It’s interesting to note that Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back turned twenty in the summer of this year.
Released in June of 1988, the politically-charged hip-hop classic is as persuasive today as it was then. The record is mind-blowing and mind-expanding, offering a truly academic experience set to dangerous beats and samples.
The foundation for Public Enemy’s iconic second album begins with The Bomb Squad. Consisting of Hank and Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, The Bomb Squad is a production team noted for heavy use of samples and thick production values. Their swirling, weighty sound is amped-up to on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, adding a sense of exigency to Chuck D’s politically-charged lyrics.
Dubbed the “Messenger of Prophecy” in the album jacket, Chuck D is the structure of Public Enemy. Flavor Flav (“The Cold Lamper”) is the hype man, the ball of energy, the James Brown-on-crack. Along with The Bomb Squad’s complex jams, Terminator X on the wheels of steel, and Professor Griff bringing down the “information,” PE spells trouble for other rap groups.
One of the most fascinating aspects of It Takes a Nation is the exchange between Flav and Chuck D. The recording of the album was exceptional in that it made every attempt to profit from the energy of Flav without sacrificing any of Chuck’s lyrical content. So Chuck would record the whole song and belt the lyrics, then Flav’s hard sell and ad-libs would be added afterwards in the studio. The layers were combined and the result is an oft-chaotic, always-effective vibe.
As the highest ranking hip-hop album on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-time list, the significance of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back cannot be overstated. It is, simply put, iconic.
“Bring the Noise” cranks out with shrieking sirens, encrusted background noise, a funky-ass beat, and X’s unimpeachable scratches. Chuck D takes charge, rolling out a rock-hard argument for rap as a momentous musical genre. (At the time, hip-hop was often discarded as “noise,” so “Bring the Noise” served as one of the most effective responses to the denigration ever recorded).
Chuck D takes aim at the media and misconceptions about the group on “Don’t Believe the Hype,” the second single from the record. The track is traditional Public Enemy, with Chuck’s delivery easing into the rhymes with meticulousness and intelligibility. He adds immaculate cadence to his verses, such as when he pulls three syllables out of “smuggler.”
The third single from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The cut stands out as one of Public Enemy’s best, built on a sample of keys from an Isaac Hayes track. Chuck D unpacks a yarn about incarceration around the time of the Vietnam War. His character in the song refuses to fight in the war and is taken to jail. The rest of the track plots the prison escape, with Flav contributing via telephone.
Flavor Flav steps into the limelight on “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor,” a track that shows off his skills on the mic. His flow is tight and tidy, brimming with shrewdness and vigilant obnoxiousness. Flav spits some preposterous lyrics, but there is always brightness to it and he never comes across sounding stupid. When he says “brainknowledgeably wizzy,” he means it.
“Night of the Living Baseheads” bursts out with a pressing environment and Chuck D’s unrelenting lyrics. Never forget; he’s talking about BASS! And “She Watch Channel Zero” derides a woman for watching too much tube.
Other tracks are used to show off the skills of Terminator X, such as the suitably-named “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.” His scratches and cuts are not to be trusted, making the listener think the track is skipping. X moves effortlessly, cutting smooth lines underneath Chuck and Flav’s barb-trading. And the interlude “Show ‘Em What You Got” allows X more time to shine as he layers the track sagely.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is an indispensable album in every way. It is hard-hitting, contentious, cerebral, obnoxious, and ear-splitting.
Public Enemy’s masterpiece is punk music; it is countercultural lunacy set to blazing-hot beats and impeccably-timed verses. It is iconic, audacious, scandalous, ageless, and troubling. It is absolutely brainknowledgeably vital.