A quick note from Jack: You’ve probably noticed I haven’t been writing as much recently. There are lots of reasons for this, including but not limited to my starting a new job, being on vacation this week, and just straight-up laziness and lack of motivation. Don’t worry; I will return to my almost-every-day schedule as soon as possible.
In the meantime, today is the 30th anniversary of an album very dear to my heart: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. Charlie, a dear friend, has worked very hard on this celebratory retrospective review, and I’m happy and proud to share it with you. It was originally published on his music blog The Tenth Man.
“Throughout our whole career we’ve never repeated ourselves, never made the same album… When we made Yo, Bum Rush The Show! we made it from a New York standpoint, because that’s where we were at. I think the thing about It Takes A Nation Of Millions is it’s a global experience.” – Chuck D
In the months leading up to Public Enemy’s second album, Chuck D made it clear he would be making an album unlike any other. In his mind, the album’s scope would be unprecedented, its messages universal and its impact unbelievable. He was out to make the What’s Going On of hip-hop – shifting it from a critical ridiculed genre to an important movement at the forefront of modern music. The new album would have rigorous social and political themes that were so bold, so powerful and so innovative that it couldn’t be ignored. It would be something that would shock audiences and spark a revolution of the people, one striving for equality, fairness and unity. Thirty years down the line, it’s safe to say Chuck D’s prediction came true. Not only did It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back shift the face of popular hip-hop for the next few decades, it still manages to shock, appall and remain painfully relevant.
The creation of It Takes A Nation wasn’t easy, though – especially not for a group at the forefront of Def Jam records. Public Enemy’s debut was a relatively low seller in the label’s catalog, notching about 300,000 sales, meaning It Takes A Nation had to be a hit. Crammed into a six-month period, the album was recorded in the midst of a tour, while the band struggled to find studio time thanks to prejudiced labels. Over the course of the tour, Chuck D, Flava Flav, and Terminator X performed nationwide, using the process as a testing platform for new ideas. In performances, they kicked things up a notch, increasing the pace, the depth of production and the overall intensity of the music. Meanwhile, Bomb Squad members stayed in the studio, honing in on a faster-paced, intense production sound that would match both the album’s theme and an audience hungrier for extreme music. The production was a battle and, paired with the pressure of a follow- up, resulted in what Chuck D called an “aggressive, race-against-the-clock teamwork [and] taking chances in sound” He summed up the process best when he claimed, “years of saved-up ideas were compiled into one focussed aural missile.”
Reflecting on Public Enemy’s process at the time, Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee said the following: “When we came into the game, musicians said ‘we’re not making music, we’re making noise’. So I said ‘Noise? You wanna hear noise?’ I wanted to go out be music’s nightmare.” Music’s nightmare is right. Harsh and often bordering on atonal, the album features a dizzying assortment of unusual samples – car alarms, squealing horns, thundering guitar riffs, whistles and chimes. By blending the most obviously obnoxious sounds of the city with miniscule textural details, Bomb Squad created a hellish landscape. The album’s most infamous songs showcase Bomb Squad’s prolific sampling skills, drawing from an absurd spread of styles – from Slayer (“She Watch Channel Zero?!”), to Rufus Thomas (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), Bob Marley (“Party For Your Right to Fight”) and Mountain (“Louder Than A Bomb”).
More than just an eclectic spread of samples, It Takes A Nation manages to maintain the revolutionary spirit of PE’s idols through a number of homages and reinterpretations. The harsh tones are balanced by an array of booming bass lines and funky drum rhythms, from Sly and the Family Stone, the J.B’s and James Brown, whose snappy “Funky Drummer” pulse is sampled in about half the album’s tracks. Underneath the madness lies a layer of rhythm that makes the album feel like a spiritual successor to Public Enemy’s political soul and funk idols. Yet the endearing, hopeful side of Mayfield, peaceful positivity of Stone and danceable sounds of Brown are all flipped on their heads to match the tone of It Takes A Nation and, as a result, feel pushed far out of frame. They all had their own calls to action – There’sNo Place Like America Today, There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Say It Loud, I’m Back and I’m Proud respectively – but they rarely got as heavy as Public Enemy. Public Enemy harnesses that spirit and multiplies the intensity of their messages with a brasher, more abrasive sound.
Public Enemy instead spends their time making their music an intense, pessimistic call for change. They focus more on a revolutionary mindset, striking terror into the hearts of the complacent, content and naive masses. Despite some harsh criticisms, Chuck and Flava Flav’s lyrics always have a positive end-goal – a sense that that if people work together, acknowledge the issues and work together, things will get better. But PE’s lyrics maintain a sense of urgency and a thread of anxiousness. There’s the mindset that if real changes aren’t put in place soon, the whole world will crumble and society will explode. Public Enemy certainly aren’t opposed to the peaceful approach of Mayfield, et al. but feel as though revolution is needed to reach that level of unity. A movement should come first.
While much of It Takes A Nation’s attitude stems from Bomb Squad’s avant-garde, noisy and chaotic production style, it’s hammered home by booming, resonant sermonizing of Chuck D. He spends much of the album criticizing the racist nature of the U.S., citing not only its past but its current atrocities. He displays a general distrust for authority (“I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers”), points fingers at the CIA and FBI (“The FBI was tappin’ my telephone”, “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’ / Both King and X they got rid of both”), and the 13th amendment (“Four of us packed in a cell like slaves, oh well / The same motherfucker got us living in his hell / You have to realize, what it’s a form of slavery”). Nothing’s off limits for Chuck. He spends the album ripping into anything and everything he sees as corrupt, outdated or oppressive. He sees these issues as not just indicators of America’s prejudiced past but as proof of a system, rotten and crooked down to its very core. Yet despite the underlying positive message behind them, his lyrics were often painted as anti-American or treasonous, all the more proving his points. This conflation seems to say something about how critics view blackness – punk and rock were painted as aggressive in a way that aims to change the world but Public Enemy was at its very best, needlessly inciteful.
Alongside the likes of Malcolm X, who is heavily sampled on the album, Chuck D sounds like a worthy successor, bringing forth the same spirit, rage and iconoclastic philosophies. Throughout the album, Chuck D proves he’s more than just a booming voice, providing a tremendous lyrical performance. In the year since the group’s debut, he made huge strides as a lyricist, transforming his approach from straightforward criticism to a rugged, dominating preaching style. His voice is deeper, more powerful and more suited for grand scale criticism. He even dominates certain tracks despite the mind-blowing production. His voice is forefronted more than it was on Yo! Bum Rush the Show, sounding less like another element of the chaotic landscape and more like a championing figure. It sounds as though Chuck isn’t just speaking to the people of New York, he’s preaching to the whole world.
Take, for example, “Louder Than A Bomb.” In what may be Chuck’s most dominating vocal performance, he sits in the forefront, despite the mayhem revolving around the track. He booms and echoes past the noise. There’s a sense that regardless of the distractions and craziness of one’s surroundings, a powerful voice or a revolutionary spark can overcome. Throughout the track, the noise is overwhelming and increasingly resilient, but regardless, the message is impossible to ignore.
On the phenomenal “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck spends six minutes telling the story of a jailbreak, built over a high-pitched Isaac Hayes piano sample. He continues railing on the corrupt system, calling for better treatment of veterans (“Nevertheless, they could not understand that I’m a Black man / And I could never be a veteran”), the horror of jail conditions (“Along with the time they served, decency was deserved”) and the prejudiced nature of the American justice system. His vocals don’t face the same battle – as “Black Steel” is significantly slower and more melodic – but they still remain incredibly charismatic and impactful. A legendary performance like this is hard to come by and it still remains one of the best lyrical performances and social statements of Chuck’s career.
Chuck D’s verbal counterpart, Flava Flav, is a brilliant reprieve to Chuck’s serious approach. He’s typically portrayed as the court jester to balance out Chuck’s blunt lyrical style, but he’s much more than that. Though at times he’s the perfect comic foil to Chuck, Flava’s scattershot lyrical style is often a facade for the political rhymes he throws down. On “Cold Lampin’ With Flava”, he displays his best freestyling skills, laying out some upbeat, nonsensical rhymes that ultimately serve as a break in the action. On a track like “She Watch Channel Zero?!”, Flav provides narration, adding to the atmosphere of the track. And on “Louder the Bomb”, he provides more serious quips (“They claim we’re products from the bottom of hell / Cause the black is back and it’s bound to sell”) that seem to bounce off Chuck. Though it’s a fair shot from the later politics of his tracks on Fear of a Black Planet (“911 is a Joke”, “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man”), Flava is not only an entertainer but a fantastic contributor.
Beyond the music though, It Takes A Nation of Millions remains a massive cultural landmark because it rings unfortunately prescient thirty years later. In retrospect, it seems eerily prophetic. Many of the issues Chuck D brings up on the album – from overwhelmingly corrupt politicians to unethical prison conditions and overall prejudice in the justice system – remain present in the United States. Politically speaking, we’ve seen the botched Flint water crisis, the fall of Roy Moore and Al Franken and ongoing controversies in the Trump campaign. In the past decade, thirty politicians have resigned in New York alone and Chicago’s last two governors are currently in prison. The problem of political corruption is a well known fact but it seems issues are only growing at a monumental rate.
Chuck D’s issues with the American justice system weren’t just a product of the late 80s either – they’re still painfully relevant. Most may think the current system has taken strides in the right direction but looking closely, there’s plenty of evidence to support not only an overcrowded prison population but an ongoing racial bias. Not only is the US prison system the largest in the world – after jumping from three hundred thousand in 1980 to nearly three million this decade, plus another three million on probation and eight hundred thousand on parole and six million disenfranchised voters – it disproportionately impacts minorities, especially black individuals, thanks to harsher sentencing laws.
For instance, in 2018, almost forty percent of prisoners in jail or prison were black, despite only making up around thirteen percent of the total population. Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and while the trend is weaker among women, the trend remains. This was after three straight years of slight declines in prison populations – a trend that has since reversed and is sure to continue in its upward trend considering Jeff Sessions’ views on marijuana. It’d be easy to point to black individuals as more disposed towards crime or certain crimes but studies have suggested the link ties more to socioeconomic factors than a racial predisposition.
Beyond that, prejudiced sentencing laws ensure the scales of justice aren’t quite so balanced. Even when the severity of the offense was the same, black individuals receive an extra 5.5 months on the average sentence compared to white individuals and Hispanics receive an extra 4.5, As of 2012, black prisoners were significantly more likely to be in jail or prison for drug charges as were Hispanics (37.2%) when compared to Caucasians (21.8%), despite multiple national surveys pegging drug use rates as equal among all races. And during the War on Drugs, crack cocaine led to sentences one hundred times longer than the average cocaine sentence, despite their nearly identical chemical makeup. The only differences being crack’s harsher potency and the prevalence of crack cocaine in poorer, typically minority dominated neighborhoods. Though sentencing laws have since been reduced to a more reasonable eighteen to one ratio, the law doesn’t apply retroactively – meaning nearly ninety percent of crack offenders in jail are black.
Chuck D may not have discussed issues like disenfranchisement or the eventual impact of the War on Drugs – since he didn’t have had the same level of evidence to support his claims as we do now. He didn’t have access to information as supportive as the recent New York Times study on race or the fact that disenfranchisement has proven to be isolating, since those with stronger communities after prison are less likely to commit another crime. But in retrospect, it’s clear that It Takes A Nation of Millions, despite being influenced by a specific time and place, is still impactful and applicable to this very day.
It Takes A Nation of Millions’ call for revolution, for drastic social changes and eventual hope for peace and unity between race and class is still one echoed by our current generations. In the past decade alone, we’ve had movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and March For Our Lives that attempt to address the painfully apparent social issues that need so desperately to be improved. The newer generation still possess the same fiery spirit of Public Enemy and their followers and they’re realizing their voice and impact in society. Record numbers of protesters participated in March for Our Lives and both the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches. Publications in the mainstream media like NPR, the New York Times and Pitchfork are also bringing issues of racial discrimination and corruption back to the forefront. The notions of social justice and anti-racism rhetoric have become increasingly praised in society, sparking criticisms of “SJWs” and “slacktivists” – the idea these passions are simply a front for popularity’s sake. But looking at the statistics and evidence of corruption in the justice system, from police, to sentencing, rehabilitation and parole – it’s clear that people have something to complain about. It’s painfully obvious that not enough has been done to solve it, simply because this is part of the status quo.
The impact of It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back thus extends beyond its groundbreaking production and fiery, prophetic lyricism into its criticism of a racial and social inequality that has been simply accepted in American society. Things aren’t nearly the same as they were in 1988. Crack cocaine sentencing has been decreased to a semi-reasonable sentence. Thousands of California prisoners were released because of overcrowding and poor conditions. The Koch Brothers kick-started a campaign to reduce recidivism and help ex-cons successfully re-enter the business world. However, the average length of an American prison conviction has doubled. Federal prison spending has increased more than seven times. The number of police shootings recently hit its highest number since the ’90s. Prison still costs America an average of $25,000 a year. Clearly things haven’t changed all for the better like we’re often told. Prisons in America aren’t as corrupt or overrun as some countries – yet that doesn’t mean we can sit and accept the fact that our society still has its issues. Therein lies the message of It Takes A Nation of Millions. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how great we feel society may be, we should remain informed and strive continually for a better, more positive future.
About the author: Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him writing at a local coffee shop, exploring the breweries in North Park or getting some sun at the beach.