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!


  1. Dude, 20 years later and I am still not ready for the knowledge Chuck D is dropping! Although pigeonholed as old school, PE's music is totally timeless, and I have never heard any hip-hop that has even tried to emulate their sound or come across with such political punch. The first PE song I ever heard was She Watch Channel Zero and I immediately knew that rap was no longer just Run-DMC and Whodini rehashing the same lyrics over simple beats. PE was sampling fucking Slayer back then, which was a treacherous step above the vanilla (no pun) Aerosmith collaboration that brought Run-DMC to the suburbs.

  2. 100 miles and runnin'July 7, 2008 at 11:57 PM

    911 IS a joke, knocka!

    and don't forget about the collabo w/ Anthrax, though that probably fell on the DMC/Aerosmith end.

  3. They went on tour with Sisters of Mercy in 1990 (pre-lollapalooza), when mixing a hip-hop group with a rock tour - an English goth band, no less - was almost unheard of. The tour got cancelled halfway through because promoters were too scared of the two sets of fans clashing.

  4. By All Means Necessary relaeased less than a month later by KRS 1/BDP.