Public Enemy brought it all back home Friday night. Performing, for the first time ever, their classic album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) in its entirety, they returned to a defining moment in modern music history and consolidated their status as perhaps the greatest hip hop group ever. Though not held at the Hammersmith Apollo, where they performed on the Def Jam Tour in 1987 — the show that was subsequently immortalised in live segments on the album — but rather at a sold out Brixton Academy across town, it was still one hell of a homecoming.

It Takes a Nation is one of those records that both define and defy their genre. Based on a complex layering of samples appropriated from a wide range of sources, it is a tempestuous sonic epic that proved groundbreaking to the development not only of hip hop, but electronic music as a whole. A liberating blueprint for a new sound, founded in black musical history, to stand with the group’s political and social message of black — and by extension human — emancipation.

Front man Chuck D’s writing combined rap’s quintessential quality of clarity of intent with literary intelligence and an impressionistic sense of poetry. Eschewing the established freestyle approach to rapping, he challenged traditional rhyming structures to create sophisticated, integral raps, delivered in his authoritative baritone. The foil to his straight talk was mad hatter Flavor Flav’s caustic and hilarious subversion of the jiggaboo stereotype. With Flav, the role of hype man became an art form, and his crazed vitality added laughter to the group’s revolutionary arsenal.

While each of their first four albums is rightly considered classic, It Takes a Nation is, as mentioned, the defining one. And by all rights, its legacy should be a tough one to lift for a group that, while still obviously committed to their work, has lost much of their creative vigour as recording artists today, twenty years down the line. Not so. This was a magisterial performance.

This despite some missing personnel. As PE fans well know, their DJ, Terminator X, retired in 1998 and has since then been doubled by the technically more accomplished, but also more generic DJ Lord. Disappointingly, however, Professor Griff — still very much part of the group — had been denied exit from the US by the authorities, depriving the show of his minor, but always intense presence as stolid head of the body guard-cum-dancers S1Ws. On the other hand, two of the original Bomb Squad members, the brothers Shocklee — Hank and Keith — were present and even played a set of smoked-out deep house/hip hop/dubstep, which showcased their continued musical mastery, but also overstayed its welcome by about 20 minutes. Somewhat inappropriate as an opener, but hey, you can’t front on the people who created the Public Enemy sound.

And in any case, the sluggish funk this placed large parts of the audience in dissipated instantaneously when Chuck, Flav, and the S1Ws rushed the stage to the opening sounds of “Bring the Noise.” We were up front, and it was crazy. People were feeling this shit from the word ‘Bass!’, matching the incredible energy brought to the performance by the two MCs. By the time we got to “Prophets of Rage,” Chuck was doing his trademark basketball moves, bouncing across the stage throwing and catching his cordless, while Flav joined the crowdsurfing that had been going on since “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.” These guys are pushing 50 and they outpace most performers half their age.

As to the interpretation of the songs, they mostly stayed closed to the originals and delivered them with both force and conviction, not to mention consummate professionalism, to match their classic status. The setup of bass, guitar, drums and turntables combining to recreate the tracks, sometimes substituting live instrumentation for parts of the original, sometimes complementing it as played from the boards, works as a well-oiled machine.

Concerning the specifics, they added a bit of “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” onto the end of “Terminator X,” which worked well, but conversely passed up the opportunity of turning up the heat even more by leaving the music out of the hype last part — I’m talking ’bout BASE! — after Griff’s bit about “selling drugs to the brotherman instead of the other man,” of “Night of the Living Baseheads.” More frustrating, however, was the uninspired live drumming that complemented the “Security of the First World” beat, and the slowed-down, organic backing they had chosen to replace the monumental original track of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” This, coupled with Chuck’s clear but more measured delivery, letter from the Government in hand, somewhat diminished the impact of what to my mind is one of the strongest, most affecting pieces in a catalogue of great works.

Also, I thought they neglected the opportunity of ending their intense performance — rapping literally back-to-back — of the rousingly uplifting last track, “Party for Your Right to Fight,” with a bang, instead choosing to stop suddenly and start talking to the audience. This was somewhat of a pity, as a more resounding finish would have rounded of what — despite my quibbles — had been a masterful, not to mention banging, rendition of this classic material. The added set of highlights from the rest of their career that followed was merely the icing on the cake — true to form, the crowd went insane as they kicked it off with “Welcome to the Terrordome” — of what felt like hip hop history in the making.

Twenty years later, Public Enemy had come full circle. Still alive, still Counting Down to Armageddon.

Public Enemy feat. The Bomb Squad, Kool Keith, Anti-Pop Consortium + Edan & Dagha, Friday 23rd, Brixton Academy, London. Monday 26th, they play the Manchester Academy and Tuesday 27th, the Glasgow ABC1. Look for other tour stops around the UK. They played here in Cambridge last night.

By the way: Edan & Dagha were entertaining, but gimmicky, Anti-Pop Consortium were terrible, never connecting with the audience (time to wrap it up, fellas?), and Kool Keith was tight as always, but lacked the energy to make his performance memorable.

Flav seemed to share our sentiments about the gig. Check out more YouTube clips here. Interview with Chuck D in The Guardian.