In an age where hip hop has come to be the cynosure of the music scene, exploring the genre’s classic records and assessing their influence seems to be of tremendous importance. But the startling feeling you get from the listening to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is how easily its social commentary could resonate in today’s landscape.
It was twenty years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement and Reagan was in office. Numerous artists had penned political tunes – from the nuclear annihilation fearing sounds of the sixties to the anti-establishment punk of the seventies. As hip hop was emerging from the underground, Chuck D and Flavor Flav saw it fit to unleash some acerbic rhymes that called out racism and the sorrowful tendencies of the media. Their 1987 debut album Yo Bum the Rush Show showcased potential even if it did not particularly stand out from the pack. It was a year later, that they made their defining statement. Elsewhere, rappers were coming out of the traps with the type of tough guy personas and violent imagery that would go on to give hip hop a bad name. But Public Enemy channelled their aggression to craft a cultural artefact that still stands tall to this day. They conceived ‘Rebel without a Pause’, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and ‘Bring the Noise’ in 1987 in their studio Spectrum City in Long Island, New York. Despite the group having initial doubts about them, these tracks were met with huge aplomb from audiences and went on to become some of the key moments of It Takes A Nation.
On the funky/somewhat novelty cut ‘Caught, Can We Get a Witness?’, Chuck D raps “this is a sampling sport”. Samples from a wide variety of sources are peppered throughout resulting in a panoply of obfuscated shreds of funk classics. From the jangling Isaac Hayes piano loop on ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ to the Slayer riff on ‘She Watch Channel Zero’, samples are the foundations of the beats on here. One of the producers, Hank Shocklee said “we use samples like an artist would use paint”. The production in general, courtesy of the Bomb Squad and the group’s DJ Terminator X, is unparalleled to this day. Their mixing techniques had a stentorian impact on the ear. The first three singles contained Public Enemy’s signature squealing whistle noise which was derived from distorted saxophone samples. Their beats had a greater tempo than the majority of the hip hop acts. On “Bring the Noise”, Chuck D raps a rhyming sequence that employs the dactylic hexameter – a meter that was used in Latin poetry. The rapid-fire bars and abrasive noises lent an urgency to the record like no other.
“Bring the Noise” was written in response to media outlets who dubbed Public Enemy’s music as merely ‘noise’. There are no shortage of diatribes on here decrying the media’s reaction to them and to hip hop in general, which was played infrequently on urban mainstream radio at the time. But Chuck D’s commentary on the media has a more universal message; he is resistant to the way the media misrepresents black culture. In the era of the ‘fake news’, the single ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ has even more relevance today where Chuck D raps “false media, we don’t need it do we?”. Similarly, ‘She Watch Channel Zero’ warns of the dangers of the entertainment industry, depicting a woman glued to soap operas. This critique could be applied to today’s ‘reality TV’ which offers wide scale exaggerations of people lives. Flavor Flav cries in the coda “look, don’t nobody look like that, nobody even live like that, you know what I’m saying”.
And throughout It Takes A Nation, Chuck D is in touch with black heritage. There are countless references to black activists, leaders of slave rebellions and organisations such as the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam. His words have the arc of well-thrown darts as he militantly denounces the activities of the FBI and CIA. For Public Enemy, there is no paranoia but rather defiance. This attitude is reinforced in the excellent jailbreak narrative in ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ where Chuck D gets sent to jail for refusing to join the draft – in the ensuing escape, the imagery is vivid – “I got the steel in my right hand, now I’m looking for the fence”. Public Enemy also offer some constructive criticism on ‘Night of the Living Baseheads’ expostulating the crack epidemic which was a major issue in the late eighties in New York and led to an in increase in crime. They are vehemently against the drug, advocating action from the higher authorities – “the problem is this, we gotta’ fix it, check out the justice and how they run it”. And for all this dense subject matter, It Takes A Nation still feels fun. Flavor Flav’s ad-libs and bridging verses certainly lighten the mood, as well as his sense of humour on the tracks where he features more prominently.
Public Enemy would go on to release the critically revered Fear in a Black Planet in 1990 which dealt with similar themes albeit in more subtle fashion and then put out a slew of other records, none of which acquired the same status. Thirty years later, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back feels as relevant as ever, especially due to the political chaos brought about by Trump’s presidency and the rise of white supremacists. A few years ago, Run the Jewels were packing the same kind of punches as Public Enemy with their agit-rap machismo and Kendrick Lamar raised hairs with To Pimp a Butterfly with his socially charged lyrics partially in response to police brutality. It Takes A Nation serves as the perfect blueprint on how to make a political hip hop album. On its twentieth anniversary, Chuck D remarked in an interview with the Quietus that “rap music is still highly undeveloped”. Ten years later, although the genre is in full blossom commercially it is easy to have misgivings about what the genre has become and where it will go next. But one thing that is for sure is that Public Enemy’s legacy has been unscathed.