Celebrating Public Enemy’s Sophomore Masterpiece on its 30th Anniversary
Following the release of their oft-overlooked debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987), the Long Island based hip-hop group, Public Enemy, set out to make one of the most provocative albums of our time.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back has been referred to as the “hip-hop equivalent” of Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On (1971), for its outspoken socio-political commentary regarding issues, such as incarceration and the crack epidemic, which have continued to plague Black communities in the decades following the Reagan administration in the late 1980’s.
While core members of the group—emcee Chuck D, hype-man Flavor Flav, and DJ Terminator X—were out on tour to support their debut, Public Enemy’s production team, Tha Bomb Squad, stayed back to work on finishing up the next album. Under the leadership of producer Hank Shocklee, the group had already finished the tracks “Bring the Noise”, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, and “Rebel Without a Pause” before they even started to plan the project.
In an interview with The Quietus in 2008, Chuck D explained the group’s creative process was far more intricate and developed than it may have appeared, as they were doing far more than simply taking records and rapping over them. “We had musicians like Eric Saddler, we had unbelievable records, the sonic tools, Hank Shocklee, the Phil Spector of hip-hop,” he said. “You’ve got to give the credit as it’s due… if Phil Spector has the wall of sound Hank Shocklee has the Wall Of Noise. It was truly a group effort.”
Originally dubbed “Countdown to Armageddon,” the album was finished in less than six weeks and cost under $25,000, but required the use of two different recording studios due to a conflict with the engineer, who opposed working with hip-hop acts. Of course, it would turn out to be a major commercial success, spending a whopping 49-week-long residency on the Billboard 200 charts. Within a year it was certified platinum by the RIAA for selling more than one million copies worldwide.
Public Enemy combine an avalanche of different sounds ranging from studio sessions, live recordings, drum machines and turntable scratches with samples of funk (James Brown, Funkadelic, The Commodores), rock (Queen, Mountain, Sweet), hip-hop (Kurtis Blow, the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC), soul (The Temptations), metal (Slayer), reggae (Bob Marley), and the spoken word of human rights activist Malcolm X, in order to create a revolutionary rap sound that would serve as a catalyst for progress and change.
In celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary, Rock and Roll Globe takes a look back at what make this rap album so essential.
Unlike their previous record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back sets out with a much faster tempo. The album’s second single, “Bring the Noise” really sets things ablaze as Flav jumps on the microphone with his signature “yeahhh boy” call. The track was also featured on the original motion picture soundtrack to the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and was later popularized by PE in 1991 with the help of heavy metal band Anthrax.
“Don’t Believe the Hype” takes a more studious look at sensationalism in the media, which is followed by “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor,” a track which Flav recorded as a response to radio DJ Mr. Magic for dissing “Public Enemy No. 1” on his show.
Chuck D addresses the groups use of sampling with the track, “Caught, Can I Get a Witness,” in which he validates its use with bars such as, “Mail from the courts and jail, claims I stole the beats that I rail. Look at how I’m livin’ like. And they’re gonna check the mike, right? – Sike. Look at how I’m livin’ now, lower than low. What a sucker know? Found this mineral that I call a beat, paid zero.”
“Show Em Whatcha Got,” pays homage to Black leaders and heroes who made a mark on history, including Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Adam Clayton Powell, Stephen Biko, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
The album gets increasingly more poignant with “She Watch Channel Zero,” a track about the over saturation of media in society, and “Night of the Living Basehead” which uses the plot of the classic George A. Romero zombie movie as a way to spread awareness to the worsening crack epidemic at the time.
“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” opens a dialogue about institutional racism in the prison system through the narrative of an escaped inmate who manages to shoot his way out of the yard.
Although topical, the lead single “Rebel without a Pause,” was written with a heavy focus on politics at the time. Nevertheless, its rebellious wit and topical wordplay has continued to withstand the test of time.
It Takes A Nation Millions draws to a close with the tracks “Prophets of Rage,” a title that would later be used by the rock-rap supergroup comprising members of Public Enemy with former members of Rage Against the Machines and Cypress Hill, and “Party for the Right To Fight” an different take on the Beastie Boys classic “Fight For Your Right to Party.”
Due to their militant demeanor and confrontational lyrics, the group frequently ran into controversy regarding their opinions of the mainstream news media, political figures, and black nationalist leaders such as Louis Farrakhan. However, it wasn’t until about a year after the album’s release, when The Washington Times quoted Professor Griff making anti-Semitic remarks.
The subsequent backlash resulted in Griff’s immediate departure from the group, which would ultimately inspire them to write one of the most culturally significant albums of all-time, Fear of a Black Planet (1990), which was partly based around “The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy)” by afrocentric psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. Griff would later rejoin the group after having apologized for his remarks.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back would go on to receive praise from several music-based publications and has been cited as a major influence by other musicians such as Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, NWA co-founder Ice Cube, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the late Adam Yauch (“MCA”) of the Beastie Boys.
“No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop,” Yauch told Rolling Stone in an interview back in 2004. “I put them on a level with Bob Marley and a handful of other artists—the rare artist who can make great music and also deliver a message.”
The album was eventually remastered and reissued in 1995, when it would again receive high praise from critics, who had started to recognize It Takes a Nation of Millions as one of the “greatest hip-hop albums of all-time.”
Public Enemy would later become the fourth hip-hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, for their contributions to music as a whole.