Classic Album: Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back

A perfect storm of production, street knowledge, and design.
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back
“London, England. Consider yourself warned.” It’s two decades since Public Enemy rocked my world. In authentic b-boy fashion, the sounds from what was to become hip-hop’s seminal supergroup first reached my ears from the speakers of a battery powered boom box.

This device, the size of a small suitcase and with its volume locked at maximum, was carried into our hangout, the shopping arcade of a Bedfordshire backwater, by an Italian school friend – our very own rebel without a pause. The crashing breakbeats, thunderous subs and Chuck D’s unmistakable baritone certainly upset the Saturday shoppers, and almost knocked me from my concrete perch. I’d always figured myself an open minded kid, having already embraced the pop end of the rap pack, with singles from Tone Loc, the Beasties and Run DMC dubbed from the radio, but the sounds which emanated from the stereo that Saturday were, to my mind, more likely to have originated from outer space than New York’s Long Island. After a little coercion, and with his original vinyl safely stored at home, my musical educator popped the C90 cassette from the player and handed it over - the words ‘PE: A Nation Of Millions’ and, on the flip, ‘PE: Yo! Bumrush The Show’ - scratched into its faded grey plastic.

My life changed direction the moment I got home and loaded the tape into my ancient Amstrad stack system. Played repeatedly for weeks, ‘A Nation Of Millions’ brought politics, history and ideas of social activism into my life for the first time and prompted me to seek out books on the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, in addition to expand my knowledge of soul to extremities far outside of the suburban schtick of James Brown and Kool And The Gang. Some years later, I bought turntables and began to DJ, worked briefly in a studio, and eventually followed PE’s own media assassin, Harry Allen, into a career in journalism.

The album, the central component of a seminal triptych bookended by PE’s aforementioned debut ‘Bumrush’, released in 1987 and ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’, released early in 1990, was intended by Chuck D, born Carlton Ridenhour, to instigate a paradigm shift from the cartoon-ish gangsterism, misogyny and braggadocio which had dominated rap since the 1970s to something truly revolutionary – “a black CNN”. While ‘Yo! Bumrush The Show’ remains a powerful record, perhaps one of hip-hop’s greatest records, it pales into comparison with ‘A Nation Of Millions’, which represented a high water mark for Public Enemy through a perfect storm of production, street knowledge, and design.

Pioneering studio team The Bomb Squad - Eric ‘Vietnam’ Sadler together with brothers Keith and Hank Shocklee - blended a range of sources so disparate that the record felt outside of the law. The percussion was unforgiving, prowling funk loops supplemented by thumping drum machine programming, but it was the noise that surrounded the rhythm section which matched the power of Chuck’s rhymes through production densely packed by samples from sources as disparate as Slayer, Bowie and Bob James, reconstructed by the Squad into a wall of noise as mentally startling as it was physically asphyxiating, all supplemented by the astonishing turntable work of the crew’s DJ, Terminator X.

Chuck D’s lyrics were on the same page as contemporary KRS-1, both concerned with social issues though the latter’s tendency to preaching and social consciousness, the rhetoric on the album had astonishing range – challenging the playlist policy of College radio in ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ through cultural historicism to the unrepresentative numbers of black males incarcerated in the US prison system, in the chilling ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’. Most controversially, PE proposed direct action, social activism and resistance against the state; Chuck’s stonily faced sincerity complemented by light relief of Flavor Flav, PE’s comedy lieutenant, keeping time with his giant clocks.

Perhaps as important as the music was PE’s astonishing visual presence. The album was littered with interstitials, recorded during a live performance at Hammersmith Odeon a year earlier. These now legendary shows were unlike anything I’d seen before, one part rap concert to one part military parade, where Terminator threw breaks and cuts from an elevated position draped in PE’s striking logo, as Chuck spat rhymes and Flav whipped the crowd into a frenzy, all the while Professor Griff led his Panther-like militant entourage (the UZI equipped S1W’s) around the stage.

‘Fear Of A Black Planet’, which followed, completed the triptych with a polished and impressive set which featured ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ and ‘Fight The Power’, though the band have never quite recovered from the botched dismissal of Griff, following accusations of anti- Semitic comments in an interview with The Washington Post, with their subsequent albums having ranged from the middling to the sublime, the best of which, ‘He Got Game’, accompanied the Spike Lee movie of the same name. “Time for me to exit. Terminator X it.”

Words by Kingsley Marshall

TRACKLIST

Released: 28th June 1988
Produced by: The Bomb Squad

01. Countdown To Armageddon
02. Bring The Noise
03. Don’t Believe The Hype
04. Cold Lampin’ With Flavor
05. Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic
06. Mind Terrorist
07. Louder Than A Bomb
08. Caught, Can We Get a Witness?
09. Show Em Whatcha Got
10. She Watch Channel Zero?!
11. Night Of The Living Baseheads
12. Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
13. Security Of The First World
14. Rebel Without A Pause
15. Prophets Of Rage
16. Party For Your Right To Fight

MUSICIANS
Vocals: Professor Griff, Chuck D., Fab 5 Freddy, Flavor Flav, Erica Johnson, Oris Josphe, Harry Allen
Engineers: John Harrison, Jeff Jones, Nick Sansano, Chuck Valle, Greg Gordon, Jim Sabella, Matt Tritto, Christopher Shaw
Mixing: Steven Ett, Rod Hui, Keith Boxley, Chuck Chillout
Scratching: Norman Rogers, Johnny Juice Rosado
Turntables: Terminator X, Johnny Juice Rosado

1988: IN THE NEWS
• The Piper Alpha oil rig explodes in the North Sea killing over 160 people.
• - The 1988 Summer Olympics are held in Seoul, South Korea.
• Pan Am Flight 103 is blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270.
• Red Hot Chili Peppers’ original guitarist Hillel Slovak dies of a heroin overdose.
• The Big O, Roy Orbison, dies aged 52.

1988: THE ALBUMS
‘Viva Hate’ Morrissey
‘Surfer Rosa’ Pixies
‘Tighten Up, Vol. 88’ Big Audio Dynamite
‘Rattle And Hum’ U2
‘Bummed’ Happy Mondays

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