A Public Enemy show is one part musical concert, one part ethnic theater and one part political rally. As the headliner in a five-act rap show at Capital Centre last night, Public Enemy communicated its politics not only through songs like "Fight the Power" and "Don't Believe the Hype," but also through a long monologue by lead vocalist Chuck D early in the show. In a passionate speech torn from recent headlines, he attacked music censorship and the prosecution of Marion Barry and he praised Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam.

"Sure, he was wrong to do drugs," Chuck D said of Barry, "but check this out: If there were a camera in every hotel room and every home of every politician, what kind of {stuff} do you think you would see?" The crowd roared. "I think Marion Barry is getting a raw deal." He went on to defend 2 Live Crew and asked the audience: "Do you want anyone telling you what kind of music you should listen to ... where you can hear it and when you can hear it?" Finally Chuck D praised Farrakhan for supporting Barry and went so far as to introduce and embrace Abdul Alim Muhammad, national spokesman for the Nation of Islam and a congressional candidate in Prince George's County.

No matter what one thinks of Chuck D's politics, there's no denying he's a charismatic pop-music performer. He bounced about the stage in an Oakland Raiders cap and jacket, moving with the side-step shuffle and wiry intensity of a prizefighter. He spat out his dense, militant rhymes and percussive bursts, which he acted out with shadowboxing punches. Riding the thick, hypnotic rhythm tracks manipulated by DJ Terminator X, Chuck D's voice had the spellbinding authority that has marked great rock-and-roll singers from Elvis Presley to James Brown.

Public Enemy opened the show with its recent controversial single "Welcome to the Terrordome," which not only has antisemitic overtones but also exposes Chuck D's own messiah complex,robbing his work of much-needed subtlety and irony. Public Enemy's other vocalist, Flavor Flav, provided the comic relief. Dressed in a red windbreaker and his trademark oversize clock medallion, he delivered his own political stump speech with the admonition, "Stay in school and get that diploma; make your mom feel like, 'Hey, I did a good job.' " To illustrate his points about black pride, he brought the reigning Miss USA, Carole Gist, out on stage and fell flat on the floor when she hugged him.

The balance of the show provided an overview of contemporary rap -- from the youthful vivaciousness of Kid 'N Play to the bald sexism of Digital Underground to the soul classicism of Heavy D & the Boyz. After a short set by newcomer Chill Rob G, Kid 'N Play came out and displayed some of the sharpest breakdance moves in rap. Unfortunately, the two Long Island rappers, who starred in the movie "House Party," added so much echo to their mix that their lyrics were mostly indecipherable.

In the third set, the young Oakland group Digital Underground displayed the ugly misogynist side of rap. During "sex packets," it pulled out inflated plastic sex dolls, mimed a rough rape and then tossed the dolls aside. Later, the three rappers dropped their mikes and mimed the sale of the sex packets (aphrodisiacs) to a pre-recorded version of the song in a scene that looked very much like a drug deal.

Heavy D is the Barry White of the rap world -- a rotund romancer with a deep, controlled, seductive delivery. Flanked by two slick breakdancers, the goateed New York rapper ("The Overweight Lover," according to the lit-up backdrop) incorporated Philly soul, funk and reggae touches into raps that boasted a crisp craftsmanship few competitors could match.