My introduction to Public Enemy came through the Less Than Zero soundtrack, released on November 6, 1987. I was a fan of rap music, but I was also a headbanger, saluting the almighty power of heavy metal. The soundtrack was promoted as featuring tracks by Aerosmith, Danzig, Poison, and Slayer, and it was the latter’s cover of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” that made me want to buy it so I could play it on the high school radio station I was a DJ for. The format of the radio station was hard rock/heavy metal, along with classic rock. I’d play the songs by Aerosmith, Poison, and Slayer, and enjoyed doing so, being the only station in the area that played these songs.
Then I decided to flip the record over to side 2.
I had never heard of anything quite like “Bring The Noise”, the horns coming down like elephants running on a field, followed by a loud “YEAH BOYYEEE!” and a deep tone voice that said “BASS!” WHOA, what is this? I loved the force of the vocals, and I absolutely fell in love with the multi-layered sounds. Up until that point, a rap song had one primary sample and a scratch, maybe two primary samples but no more. This song felt like entering a vulgar room where everyone seemed to be speaking at once, or at least Chuck D.’s voice, Flavor Flav’s quick spits, and the samples going on all at once felt too much to take, but I wanted to take it. This lead to Flav feeling exactly what I was feeling when he said “I don’t understand what they’re saying
but little do they know they can get a smack for that, man” and out came Chuck saying “never badder than dad cause the brother is madder than mad at the fact that’s corrupt as a senator”. HOLY SHIT! The wicked drums (courtesy James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”) pounded out doubles, and out came “soul on a roll, but you treat it like soap on a rope ’cause the beats in the lines are so dope”. Did I understand what he was saying at the time? Absolutely not, it would take months before I could figure it out, but what I also loved was that Chuck D. did each of the verses different from one another, the flows were not the same. The rhythmic patterns seemed complex, or at least hard to grasp upon first listen.
Then it came to the third verse, and I about freaked out when someone in rap had mentioned Sonny Bono and Yoko Ono. As someone who always admired the underdog, it seemed Chuck D. was putting himself amongst these two underdogs. Not mentioning Cher, not mentioning John Lennon, but going for other. I loved it. I caught the references to Eric B. and LL, but then came the great line “wax is for Anthrax”. Hold up. HOLD THE FUCK UP. Did Flavor Flav just give a shout out to Anthrax, and did Chuck D. just say that they also could rock the bells. I loved Metallica, but I LOVED Anthrax and I know I put the needle back to make sure I heard things correctly. From that point on, I realized that this was a group that could do this, like Brutus, because they themselves always knew this. I must have played “Bring The Noise” over and over for a solid hour, and from that point on I avoided playing the rest of the album.
Even if “Prophets Of Rage” and “Don’t Believe The Hype” were mere cues of what was to come, nothing could have ever prepared me for the reality of what would be.
Still, I was not ready.
“Hammersmith Odeon, are you ready for the Def Jam tour, let me hear you make some noise!
In concert for BBC Television tonight and the fresh start of the week, let me hear you make some noise for PUBLIC ENEMY!
The crowd goes nuts, and then it happens. The siren.
“PEACE. ARMAGEDDON HAD BEEN IN EFFECT, GO GET A LATE PASS. STEP!
THIS TIME AROUND, THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED. STEP!
CONSIDER YOURSELVES… WARNED!”
Then “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” from the first album starts, followed by Griff yelling out “alright, let’s make some fuckin’ noise! C’mon, let’s break this shit out and get busy!” before it fades. I still wasn’t ready.
Malcolm X is then heard talking about how when it’s “too black”, it means it’s “too strong”. It is played a second time, slightly louder. Then “Bring The Noise” comes in. It’s the first full song on the album, and it hits things off beautifully. I know this song, and yet it fits perfectly as the starting point on this journey. I was slightly comfortable, but barely. This would lead to “Don’t Believe The Hype” and as an album cut, it fit quite nicely too. Chuck D. and Flavor Flav’s flows were quite nice bouncing back and forth when needed. This felt like a track of information, where one was able to listen to one page of their agenda, their manifesto. It was their way of saying that whatever you ear, don’t believe the bullshit, or cut through it and discover the facts for yourself. The one line from the song that remains very strong in my mind is “suckers, liars, get me a shovel”, and I’ll spring that out at any given them when necessary.
The next track was a fun track, the first solo song by Flavor Flav, and after getting bombarded with serious information, it was time to get down and funky for a few minutes as he drops
“live lyrics from the bank of reality
I kick the flyest dope maneuver technicality
To a dope track, you wanna hike get out your backpack
Get out the wack sack
I’m in my Flavmobile cole lampin
I took this G upstate go campin’
To the Poconos, we call the hideaways
A pack of franks and a big bag of Frito-Lays”
Did it matter what he was saying, and that he just seemed to be rattling off shit like crazy? No, but did it sound good? As the samples in the song said clearly, “YEAH!” This song was the first to truly establish Flavor Flav’s steez, and everyone fell in love with what William Drayton was all about.
“Terminator X To The Edge” of panic was not the first song to present their DJ in music, but it was the first song where he was mentioned in the song title, and with a sample that was merely the sample source of “Rebel Without A Pause” flipped backwards, it just seemed that Public Enemy were wanting to pull in people into their world, in whatever way worked. “Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” was a line that stood out like a pitchfork into the skull, pretty much stating that one does not need an award to achieve a level of success, or to complete a mission that involves making a statement.
“Mind Terrorist” might seem like a minor interlude, but it seemed to present It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back as a concert performance, and this was a brief intermission before the next movement.
“Louder Than A Bomb” opened up with a Kool & The Gang sample before Flav spoke on how Public Enemy are from hell, and if someone ever said he and the group would celebrate the 4th of July, it is very much a “worldwide lie”. Some of Chuck D.’s lyrics in this, including about his phone being tapped, pave the way for the next song, but until that is heard, Chuck is about telling the untold stories once and for all, and his messages are going to be offensively loud.
The first Side ends with the incredible “Caught, Can We Get A Witness”, where Chuck talks about stealing a beat in the name of sampling, and how people are after people like him for taking music to create another song. 25 years later, hearing Flav talk about how no one can copyright beats seems a few world’s away, and yet this was the start of the industry and lawyers looking at the value of rap music not for its lyrics or messages, but as a means of violating copyright. By the end of Side 1, Public Enemy have accumulated enough ammunition for a battle, but again, I was not ready.
I loved when I first heard “She Watch Channel Zero?!”, as it starts with Flav’s message to his lady about watching garbage on television. Then the music begins and it’s a sample of Slayer’s “Angel Of Death”, flipping the original meaning of the song and showing that TV’s perceived angelic ways could slowly lead to a mental death. Kerry King’s and Jeff Hanneman’s guitar riffs, mixed in with the repetitious “she watch” looped vocal sample, was one way of entering the lure of the boob tube and trying to get out before one is fully trapped by the ways of the cathode ray. Everything about this song is excellent, a solid piece of genius where the music is a drone duplicating the ugliness of TV. Flav has a simple solution: “read a book or something, read about yourself, learn your culture.”
“Night Of The Living Baseheads” touches on the evils of drugs, specifically the crack epidemic that was pulling in a lot of people in the mid to late 1980’s, specifically the black community in the inner cities of the United States and England. While it did reach the higher levels of corporate America, crack was hurting millions of people because this new cheap means of a high was pulling people down below the doldrums. The entire song is structured as a dialogue from the introduction of crack to its destruction, complete with Chuck D’s “how low can you go?” sample being scratched all over the place before Chuck himself answers his own question by looking at the faces of crack’s downfall.
“Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” is one of the highlights of the album, where Chuck finds himself in prison because the government wanted him to join the U.S. Army, and he refused to enroll. Upon finding himself homeless in prison, he comes up with a plan to escape beyond the wall. It features metaphors that include the Underground Railroad, but one could also say that the United States itself is a prison and one must escape its ways in order to find a home and some sense of sanity. With each verse, Chuck covers his plan by step-by-step, bringing the listener in as if they are at one with he and the the “53 brothers on the run”. The moment when Chuck D. says “and we are gone” and Flav is cheering with passion, it’s easily one of the boldest statements ever made in hip-hop, because like the Native American in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen in “Deacon Blues”, “this brother is free” and we’re all in support of someone obtaining the freedom many die trying to grasp.
“Security of the First World” is another interlude, a temporary intermission that allows the group and listener to regroup after the blast of “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”, only to pave the way for the album’s three song finale.
“Rebel Without A Pause” comes out of hiding from its presence as a non-LP B-side to becoming a solid album track, also adding to the pieces of the It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back puzzle. The bass is deafening, the saxophone is numbing, and the power of James Brown (and JB-related) samples is causing a mean ripple effect that is like you looking at yourself in a mirror looking at yourself, looking at yourself looking at yourself until its infinity is too much to bare. When Chuck D. says “we’re on a mission, y’all”, we then realize that we the listener are being exposed to the blueprint, and we’re close to finding where all of this will lead.
“Prophets Of Rage” turns the corner, and every emotion that was built with “Rebel Without A Pause” continues with a revelation of who and what these songs are for:
“With vice, I hold the mic device
With force I keep it away, of course
And I’m keeping you from sleeping
And on the stagem, I rage and I’m rolling
To the poor, I pour in on in metaphors
Not bluffing, it’s nothing that we ain’t did before
We played, you stayed, the points made
You consider it done by the prophets of rage”
Flav then tells Griff and the S1W’s to proceed with the completion of the mission by adjusting their coordinates, leading to the eventual proclamation of the master plan.
“Party For Your Right To Fight” ends the album by revealing the master plan, the manifesto, the moral of the story. While hip-hop music may have originated as a party vibe, they turn the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” and turns it into something much more serious than just drinking and getting wasted for the hell of it. In the mind of Public Enemy, one should use their minds to turn the world into a better place for themselves and all. Both Chuck and Flav rap the entire song together, both rapping in their own styles and Flav dropping in a few ad-libs along the way. By combining Sly & The Family Stone, Bobby Byrd, and Bob Marley in the mix, they mention the origins of their commitment to the rights of themselves, and in turn, all. It is the third and final verse where Chuck and Flav mention what they are fighting for:
To those that disagree, it causes static
For the original Black Asiatic man
Cream of the earth and was here first
And some devils prevent this from being known
But you check out the books they own
Even masons they know it but refuse to show it, yo
But it’s proven and fact
It takes a nation of millions to hold us back
It’s about fighting for recognition, for honor, for respect, for everything that someone else doesn’t want to provide, or will take away, from the other. If no one fights, the presence of a people and consciousness will disappear, or be re-interpreted by someone else, or perhaps completely disappear from existence.
I wore a Public Enemy T-shirt during high school, and when catching the bus home, I was asked by the driver “so, you’re a public enemy?” I said, “yes, I am”. She gave me a small smile and I sat down. I was the only kid in my high school with that P.E. shirt, and I was looked at by everyone. No one understood me or where I was coming from, so in a very small way, I did feel like a public enemy, or at least an outcast. As a 17-year old high school student angry at the world, angry at my situation and fighting for a way to want and demand more, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was an album that showed that one can’t sit around and allow the world to pass you by. Sometimes we get stuck on a dead end street, but it’s never late to fight, even if that fight feels like a one-man battle. Throughout life, one learns that those fights are sometimes not good when done alone. Whether it’s a million, or ten-thousand, one hundred, or five, nothing can hold us back but ourselves. Whether it’s for Africa, for Jamaica, for Japan, for Germany, for Thailand, for Brazil, for Argentina, or for field workers throughout California, that “nation” once talked about by Chuck D. and Flavor Flav is very much a worldwide thing, a Marley style “one love” if we allow it to be. The fight discussed throughout the album may not have been my own, but I felt I could appreciate it as one that was very similar to mine. It was with this album that I learned about people that were not discussed during high school, including Louis Farrakhan and Assata Shakur, so to have these references flying out in lyric form was like hearing audio sidebars, so that I could remember them for future use.
25 years later, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back remains my favorite hip-hop album of all time because of its message, its musicality, its strength and power, and its inclusion into music creativity. For some of us, getting that late pass mentioned by Professor Griff was a passage way towards a door which lead to another message: “you want to know more, or keep your head in the ground?” There have been a number of hip-hop albums that have followed in the spirit of, but none will match the aftershocks that came after the siren made itself known on this record. It will forever be a benchmark, an album that should always be discussed as an important document in hip-hop.
Nice tribute, John. I see you link to the Chris Weingartner 33 1/3 Book about “It Takes A Nation.” I picked that up last year and read it in one sitting. A book that does a great job of putting the puzzle pieces together of the history leading up to that seminal hip hop release. 25 years and I don’t think there is another album that has made the same impact as It Takes a Nation. Groundbreaking in many respects.