Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Just because it's kind of amusing to watch candy engage in slaughter. Sort of like a darker version of that "inside the coke-machine" ad from a couple years ago.

For high-res version (which I recommend) visit the designers' site.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

bioshock: final thoughts

All good things come to an end. Bioshock is, as I suspected, a brilliant game and deserves all the accolades it received. If you don't like SPOILERS then stop reading now and get the damn thing. You won't be disappointed, unless you tend towards disorientation and nausea playing fast-twitch shooters. If you doubt you'll have the time or inclination to ever play Bioshock, or don't mind spoilers, read on.

"Who can forget their first view of the city? Amazing what a man can create once he gets government and God off his back." (Bill McDonagh)

Bioshock takes place in an underwater city, Rapture, that was designed as an objectivist utopia by the mad genius, Andrew Ryan (a la John Galt in Atlas Shrugged). Ryan gathered some of the greatest scientific and industrialist minds of the post-war generation, brought them under the sea, and gave them free reign to build a better society. You walk onto the scene some 14 years later to find Rapture overrun by psychotic "splicers" and Ryan hanging onto the last vestiges of his dream in denial of his failure. One of my favorite features of the game is how you learn about what happened: as you wander through this massive human aquarium, you read posters and newspaper headlines, and listen to tape-recorded diaries left behind by the previous inhabitants. Since you'll encounter these diaries in a seemingly random order, you'll have to piece together the chronology of what happened very slowly, like filling in blank spots in a puzzle. The writing of these miniature soliloquies is mature, sophisticated and haunting.

The lesson of Bioshock is clear.
Given license to pursue his passions and individual goals in a laissez-faire environment, man will consume himself. Free market competition will lead to a strict hierarchical society, with plebes and patricians, alphas and epsilons, masters and slaves, irrespective of initial egalitarian principles. Perhaps this is inevitable and even, forgivable. But the fatal flaw of Ryandian objectivism (and modern libertarianism) is its absolute failure to understand basic principles of human nature.

First and foremost,
libertarians overestimate the altruism of the average man. Utopian communes aren't doomed to failure - but they usually do because it only takes a spoonful of shit to spoil a barrel of wine. Rapture is another case-in-point of the Tragedy of the Commons. If you could trust your neighbor to be selfless and kind and to keep his hands off your cattle (land/wife/money/etc), you wouldn't need authority figures maintaining the peace. But of course, sans government, it all goes to pot.

Some few, striving for individual greatness and personal gain, will reduce the overall happiness of the many. Those few (men, most likely) will take their greed and ambition to unnecessary heights, if for no other reason than they can. In Bioshock, you come to learn that these men (Andrew Ryan and his criminal rival, Frank Fontaine) destroyed Rapture through a devastating civil war, a barbarian struggle for power.

They are also responsible for your very existence. Every action you take, through the final scene, is dictated by their whims and grand designs. Eventually, the meaning of your mysterious wrist tattoos becomes disturbingly clear.

"So far away from your family, from your friends, from everything you ever loved. But, for some reason you like it here. You feel something you can't quite put your finger on. Think about it for a second and maybe the word will come to you...nostalgia." (Andrew Ryan)

Bioshock is ultimately a commentary on the complexities of freedom and free will. For example: recall that a key scientific breakthrough in Rapture was the discovery of a deep-sea parasite that produced stem cells which could instantaneously alter the genotype and phenotype of its human host. When this parasite is placed within a little girl, it mass-produces stem cells which can then be harvested. This distilled substance is called Adam and is by far the most valuable commodity in Rapture. People began taking Adam to become smarter, faster, stronger, more attractive - after all, it's instant genetic engineering - and criminals began taking it so that they could walk through walls, set people on fire, and kill with greater efficiency. But the more you "splice," the crazier you get. And in order to fuel your new genetic enhancements (called Plasmids), you need "Eve." So you eventually get hooked on two drugs.

Because Ryan's a capitalist, he allows people to purchase Adam and Eve through vending machines instead of keeping them confidential government secrets or instituting any sort of statewide regulation. His assumption is that the free market, and human ingenuity, will work out the kinks. But he fails to appreciate how powerfully addiction strips people of their free will.

Herein lies the second fatal flaw of Ryandian objectivism.
You just can't underestimate the determining effect of environment on human behavior. Rightists rely too heavily on the fallacy of democratic freedom: If you want something bad enough, you can have it. If you want to get rich, you can do it. If you want to beat a drug addiction, you just have to decide to do so. Statements like these contain some truth but ignore the obstacles that particular social groups must confront in pursuit of their goals. Is it as easy for a poor man to get rich, as it is for a rich man to become wealthier? Governments exist (in theory) to protect the rights of the downtrodden and to level the playing field whenever necessary. Without such leveling, a society will rapidly eat itself to death with a very small percentage of the populace controlling an inordinate amount of the wealth and power (wait, that sounds familiar). Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps sounds well and good but is, at times, made impossible by a particular cultural environment.

Consider Ann Ryand's words on the topic of drug addiction:

"Drug addiction is the attempt to obliterate one's consciousness, the quest for a deliberately induced insanity. As such, it is so obscene an evil that any doubt about the moral character of its practitioners is itself an obscenity." (Apollo and Dionysus)
"...drug addiction is nothing but a public confession of personal impotence."

There's little understanding here of how addiction alters one's freedom. Drug addiction can obviously be beaten by one's will. But doesn't society also play a role in engendering such addictions, and doesn't it have an obligation to help its citizens defeat them?

Back to Rapture. Desperate splicers learn how to hack the vending machines, or simply break into them. Sentry guns are built to protect these investments. Rapture devolves into a violent and chaotic place.
And then you come into the story.

Within 5 minutes of playing the game, you're told (by some disembodied voice through a speaker) to inject your first plasmid. Hey, now you can shoot electricity out of your hands! Pretty cool, right? But wait a second... Didn't the plasmids make everyone insane and destroy Rapture? Doesn't this mean that now I'm hooked on Eve? Yes, and yes. And as level after level pass by, you consume more Adam and take on more plasmids, you harvest Little Sisters, you inject syringe after sickening syringe of Eve, you start to see ghosts and have hallucinations, and you kill every splicer in your path. But you are a splicer. You have lost your free will, without even knowing it.

By the end of the game, you realize that your descent into drug addiction is purposeful manipulation. It is a disturbing feeling, and more than once I wondered whether I could stop taking Adam and still complete the game. And here is where Bioshock, unfortunately, fails. In its story-telling, it achieves an intrigue on par with a good novel. You actually begin to question the morality of your actions and yearn for another way to save Rapture. But even with all the flexibility that Bioshock grants, you're never actually given the choice to move outside of the prescribed scenario. Sure, you can use electricity to stun the {insert enemy} or multiple heat-seeking missiles or you can hack an RPG turret, etc., etc. - but you have to kill it. Or else the story won't continue. This feels very odd and uncomfortable when, concurrently, the game is literally begging you to consider the consequences of your actions and to break free from the chains of your heritage and conditioning.

"In the end, what separates a man from a slave? Money? Power? No.
A man chooses, a slave obeys." (Andrew Ryan)

Late in the game, you're tracking down Fontaine for the final boss battle. He's holed up in the Big Daddy training grounds, behind a dozen locked doors. But the Little Sisters can let you in, since there's always a little door embedded in every big door to help them navigate the city.

A Little Sister door-within-a-door

But the Little Sisters won't help you unless you look, talk, and smell like a Big Daddy. That's right, you have to become a Big Daddy. You wander around the Big Daddy factory looking for pheromones, a voice-modulator, and components to a giant suit. With each addition, you become more and more like a Big Daddy. It's a fascinating plot twist. While you wander, you discover evidence that becoming a Big Daddy is a one-way street - that the suit grafts itself to the skin of the host - and you start to freak out a little. Do I really need to do this? Finally, you find the boots, the final piece of your disguise, and you're ready to put them on and continue the game. You know that you need to put them on to continue the game. But I really didn't want to. I sat there for minutes struggling over this decision - do I want to become that which I despise most? Do I have to? Do I have any choice in the matter? The fact that Bioshock even gets you to ask these questions is astounding - but its failure to allow you to answer them, behaviorally, is colossal.

I became a Big Daddy. I escorted a Little Sister. She began harvesting dead bodies for Adam, and I protected her from splicers while she did it. My mind was twisted in knots, because for the whole game I'd been fighting against this very phenomenon. Rarely have I been so emotionally disturbed by my own actions in a game. I actually felt a little sick. And yet, I had no choice.

This explains everything. Really.

What hurts Bioshock in the end is that it's a shooter, first and foremost. It's got a strong pedigree, being a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and Half-Life 2. All these games allowed you to solve problems (usually "killing" problems) in many different ways, and the "freedom" was periodically intoxicating. But it was false. The overall plot kept you on a rail. You needed to accomplish Goal A before you could begin Goal B. And there weren't a ton of plot branches - e.g. save this person's life and the game goes in one direction, kill them and it goes in another. You can see why that's a rarity in video games, since it means that designers almost have to build two games in one. And imagine if you incorporate lots of such branches. But Bioshock shot for such a lofty ideal - it aspires to be something more than just a game - that you wish the designers had incorporated some more lessons from open-ended role-playing games, like Oblivion and KOTOR, where your choices create the story. Allow the player the freedom to explore the consequences of their actions.

People have complained about the weak finale (and it is painfully disappointing) - about the lack of denouement - about the cop-out alternate endings that really only weigh how many Little Sisters you've saved. But Bioshock's real failure is that is doesn't allow its player to actually learn from the lessons of Rapture. You're literally forced to commit the same mistakes those desperate people made and to become that which horrifies you most. It is sublimely ironic that while Bioshock is attempting to show us both the inevitable failure of a libertarian society and the evils of a totalitarian dictatorship, it forces us to play as a slave.

As a shooter, Bioshock is a resounding success. Buy it, play it, play it again. The level design is impeccable, the emotional tone devastating. But it is difficult not to judge this one harshly, since it flies so very close to the sun.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the art of jumping fences

"Jump" by Vic De La Rosa

Imagine that you are working on a small farm. You went to school only up to the sixth grade, like most people in your home town. That was the only education offered nearby - you would have had to pay to go to high school, and where? Besides, you had to help your father with the farming.

You marry a sweet girl, go to church, have several beautiful children. You manage to support your family on the income you make growing corn. But then the market for corn falls out from under you - suddenly everyone is importing corn more cheaply from up north, as NAFTA allows. Money gets tight, then stops altogether. There's no work for you here, so you do what most of the local young men are doing. Your last pesos go to bus fare the hours and hours north to Juarez. You get a job in the General Motors factory (another aspect of NAFTA), assembling car steering wheels. You make 34 pesos per 8 hour day (about $3.53), which doesn't go far. The prices here are high, and a day's work barely buys you beans and tortillas. You eat as little as you can, sending what you save back to your wife and kids. After only a few weeks your family also makes the trip to Juarez, so your wife can work too.

Even with the two of you working, you can't save enough money. You work every extra shift. No extra for overtime. Your oldest child, who is eight years old, cares for the younger two while you both work. There is no school nearby. Your wife works so hard she makes herself ill, or the adhesive she has to handle all day at work is affecting her health. No money for a doctor. You and your once beautiful wife are squatting on the outskirts of Juarez , with no water or electricity, just a roof made of scavenged materials. Your children are hungry. You are tired, desperate, and ashamed.

photo by Antonio Zazueta Olmos
Someone says they have a friend who can get you a job in Nebraska, where you can make $5.75 an hour - maybe more, they say. They even know a guy who can get you across the border, but it will cost two month's wages. What else can you do? You pay a stranger all your money, and he takes you, and ten other men, to the Sonoran desert, and you start walking....

Over 3,000 people are estimated to have died in the last decade crossing the Sonoran desert into the United States.

Several artists have created art works addressing border crossing. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Casa Segura

Casa Segura (Safe House) is an artwork that combines a small public access structure on private land in the Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona with a dynamic bilingual web space that facilitates creative exchange, dialogue, and understanding. Located north of the Mexican border, Casa Segura engages three distinct groups: Mexican migrants crossing the border through this dangerous landscape, the property owners whose land they cross, and members of the general public interested in learning more about border issues and the intricate dynamics at play in this heavily trafficked region.

The small solar-powered structure acts as a temporary transitional space in which migrants can meet basic needs for water and nutrition and share stories via an embedded touch screen interface. Drawing upon the vernacular of traveler graffiti, pictograms, and the Mexican tradition of ex-voto painting, migrants are invited to creatively share something about themselves and their journey with the homeowner and the larger populus.”

2. Las Madres Project

Las Madres by Valarie James

“The sculptural installation “The Mothers; Las Madres” standing vigil is an artist’s response to the human suffering and ongoing death of migrants coming across the Mexican/American border in search of work in El Norte. Each Mother figure represents over 1000 men, women and children who have lost their lives crossing the desert. The sculptures are made from discarded migrant clothing reclaimed from the desert and then blended with Sonoran plant material."

Valarie James continued the series with "Wall of Bordado", a collection of traditional embroidered fabrics found in the desert:

“Over time, we have found over 35 hand embroidered 'bordado' cloths with inscriptions such as 'Yo e Tu Rec. Felicida de Ma Ma' You and I remember the happiness of our Mother, 'Pienso En ti' I think of you and 'Somos Dos Enamorados' We are two people in love. Some of the cloths are of heirloom quality with relleno crewel work, others are everyday tortilla wraps. All are edged with lacy 'tejido de gancho' crochet. We wash the cloths and display them with care to honor the nameless women who made them."

James also created "The Migrant Shrine," a beautiful commission for the Southside Church in Tucson Arizona. This piece strikes a chord for me, because this church was at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement, of which my mother was part when I was a young child.

Border issues have been a part of my life since then - because of my mother's activism, because of our home being so near the border, because I felt there was an inherent injustice to the poverty just on the other side of the fence.

Photo by M Paulda

Many years ago I spent a year as a volunteer at Annunciation House in Juarez, Mexico, where border issues, poverty, and violence against women are at their most severe. It was possibly the best year of my life.

I am far from the border these days. So I was thrilled recently when I happened upon a talk given by a group of local teenagers who had participated in a Border Witness Delegation. They had been to Juarez, seen the maquiladoras, tried to live for a week off of Mexican wages. They had seen the families living in shacks made of factory palettes, drinking polluted water from the Rio Grande. They were inspired to do something about it, to educated others, and to appreciate their own lives in a much more profound way. Read their book:

I'd like to take all the depressed teenagers I work with at the psych hospital on such a border witness trip, let them see how relatively lucky they are. Let them take part in trying to make a difference for their peers on the other side of the fence. Volunteerism therapy.

Image by Josh MacPhee

Saturday, July 19, 2008

guillermo del toro

Dark Knight is in the theaters, and looks to be a winner. We haven't seen it yet but I'm especially optimistic after the gritty Batman Begins seemed to herald in a re-invention of the movie series. But what about Hellboy II? If you're teetering on the fence about this one, our mutual suggestion is to skip it and wait for video. I admit to having high hopes, since Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors right now. But it was surprisingly slow, the plot was typically clich├ęd, and the action sequences were humdrum. Stay at home and cozy up with one of the following instead:

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Also directed by del Toro, a much more imaginative and emotionally taxing film. The main character is Ofelia, a little girl living in Spain just after the civil war (1944). Events unfold in a less-than-pleasant reality and a fantasy world that may or may not be the product of Ofelia's escapist imagination. It is a dark fairy tale, as if you were watching a Neil Gaiman nightmare unfold. Del Toro has listed the following authors and artists as sources of inspiration: Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Francisco Goya, and Arthur Rackham. Do not be pushed away by the English subtitles. This is an amazing story where the special effects are used for specific purpose and aren't the whole point of the thing (e.g. Hellboy).

The Orphanage (2007)

Produced by del Toro and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. A remarkable movie, and perhaps the best ghost story I've even seen. I've mentioned before that I am relatively impervious to horror-fear in movies, due to my father's unwitting immersion therapy during childhood. But The Orphanage evoked real fear in me, and perhaps even more impressively, dread. It is a movie that benefits from very little being said about it, except a strong recommendation. Again, please do not shy away from the Spanish language and English subtitles. This is a superb film that, like Pan's Labyrinth, dances across the boundary of the depressingly real and sublime fantastic. It is difficult to know what is "true" and what is not and, as in the best of magical-realism, the distinction is meaningless.

Keep an eye out for del Toro's version of The Hobbit, planned as a duology for release in 2011/2012. It may be the best on-screen Tolkien experience since 1977's animated movie (take that, Peter Jackson).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

bioshock: 1st impressions

I am in gaming heaven. I finished a manuscript this week, so to reward myself I hunkered down and installed Bioshock, which has been mocking me from my desk for nearly 6 months. Bioshock is a first-person-shooter (FPS) / role-playing-game (RPG) hybrid that was released for both PC and XBox360 about a year ago to widespread critical acclaim. I have delved into around 5 hours worth of the play, and can say without hesitation that this is a brilliant, immersive game.

The year is 1960. You play a character named Jack, who crashes into the ocean only to discover a vast, underwater city called Rapture. Originally conceived as an objectivist-utopia, Rapture has clearly seen better days. The infrastructure is collapsing, there's blood and broken glass everywhere, and the majority of the city is inhabited by crazed mutants and security robots. At its heart, Bioshock is a horror-esque FPS where you run around exploring levels, collecting various weapons, ammo, and upgrades, and killing nearly everything you see. But there's so much more.

Every now and then, I find a game that hits a "sweet spot" - that carries me away to a place far from my own cluttered mind every time I load it up. It feels like you're playing the starring role in a science fiction novel, or a spectacular new HBO mini-series. Bioshock is that kind of game. You keep playing not because you want to "level up" or find that next cool weapon, but because you've been drawn into the plot and want to see where the story takes you.

To give you a taste of what it's like, here's the first five minutes of gameplay and your introduction to Rapture...

As a game designed for the next-gen consoles and most recent video cards, Bioshock has astounding graphics. If you've got DX10 capability, it'll throw even more grandeur at you. I've been especially impressed with the use of lighting and shadow to create a chilling ambiance. For example:

If you're aware of Ayn Rand's philosophy, than you'll appreciate some of Bioshock's intellectual discourse:

But the game doesn't forget its action roots, and constantly pushes you along a heart-pounding ride. Dangerous areas are foreshadowed with blood spattered on the walls and floor, and horrifying gibberish. Here's the entrance to the surgery unit of the medical pavilion:

You may have noticed from these screenshots that Bioshock allows you to use two different modes of attack. In your right hand, you wield typical FPS weapons, starting with a wrench (like the crowbar in Half-Life), progressing to a pistol, machine gun, shotgun, etc. From your left hand, you can use psychic upgrades called Plasmids. So far, I've been able to hurl electric bolts, set people on fire, and manipulate objects via telekinesis. This combination of traditional weaponry and genetically-engineered "magic" makes Bioshock a bit steampunk-ish, on top of all its other genre-bending attributes.

Plasmids lie at the foundation of Rapture's decline. Some of Rapture's scientists learned how to modify/enhance human genetics, using stem cells taken from a deep sea parasite. Plasmid use and abuse spread rapidly throughout Rapture, and somehow, caused widescale psychic breakdowns among the populace. This is why you'll run into crazed lunatics throughout your journey. The problem is that in order to use Plasmids, you need a substance called "Adam." And the only people who have any Adam are the Little Sisters...

These tormented little girls wander around Rapture stealing blood and recycling Adam from fallen corpses. Creepy, yes. But not unprotected. Adam is so valuable a commodity, that each Little Sister is guarded by a Big Daddy...

Yeah, that's a giant drill that he has for a hand. There's a moral dilemma here. If you kill a Big Daddy (and you need to), you have the option of "harvesting" a Little Sister for her Adam or rescuing her. Here's what that screen looks like, and tell me what you'd do in this situation:

Bioshock is full of interesting and difficult decisions like this one. I've barely scratched the surface but I already feel like I've gotten more entertainment value out of this game than the past 3 movies I saw in the theater. Rumor has it, however, that the ending is very disappointing. Hopefully by then, I won't even care.

Friday, July 11, 2008

graphic design in boardgames

If you dig back into this blog's archives, you'll see that one of my first posts concerned an old Avalon Hill fantasy wargame called Titan, and a clever computerized instantiation, Colossus. In the end, of course, it's more fun to play a boardgame with real human beings and it's a literal tragedy that my ancient copy of Titan has only seen a few plays over the course of its lifetime. The reasons are not surprising: it take a few hours to finish, once you're eliminated you're gone for good, etc. - that breed of Ameritrash, Risk-like gameplay is hard to pull off once you graduate from college. But it still hasn't prevented me from getting excited over a remake of Titan that is currently in the works. Valley Games is releasing a new edition of this revered classic sometime in the next month (!) and I can't wait to get my greedy hands on it.

Now, you might wonder why someone would want another copy of a boardgame that they already own. The issue here is art and design. Print magazine recently ran a story on the resurgence of boardgames in both Europe and America, and one of the themes that came through was the new emphasis on quality. Quality of gameplay, of course, but also quality of design, of artwork, of components. Modern day game designers and publishers are putting more effort into the presentation of their product, and it's paying dividends. People (like me) collect boardgames now, not because they have a playroom for their 6-year-old, but because they view the game as something worthy of a little adoration.

Now, I won't deny that there are some classic games out there with excellent art and design work. For example, see this blog entry by our compatriot RL on the classic Dune boardgame from 1979. The components captured a unique style that seemed the reflect Frank Herbert's intriguing universe. But by and large, modern designers, artists, and publishers have better tools available to them and cheaper means of production. Back in the day, it was common for wargames to ship with sheets of counters and hex-maps, like this from Advanced Squad Leader (1985):

Something my older brother could love, but not a game that the average person would find immersive, intuitive, or attractive. Consider, as a comparison, this image of map and components from 2005's Conquest of the Empire (a wargame about the Roman Empire):

Colored miniatures not only give this game an attractive third dimension, but the use of shape allows players to analyze unit and army composition faster and more intuitively.

If you've never thought about boardgames from a graphic design standpoint before, I strong recommend reading this blog entry by designer, Mike Doyle. In it, he eloquently speaks to how good design can provide both aesthetic appeal and increased functionality (information) at the same time. The good news for me is that Doyle is leading the way on the new edition of Titan. Here's why I'm so excited. This is a pic of the Titan board from the classic 1980 edition:

Note the color pallete and layout. And here's what the new board will look like:

I love the dark contrast here, the more striking colors, and the use of a parchment effect to provide rule information. Yum. Ok, another comparison. On the left is an example of a dragon unit-counter from the original and on the right is the re-worked version. Obviously, the art is more "realistic" and computer-ish this time - but the choice of icons to express information is also more intuitive. Instead of a star to denote a flying creature, Doyle has adopted a raptor silhouette.

When two armies clash on the main board in Titan, the battle shifts to an appropriately titled "battleboard" which represents the actual terrain-hex which the armies occupy. In other words, there's a transition from strategic to tactical. On the left is an old-school battleboard, on the right the updated version. Again, note the use of the classy parchment effect, as well as the inclusion of more information (so that you don't have to flip into the rulebook when a battle begins).

So what's the point of all this, in the end? To make more money off of chumps like me? Well, yes, I suppose. But once you begin to view boardgames as playable works of art, I think your perspective shifts. Here's a quote from Doyle's blog entry:

"Art for walls serves to enhance the ambiance of a room. By the same token, the art on the game board provides an ambiance to the gameplay that very pure data will never drive. I maintain that you are more likely to spend time looking at your favorite games than the art on your walls. Thus, the game aesthetics are just as important as wall decoration aesthetics for setting a mood and ambiance. How often have we stared at the wall art for 60 minutes or two hours at a time? Now how about the game art?"

I couldn't agree more. It's just basic psychology here: people are attracted to pretty things, and will be more willing to pay attention to them for long periods of time. If I pull out a wargame to try and convince some relative non-gamers to play with me, it better look good. If all they see is piles of counters with numbers and hexes, their eyes will glaze over and they'll start wondering where my copy of Risk is (I frickin' hate Risk). But if I pull out something like War of the Ring...

or Thurn and Taxis...

or, I hope, the new edition of Titan...

... I think I'm more likely to draw out that wide-eyed little kid that each of us tends to suffocate with lawn-work, excel spreadsheets, and mind-numbing TeeVee.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

it takes a nation of millions...

One of the first hip hop (back then, we called it "rap"!) albums I owned was Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I still remember snipping and mending the magnetic tape of my cassette after my boombox ate it for the umpteenth time. Released in 1988, I was 15 years old and not yet ready for the knowledge that Chuck D was dropping. I listened to this album today in my car as I ran errands and was astonished, again, at the power and relevance of these tracks.

Song list:

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

Most music critics consider this PE's magnum opus, and I can see why. It's got everything - from thumping beats, twisted samples, and superb turntablism courtesy of Terminator X - to Chuck D's socially-conscious, charged, confrontational, and intelligent lyrics - to Flavor Flav's brilliantly absurd ab libs.

Bring the Noise starts with a quote extracted from a speech by Malcolm X: "Too black... too strong..." , although it's informative to take a look at the context of that speech:

"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep." (Message to the Grass Roots, Nov. 1963, Detroit)

You can read and listen to the entirely of this speech by visiting this site. There is no doubt that Malcolm X preached anger and hate, prior to his conversion to traditional Islam, but I usually find his words interesting and thoughtful. This speech is a good example of old-fashioned revolutionary rhetoric - Malcolm X calling for a violent black movement for freedom and equal rights in America. In this quote, he is arguing against the involvement of white people within the revolution. Unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm X felt that black freedom could only come from blacks working on their own. Many have interpreted this quote as an expression of the anxiety that both black and white felt over the prospect of racial mixing (either genetic or cultural). Public Enemy explore this very issue further on their next album, Fear of a Black Planet. Needless to say, as a "brown" teenager growing up in rural New York, I had never even considered these problems and fears and felt both uncomfortable and excluded from the message - I was clearly not the "target audience."

So from the outset, you're made aware that It Takes a Nation of Millions... is neither going to be gangsta (which was hitting it's heyday in the late 80's) nor mindless self-indulgence (a la, 2 Live Crew's 1989 As Nasty as They Wanna Be). Don't Believe the Hype provides one of the group's most recognizable samples, as Chuck D openly endorses the Nation of Islam and Louis Farakan. Cold Lampin' with Flavor makes an abrupt turn into the silly, but also serves as a reminder of why Flavor Flav was actually cool back then. Consider:

Shinavative ill factors by da Flavor Flav
Come an ride da Flavor wave
In any year on any givin day
What a brova know - what do Flavor say
Why do dis record play dat way
Prime time merrily in da day
Right now dis radio station is busy - brainknowledgeably wizzy
Honey drippers, you say you got it
You ain't got no flavor and I can prove it
Flavor Flav the flav all of flavors
Onion an garlic french fried potatas
Make ya breath stink, breathe fire
Makes any onion da best crier

And it goes on. MC and I used to crack up every single time we played this on the way to school. She Watch Channel Zero?! is one of my favorite tracks on the album, as PE rail against the brainwashing effect of daytime television (although I'm not sure why they exclude men from their critique):

Trouble vision for a sister
Because I know she don't know, I quote
Her brains retrained
By a 24 inch remote
Revolution a solution
For all our children
But all her children
Don't mean as much as the show, I mean
Watch her worship the screen, and fiend
For a TV ad
And it just makes me mad

It's hard not to appreciate the irony of this song, now that Flavor Flav dominates VH1 with one of the most absurd and escapist "reality" shows yet produced.

Night of the Living Bassheads is, likewise, an appeal to black dope-peddlers and gangsters to stop destroying their own communities through drugs and violence. And this right when EazyE, Dre, and Ice-T were promoting the hustler lifestyle in their own counter-culture rebellion. To his credit, from the beginning Chuck D understood the bitter irony and self-defeating nature of glamorizing criminality.

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos begins with the following memorable verse:

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 given' a damn - I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn't wit' it, but just that very minute...
It occurred to me
The suckers had authority

I won't deny that there are still socially-conscious hip-hop artists out there (Mos Def, The Perceptionists, Blackalicious, etc.), but their voices are usually drowned out by the self-aggrandizement and overproduced beats spouted by the likes of Jay-Z, Kayne West, et al. Oh, Chuck D, we miss you!