played at the ungodly hour of 7pm – before most gigs have even opened their doors – to a crowd that was genuinely bigger than some headliners we’ve seen there.

Sadly, the sound for them – as would be the case for much of the night – was inadequate. Manchester Arena has never been a great sounding venue, but the muddiness of the sound tonight was one of the worst. At times we could barely even understand what they were saying between songs.

Which is a shame, because it was clear that they still possess a cheekiness and delighted the crowd with the kind of old skool stage shtick that young MC’s wouldn’t be caught dead partaking in. It was straight out of another time, but it felt appropriate for a night dedicated to the Gods of Rap. Their 40 minute set was probably the most fun of the night.

Public Enemy weren’t Public Enemy.  Chuck D sounded almost apologetic when he introduced the group as “Public Enemy Radio – bare bones. The show must go on.”

So what is Public Enemy Radio?

Well, basically, its Chuck D. Flava Flav wasn’t present, and neither was the live band that Public Enemy usually travel with.  DJ Lord – replacement for Terminator X for the last 20-odd years – held down the beats whilst Chuck sermonised.

It doesn’t work quite as well without Flava. He is the ying to Chuck’s yang. He’s taken a lot of the stick over the years, but he really is necessary. His clowning makes Chuck’s message more palatable and less overbearing.

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Still, Chuck remains a powerful presence, and despite being the oldest MC on stage, by far the most energetic. Of all the acts tonight, it is his words that are probably most relevant now, in the age of Brexit, Trump and the return to prominence of politically minded rap. That this message is still applicable is both a testament to Chuck and a pretty sobering reminder of the cycle of society’s ills.

P.E.R. were probably responsible for one of the highlights of the night, when Chuck D defiantly yelled “fuck Brexit, and fuck Donald Trump”, before launching into Fight The Power, which to this day probably still contains some of the most culturally subversive lines in the history of music. If Kendrick Lamar said “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never met shit to me/Straight up racist the sucker was, simple and plain/Motherfucker, him and John Wayne” today, it would still fuck shit up.  

Perhaps the stripped down Public Enemy Radio wouldn’t have felt like a let-down had it been advertised as such. New posters that have gone up on line seem to have made the correction. But for most of us, we arrived expecting the full Public Enemy experience. That said, we definitely need more Chuck D’s in the world.

There was another notable absence; Method Man wasn’t with Wu Tang Clan.

This shouldn’t surprising, and in fact it isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Method Man has a fairly successful acting career, which means his schedule works differently to the rest of the group. Still, it speaks volumes about his importance that when the stage with eight other MC’s, his presence is missed.

They didn’t really feel like a unit though, and the set was a bit of a mess. At times, this actually worked to its shambolic credit, a ramshackle charm that kept one foot in their grimey roots. At other times – particularly during between song banter, where the eight of them would talk over each other, testing the already muddy sound system – it all became a bit too much.

But they retain their power. Whilst a song like Ice Cream probably hasn’t aged very well, most – C.R.E.A.M., Protect Ya Neck – undoubtedly have. And as the headliners, they were able to play a full set with deep cuts and solo tracks.

The highlight, though, was a tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. They brought out his son, named – what else? – Young Dirty Bastard, who took the lead on Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Got Your Money. His youthful vigour brought a whole ‘nother energy to the stage and ensured that the night ended on a high.

Oddly, the real star was probably Gang Starr‘s DJ Premier, who kept the crowd on their feet between sets. He held the night together, and without him we might have had a very different experience. His enthusiasm was infectious, and it carried on throughout each acts’ set. 

Such is the confidence of the promoters, that they were already advertising Gods of Rap II. Given the showing tonight, this shouldn’t be surprising. It was a good night, but not the great night that the line-up suggested. That said, we saw the second show of a full European tour, so perhaps the kinks are still being worked out. 

But perhaps the anticipation was so high, that nothing could have truly lived up to the hype. Its Gods of Rap II that will truly decide whether or not this works.

Pictures courtesy of Sakura