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Jun 28 2018

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy 1988 (grammy.com)

Public Enemy 1988 (from left to right: Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X, Chuck D. and S1W member)

Whatcha gonna do? Rap is not afraid of you

Introduction

1988 was the year that hip-hop made it big. During the course of that year a great many of all time hip-hop classics were released, like Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, EPMD’s Strictly Business, Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow The Leader, Ice-T’s Power and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. But the biggest and most influential of them all was Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions Top Hold Us Back. It was a revolutionary album and it’s an essential addition to any music collection.

Yo! Bum Rush The Show

Logo Public Enemy (logonoid.com)

Logo Public Enemy

In the spring of 1987 Public Enemy’s debut album was released on Def Jam Records. It was relatively successful within the confines of the hip-hop community, but the rest of the world remained oblivious to the album. Around 300,000 copies were sold. Not bad for a debut, but to Def Jam it was a disappointment. The label was relatively new and already was the main hip-hop label with a lot of great acts, many selling millions of records, like LL Cool J and Beastie Boys.

Public Enemy’s second album would change it all. A new leaf was turned over. At concerts audiences reacted more strongly to the more up-tempo songs. The pace went up for album number two. The content had to be different as well. The goal was to create the hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On: an album filled with social commentary.

Recordings

E-mu Systems SP-1200 sampler (musictech.net)

E-mu Systems SP-1200 sampler

Public Enemy checked into the Chung King Studios in Manhattan to record, but had to relocate rather swiftly, due to the studio’s engineers who didn’t want to get involved with hip-hop. The group moved to Greene St. Recording. Although the engineers had the same initial response, they got accustomed to the idea and generally got more and more impressed by the group’s work ethic and their dedication.

All recordings were done within 30 days. The total costs amounted to $ 25,000. A lot of the pre-production had been done at Public Enemy’s own Long Island studio. Prior to the start of the recordings for the album, the songs Bring The Noise, Don’t Believe The Hype and Rebel Without A Pause were already done.

As was the case on the debut album, the, at the time brand new, pioneering E-mu Systems sampler SP-1200, was utilized on the new album as well.

In 1987 cassettes were still more popular than CD’s in the US. That medium decided the album’s length: 60 minutues, making each side 30 minutes long. Originally the album’s A side was to start with Show Em Whatcha Got (and onwards). At the very last moment Hank Shocklee (see the next paragraph on The Bomb Squad) switched the two sides: side A became side B and vice versa.

The Bomb Squad

Public Enemy - Early Bomb Squad (dailykemp.com)

Public Enemy – Early Bomb Squad

An article about Public Enemy has to contain a piece on The Bomb Squad. The Bomb Squad is a New York based hip-hop production team that is known for its dense, unique and innovative productions. By using samples, at times more than 10 within one song, a wall of ‘noise’ is created. Samples didn’t just limit themselves to (funk)music, but frequently contained atonal sounds and sirens. The team is primarily known for its productions for Public Enemy, but wasn’t confined to them. They produced many other artists as well, like Doug E. Fresh And The Get Fresh Crew, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Ice Cube and Bell Biv Devoe.

The production team is made up of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Chuck D. (Public Enemy frontman, also known under the alias Carl Ryder), Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Gary G-Wiz. Bill Stephney was also a member, but he left in the early years of the 1990’s.

Countdown To Armageddon

At the time of recording the new album the working title was Countdown To Armageddon, but the group decided to rename it to (the much stronger and more dangerous) It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, after a line of their own song Raise The Roof, that’s on their debut album.

Both titles give a good impression of the album’s content. Ruthless music (or ‘noise’) filled with socially engaging lyrics that had meaning. Chuck D. is a rapper who commands respect, just by the way of his delivery. The accompanying music has to support and enhance that message.

The end result was that the lyrics enhanced the music as the music endorsed the urgency of the lyrics. The interplay between the serious and angry message of Chuck D. and Flavor Flav’s, at times, clownish interruptions, worked very well. It provided the album and its message with some air to breathe.

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (allmusic.com)

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

On June 28th, 1988, the second Public Enemy album was released. It exploded like a thunderstorm. Reviewers were tumbling over each other in their praise. The, predominantly young, audience bought the album in great numbers. The rest of the world watched in horror.

Punk was seen as a real danger at the end of the 1970’s, but this was something entirely different. Albums don’t get more punk than this. Hindered by studio’s, radio stations and concert promoters, Public Enemy kept on going down the road that was taken. At times it seemed no-one wanted the album (or the group for that matter) to exist. In no-time the name of the group had become a real life reality. The group was indeed perceived as public enemy no. 1, particularly by white America.

Nation Of Islam

But opinions on Public Enemy created division within their own ranks as well. Partly due to the music, but also because of the message and the way that message was conveyed. The obvious flirtation with the controversial Nation Of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, was frowned upon.

In the 1980’s Farrakhan attained some kind of fame. He emphasized self responsibility for black Americans for their own social and material well-being. He condemned drug use and criminal activity and encouraged parents to take care of their children and make sure they got an education. So far, so good.

However, his views were controversial, as they were very sexist and homophobic. His extreme attacks on white society and his antisemitism (see the paragraph Controversy) provoked big protests.

Public Enemy - S1W's (gettyimages.com)

Public Enemy – S1W’s (Security Of The First World)

Message

All over the album Chuck D. tells tales of the self consciousness of black Americans, criticizing white supremacy and the way the music industry handles hip-hop, rap and sampling. The way he delivers his message is firm, serious and intimidating, His voice oozes charisma, which he commissions in full to convey his message. Coupled with the musical attack, it was terrifying to many. Public Enemy’s ‘security detail’, the S1W’s (Security Of the First World), that was always present, with military clothing, (fake) machine guns and tight choreography, was confrontational. The firm social critique hit home, hard. Many white Americans were scared of the album, its repercussions and the impending revolution the album seemed to call for.

Review

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Ad (digital.cornell.library.edu)

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Ad

I didn’t get the album right away. The production in particular, was too chaotic for me. It made me nervous, all those weird sounds and sirens, but the funk was unmistakable. Looking back, I can hardly believe my initial response, since nowadays many of the Bomb Squad productions are among my favorite albums of all time.

But there’s no Bomb Squad album I value more than It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, that is placed at number 12 of my personal top 50 albums of all time. A true masterpiece. The ferocity, the lyrics, the cover, everything fit and everything was put in to play for the barrage, both musically and lyrically, by Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X. It’s remarkable just how much the album is indebted to the (history of the) funk, which it acknowledges fully. The many James Brown samples show the urgency in Brown’s work, even at the end of the 1980’s. It ‘s hard to imagine now, but at the time Brown had turned into a forgotten relic from times nearly forgotten. In part because of this album (also check the article on Eric & Rakim’s Paid In Full) James Brown was discovered by an entirely new generation of music lovers.

I played the album to death and knew many of the raps by heart. Caught, Can I get A Witness? in particular, was my favorite. It’s about sampling and the ‘problems’ in regards to copyrights. Of course the song defends the practice of sampling. Public Enemy states it has a right to it , because of “black ownership of the sounds in the first place”. Personally, I endorse sampling, even though many (including artists) had an entirely different view. Through the use of samples a lot of new music was created, that had nothing to do with the originals. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is the leading example/proof to this view.

Current status

Nowadays It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is part of many best of lists. Oftentimes it’s the only hip-hop album in those lists (which is a travesty in itself), but the position is usually (very) high. The album is fully deserving of its high acclaim, for it still is a valuable and current album. Chuck D.’s raps still ring true today. Worldwide, it’s regarded as the best and most influential hip-hop album of all time.

The album has sold around 2 million copies in the United States. A large number, considering the controversy surrounding the album and the music which is not that easy for the average listener.

Because the album is really good throughout I really can’t pick a favorite song (even though Caught, Can I get A Witness? is still the song I play before listening to the complete album). It is an overwhelming album that should be part of every music collection. Essential!

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Singles (45cat.com/apoplife.nl)

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Singles

Singles

Five singles were culled from the album: Rebel Without A Pause, Bring The Noise, Don’t Believe The Hype, Night Of The Living Baseheads and Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos. The video to Night Of The Living Baseheads is particularly good. The song is about drugs, the crack epidemic in particular that swept through black communities at the end of the 1980’s. The video also shows the use of cocaine on Wall Street and (the result of) racism (Chuck D. is kidnapped by an anti-rap group, called Brown-Bags). The song’s message is clear: “Please don’t confuse this with the sound, I’m talking about base!”.

Songs

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Ad (posteritati.com)

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Ad

  • Countdown To Armageddon
  • Bring The Noise
  • Don’t Believe The Hype
  • Cold Lampin’ With Flavor
  • Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic
  • Mind Terrorist
  • Louder Than A Bomb
  • Caught, Can We Get A Witness?
  • Show ‘Em Whatcha Got
  • She Watch Channel Zero?!
  • Night Of The Living Baseheads
  • Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
  • Security Of The First World
  • Rebel Without A Pause
  • Prophets Of Rage
  • Party For Your Right To Fight

Personnel

  • Programming – Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Hank Shocklee
  • Turntables – Johnny Juice Rosado, Terminator X
  • Vocals – Harry Allen, Chuck D, Fab 5 Freddy, Flavor Flav, Erica Johnson, Oris Josphe, Professor Griff
  • Production – Carl Ryder, Hank Shocklee
  • Production supervisor – Bill Stephney
  • Production assistant – Eric “Vietnam” Sadler
  • Engineers – Greg Gordon, John Harrison, Jeff Jones, Jim Sabella, Nick Sansano, Christopher Shaw, Matt Tritto, Chuck Valle
  • Mixing – Keith Boxley, DJ Chuck Chillout, Steven Ett, Rod Hui

Controversy

Even before It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was released, Professor Griff, whose role in the group was ‘Minister of Information’, was interviewed in England. He was rather outspoken regarding his opinion on gays and Jews:

  • “There’s no place for gays. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, it was for that sort of behaviour”
  • “If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel and killed all the Jews, it’d be alright”

England was shocked, but the offense never left the British isles. In the United States the flirt with Farrakhan was frowned upon (nowadays Public Enemy is no longer affiliated with the Nation Of Islam, islam and/or Farrakhan). Professor Griff continued his provocative statements and accused white America of bestiality. In the spring of 1989 Griff was interviewed and repeated his disdain for gays and Jews (“Jews are responsible for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”). This time the shit hit the fan. Public Enemy’s reputation suffered greatly and the future of the hip-hop collective seemed grim.

Chuck D. wasn’t sure what needed to be done and initially backed Griff, then fired him, enlisted him again, fired him again, disbanded the group and simultaneously didn’t. The antisemitism stigma was glued to the group for quite some time, even though Chuck D. distanced himself clearly from Griff’s statements. Even Griff himself later stated his words and statements were false and it was wrong he made them in the first place.

Public Enemy - Fight The Power - video (youtube.com)

Public Enemy – Fight The Power – video

Do The Right Thing

On July 21st, 1989, the fantastic Spike Lee movie Do The Right Thing was released. The movie details racial tension in New York. The main musical theme throughout the movie is by Public Enemy: Fight The Power. One of the best songs of all time. Public Enemy survived the preceding storm by doing what the group was good at, which was releasing incredibly good music. Chuck D. convinced once again. The video showed Professor Griff, but he had already left the band by the time it was released as a single. Fight The Power was an enormous success and raced to the top of the charts in many countries. Meanwhile work had commenced on a new album. This would turn into Fear Of A Black Planet in 1990, another masterpiece,

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – imitation?

Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Gold record (howieweinbergmastering.com)

Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Gold record

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was responsible for a surge in hip-hop that was indebted to the Public Enemy album. The way The Bomb Squad operated was copied and added on. N.W.A. made a gangsta-rap version (Chuck D. had sent them early configurations of the album), De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising brought warmth and psychedelica to the mix. The intensive and inventive use of samples was what the releases had in common. The main message of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back had a big impact on groups like A Tribe Called Quest.

In closing

In 2013 Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and rightfully so.

More Public Enemy? Read the article on Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black.

What do you think of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back? Let me know!

 

Compliments/remarks? I´d love to hear them!