The Student Playlist

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CLASSIC ’80s: Public Enemy – ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’

Influenced: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang Clan, Rage Against The Machine, The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, The Pharcyde, Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, The Notorious B.I.G., Cypress Hill, Nas, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Pharaohe Monch, Dead Prez, OutKast, The Roots, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Run The Jewels

Influenced by: Miles Davis, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, Gil Scott-Heron, Isaac Hayes, Parliament/Funkadelic, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., Jungle Brothers

It’s a pretty damning indictment on Western society when an album as eye-opening and righteously angry as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is just as relevant in 2018 as it was in 1988. Logically, the forward march of reason, logic and justice should really have rendered It Takes A Nation… an anachronistic time-piece by now, held up for its sonics but not for its message. Unfortunately, in the era where Black Lives Matter is still so urgent and where an ignorant loudmouth like Donald Trump can be Leader of the Free World and be openly sympathetic toward white supremacist groups, the manifesto laid out by Public Enemy’s second album still absolutely demands to be heard, indeed needs to be heard.


In the two decades from the Sixties to the Eighties, the vagaries of urban planning meant that white flight left neighbourhoods in close proximity to each other increasingly unequal, with fear stoked by real estate agents and the media. As Jeff Chang details in his exceptional hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, the drip-drip effect of these slow-motion social dislocations heavily influenced a young Chuck D (real name Carlton Ridenhour, a Long Island/Nassau County local raised by civil rights activist parents) as he commuted to college to study graphic design in the early to mid-Eighties. He channelled his frustrations and opinions into a college radio gig at Adelphi University, where the nucleus of Public Enemy began to formulate with Chuck’s rap sidekick Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X and producers Hank and Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler (known collectively as The Bomb Squad).

Their debut album, 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush The Show was hastily assembled around their excellent calling-card single ‘Public Enemy No.1’ but sounded a little off the pace compared to other records from hip-hop luminaries that year, such as Eric B & Rakim. However, their live show was absolutely stunning, with Chuck and Flav prowling the stage as self-styled ‘Minister of Information’ Professor Griff cut in with searing political diatribes and the S1Ws, the group’s security detail, performed combat exercises with toy machine-guns in the background. Every single detail and every minute contribution was as important as the whole – as a group, Public Enemy was not hierarchical. It was pure theatre, with its uncompromising imagery, shot through with the rhetoric of black power and punk’s confrontation, shocking America’s audiences to the core.

With their second album, Public Enemy set out to make their music reflect their visceral live shows, and to mould hip-hop in their own conception of what the genre ought to be – “the black CNN”, bypassing false mainstream media and communicating widely and directly to the reality of life for black Americans, pleading for consciousness and for action. It was radically different to anything else going on hip-hop in 1988. While the genre had been in existence for well over a decade, hip-hop still had an image problem in as much as it was still regarded as a lesser art-form by some – suitable for singles, not albums, and thought of as a bit of a novelty, in the same way that reggae was before Bob Marley’s run of great albums. In bringing It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back into the world, Public Enemy achieved something incredibly rare in pop music: creating something utterly new and unique that nobody had heard before.


In the spirit of bringing the energy of their shows to their recording output – as Hank Shocklee told Rolling Stone the following year, “most people were saying that rap music was noise… we decided, ‘If they think it’s noise, let’s show them noise’” – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back opens unconventionally, with a live recording of the band themselves performing on the previous year’s Def Jam tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Air-raid sirens blare, Professor Griff puts the place in lockdown as beats start to rain down in the salvo that is ‘Countdown To Armageddon’, and it immediately gives the impression that what’s happening on the album as a whole is going on right now, in front of your ears as you listen to it. As it fades out, ‘Bring The Noise’ begins with a microscopic speech sample “too black, too strong”, a perfect shorthand for the group’s provocative aesthetic, before It Takes A Nation… kicks off properly.

The subsequent hour is an onslaught of dense samples, funky breaks, urgent didacticism and blistering noise. The Bomb Squad-produced instrumental interludes, like ‘Mind Terrorist’, ‘Show ‘Em Whatcha Got’ and ‘Security Of The First World’ and Terminator X’s showcase piece ‘Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic’, basically act as shelter for the listener amid the blood and thunder of Public Enemy and their whirlwind production aesthetic as the album progresses, brief respite from the downpour and a place to try to take in everything you’ve just heard. Samples of Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X speeches provide the linking passages between tracks.

‘Bring The Noise’, a single released several months before at the end of 1987 and created for the Less Than Zero soundtrack, is a great encapsulation of the re-booted Public Enemy on their second album, noted at the time for the rhythmical complexity of Chuck’s rhymes as he’s interjected by his sidekick Flav’s gesticulations and prompts over a dissonant, skronking backdrop. This, and the slower, looser ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ that follows it – featuring Chuck’s immortal boast “I’m the epitome / a public enemy” – make for a brace of vicious swipes at America’s sensationalist media that are still relevant 30 years later.

Indeed, many of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’s message still resonate in 2018. ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’, a track boasting well over a dozen samples arranged with superb precision by Terminator X and The Bomb Squad but most prominently featuring a wailing snatch of sax, deals with the inner city crack epidemic. In the context of urging black men and women not to debase themselves to addiction, Chuck’s “how low can you go?” exhortation takes on a double meaning. ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ presages the rap-rock revolution with its Slayer sample, influencing the likes of Rage Against The Machine, railing against false consciousness albeit with some slight misogyny implied in the lyrics. ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, released a full 11 months before the album, was the first indication that It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was going to be PE’s definitive statement. With its screeching, rising noise like a boiling kettle taken from an elongated sample of a JB’s saxophone glissando, and Chuck’s throwdown lyrics, ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ was an enormous dancefloor hit when it dropped in the summer of 1987, and raised expectations for what was to come.

Even It Takes A Nation…’s lower-billing tracks – not to play them down, but just not the headline-grabbers like ‘Black Steel…’ and ‘Bring The Noise’ – are scintillating, their wild soundscapes constructed with an incredible attention to detail by The Bomb Squad. The low-slung ‘Louder Than A Bomb’, with a paranoid but defiant Chuck seething against “Although I live the life that of a resident / But I be knowin’ the scheme that of the president”, presages the surveillance state that has grown up around us in the last 15 years. The bustling, hard-edged ‘Prophets Of Rage’ has an almost punk execution; ‘Party For Your Right To Fight’ reverses Beastie Boys’ hedonistic credo to assert something more incendiary and provocative, a conscientious party-starter.

‘Caught, Can We Get A Witness?’ is one of the less well-aged tracks, specifically mentioning the legality of sampling, an issue that was relevant in 1988 but which was closed in the early Nineties. However, it does touch on the nature of rap artistry itself, and the (still) ongoing battle for it to be universally regarded as a valid art form – too many people disdain hip-hop and rap as somehow inferior to rock, even now. ‘Cold Lampin’ With Flavor’ is pure goofball fun, a moment where Flav gets to push Chuck out of the spotlight and bathe in it alone.

‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’, with its slower, sparser more regular thumping beat, is both an outlier amid the sonic chaos and also the best representation of it. Slowing and looping an Isaac Hayes sample for its jarring piano riff, it speaks to the intrinsic alienation of the black experience in a country like America, told through Chuck D’s carefully woven story of a prison break-out following an unjust detainment for draft-dodging (“I’m a black man / I could never be a veteran”). With clear narration interspersed with righteous indignation (“I’m a rebel so I rebel / between bars got me thinkin’ like an animal”), ‘Black Steel…’ is an example of fiction that so closely resembles reality that it sends shivers down the spine. It’s the nerve centre of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – as The Quietus assert in their 30th anniversary retrospective, a forerunner of the ferocious writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, of Black Lives Matter.

The small galaxy of musical samples that makes up It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back borrows liberally from James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone – as a lot of contemporary hip-hop did – utilising funky breaks, soulful riffs and rhythmical snippets to build the sonic base, there’s many avant-garde elements, seemingly derived from hard-bop jazz and other atonal forms, that make Public Enemy’s music really memorable, re-formulating previous black American art forms into something completely new. It’s pure sensory overload at times, with everything happening at once, offering far too much to take in with just a first listen. However, it’s an experience you want to re-live again and again.


Simply, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back represented an enormous leap forward in terms of hip-hop as an art form. As well as a musical tour-de-force, it’s an also an enduring lesson in how to mix politics with pop and still sound vital. It’s not been surpassed, or even equalled, by all but a tiny handful of albums ever since, and was held up as hip-hop’s first true masterpiece by almost everybody at the time. Even traditionally stuffy rockist publications like Rolling Stone couldn’t deny it, listing it in the top 50 of its 500 Greatest Albums Ever list – though it’s the only hip-hop record in its top 100. Crucially, its broad appeal to critics wasn’t achieved by Public Enemy diluting their art-form in any way – it’s a triumph entirely on its own terms, and still sits your ass down and teaches you an enlightening lesson three decades later.

While it didn’t provide Public Enemy with a bona-fide hit, it did at least deliver on the promise of their earlier hype. The hip-hop scene of the late Eighties and early Nineties became filled up with sample-dense masterpieces by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Beastie Boys, while the West Coast scene sprung up almost as a rejoinder to The Bomb Squad’s production ethos. Its intelligent, coherent fury attracted the attention of filmmaker Spike Lee, who commissioned them to provide the soundtrack to his upcoming film Do The Right Thing – the resulting ‘Fight The Power’ finally gave Public Enemy the chart success they deserved, and their subsequent record Fear Of A Black Planet very nearly equalled the shock-and-awe factor of its predecessor when it dropped in 1990.

READ MORE: Public Enemy // ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ at 25 years old

Not before, however, Public Enemy was briefly disbanded in the wake of some ugly anti-Semitic and homophobic rants from Professor Griff. Though a few defended him on the basis that his comments had been drawn out of him during a provocative Washington Times interview, it was undeniably hate speech. Chuck D initially stood by Griff, then expelled him, then broke up the group entirely before Lee came to him with the soundtrack offer.

Whatever you make of all that, beneath the visceral anger on display, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back scans ultimately as a positive statement. Chuck D urges and exhorts listeners to learn, to know themselves and to organise, encouraging more than he admonishes. It’s certainly much more constructive in its outlook than the sometimes cartoonish realism and nihilism of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, the other great revolutionary hip-hop statement of 1988 that helped birth the West Coast sound.

Listen to It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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