A year after releasing their instant-classic debut album ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ Public Enemy released their follow up ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ and changed hip-hop forever, thanks to Chuck D’s scathing attack on American society and the Bomb Squad’s groundbreaking Wall of Noise production.
Released 30 years ago today (June 28th) ‘It Takes a Nation…’ is an album that showcased Public Enemy’s disdain for conventional music production and a lyrical maturity to tell tales of corruption and inequality, but make them captivating and even danceable.
The album starts with ‘Countdown To Armageddon’ and Dave Pearce – yes, that Dave Pearce - asking a crowded Hammersmith Odeon: “Are you ready?”
Are you ready, indeed. What Public Enemy, and the Bomb Squad, are doing here is saying: “You think you know hip-hop? You don’t know hip-hop. THIS IS HIP-HOP!”
A klaxon explodes from speakers. It’s a countdown to the end of the world. This is not how hip-hop albums generally start. ‘Bring The Noise’ follows this live intro with a maelstrom of siren loops, scratching, de-constructed jazz and funk samples, intricate drum-beats and dissonant noise/sound effects.
Over this organised chaos Chuck D raps about why hip-hop is as big as rock, responds to Public Enemy’s critics and gives shout outs to rappers and musicians he likes. It’s a nigh-on perfect way to start the album.
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Next up is ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time, and ‘Cold Lampin’ With Flavour’ - a Flavour Flav dis track. As far as albums go, this is a strong start. Both follow the Bomb Squad’s blueprint to production, and show how Public Enemy is not a band you want to piss off.
As Chuck D recounted in 2008: “It wasn't that we took records and rapped over them, we actually had an intricate way of developing sound, arranging the sound. We had musicians like Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee… the Phil Spector of hip-hop. 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.”
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‘Bring The Noise’, ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic’, ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!?’ and ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ all jostle for the bragging rights of being the standout track on ‘It Takes A Nation…’, but ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ bags this honour, if only on a personal level.
In six and a half minutes Chuck and Co., manage to tell a far more of a gripping story than most things on Netflix. The music is built around an Isaac Hayes piano sample, but ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’, taken from ‘Hot Buttered Soul’, loses all of its playful, funky charm, and in the hands of the Bomb Squad it becomes claustrophobic, harrowing and haunting.
‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ is about how the narrator received a draft notice, ignored it, is sentenced to prison and plans an escape. In almost anyone else’s hands, this would be unimaginative, full of clichés and prison bravado, but it’s the way that Chuck D tells the story that transcends this.
The opening lines set the song up perfectly: “I got a letter from the government the other day, I opened and read it, It said they were suckers. They wanted me for their army or whatever, Picture me givin' a damn I said never.” In less than thirty seconds we know everything we need to know about this character. He was drafted to the army, said no due personal beliefs, the army came calling, he declined again and was arrested for draft dodging.
Now he’s in jail. “Four of us packed in a cell like slaves - oh well” is another clever, and devastating, line about how the American penal system processes African-Americans.
As ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’ progresses the tension is ratcheted, and when the prison break/riot starts the ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’ sample is akin to finger nails down the blackboard or the shower scene in Psycho. You want to turn it off, but you can’t as the subject matter is so gripping it’s nigh-on impossible. And this is the real power of ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, and Public Enemy for that matter; we are being told traumatic tales, but due to the expertise in story-telling, there is a macabre pleasure to it.
‘It Takes A Nation…’ is the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, knowing the sound and textures they want, and being able to not only achieve them, but surpass them. The Bomb Squad never put a foot wrong during the album’s 57 minute duration, and Chuck D and Flavor Flav are inspired, insightful, and terrifying as they describe the world around them.
After ‘It Takes A Nation…’ Public Enemy release a slew of classic albums, but while all had their moments they never quite hit the same creative peak of ‘It Takes A Nation…’ This is testament to the way the album was recorded and how ground breaking its production is; in both a sonic and lyrical sense Public Enemy’s achievements here are almost flawless.
One thing is certain: even 30 years later ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ more than lives up to the hype.
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Words: Nick Roseblade
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