SANTA BARBARA — It doesn't seem all that long ago that some of the gentlest things being said about rap were that the music was no good live and that none of the acts had any staying power.
The harsher voices--and they are still being heard--argued that rap wasn't really music at all and that most rappers were socially irresponsible, encouraging everything from gang violence to racial division.
On Wednesday night at the 900-capacity Anaconda club on the lip of the UC Santa Barbara campus, Public Enemy deflated all of those criticisms in a blistering performance that confirmed its place as both a positive social force and one of the half-dozen most compelling attractions in all of pop.
The 80-minute set was the first stop in a Southern California swing that continues tonight at the Palladium in Hollywood after another show scheduled here Thursday.
The appearance revealed a new, more disarming Chuck D.
Public Enemy's music has been there to admire since 1987--a striking series of statements about black unity and black pride, including anti-violence and anti-drug components, that are fueled by the same sense of social sweep and cascading images found in some of Bob Dylan's most absorbing songs.
The material ranges from the willfully controversial (the anger in "By the Time I Get to Arizona" over the lack of a holiday for the late Martin Luther King Jr. in that state) to the warmly eloquent (the chronicle in "Can't Truss It" of the disheartening side of the black experience in America). Both were highlights of Wednesday's concert.
The aspect of Public Enemy that continues to gain strength is its live show. After a shaky start as a performer, Chuck D. had matured greatly by 1990, reflecting a passion and purpose that brought to rap the same leadership and magnetism that Bob Marley brought to reggae.
But the burdens of that leadership role seemed to raise questions now and again over whether Chuck D., who was given to lecturing between songs, would allow the shows to become bogged down in polemics.
The good news Wednesday was that Chuck D. has found a way to be as urgent as ever as a rapper yet be more open and engaging as a personality.
Wearing a Duke University baseball cap and jeans, Chuck D. and playful sidekick Flavor Flav were sensational during an opening, 35-minute nonstop barrage of classic Public Enemy material.
The raps are backed by Terminator X's turntable mixes rather than live guitar, drum and bass interplay, but the spirit of Public Enemy--and the best rap--fits comfortably into the inspiring, challenging spirit of rock. It's only been recently, however, that rock audiences began to recognize this link.
Public Enemy's tour last year with metal heroes Anthrax helped underscore that connection--as did the strong response of the mostly young, white, college-age audience Wednesday.
In the past, Chuck D. sometimes seemed to act as if the best way to prove his commitment to the audience was to adopt a serious, no-nonsense attitude when talking between songs. But experience on the road has taught Chuck D. that he is in the hands of supporters at his shows and it's OK to relax with them. Rather than deliver a tirade against Arizona politicians, as he might once have done, he asked during the musical break if there was anyone in the audience from Arizona.
When a couple of fans sheepishly raised their hands, he smiled good-naturedly to encourage them to feel at home, as if to say that he wasn't angry at everyone in the state. Then, he movingly explained why it is important to him as a black man for Arizona to join the rest of the nation in honoring such a major African-American.
This display of warmth is a welcome sign of the maturation of a great artist.