Wednesday, December 12, 2007

[019] It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Artist: Public Enemy
Release Date: June 1988
Label: Def Jam/Columbia
Producers: Hank Shocklee & Carl Ryder, with Eric “Vietnam” Sadler

“’YES’ was the start of my last jam
So here it is again, another def jam
But since I gave you all a little something that I knew you lacked
They still consider me a new jack
All the critics, you can hang ‘em, I’ll hold the rope
But they hope to the Pope and pray it ain’t dope
The follower of Farrakhan
Don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man
The book of the new school Rap game
Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane
Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind
We’re brothers of the same mind, un-blind”
- from “Don’t Believe The Hype”

On virtually any other list like this, Public Enemy’s Nation Of Millions would be the top seated Hip-Hop album. There are three possible reasons why this constantly happens. First, there are the white critics dealing with Caucasian guilt placing it in the top spot because P.E. brought Rock’s fire to Rap music. It’s accepted at this point, the same kind of hand-me-down ‘certified classic’ as Pet Sounds or Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s, great albums that in the light of history now appear overrated – and it’s the kowtowing to these albums that inspired this list in the first place. Second, there are the critics that hold the opinion that this was the first truly great Rap record, ignoring admittedly inferior but no less genre-essential discs like Paid In Full, Criminal Minded, Licensed To Ill, and Raising Hell. And third and finally, there are the critics who rate the album not on its musical merits, but on its overall massive impact on world culture. Now I will allow that following Eric B. & Rakim’s reinvention of what you could do in Hip-Hop music, Public Enemy leveled all competition with this boundary-less album, and stood at the top of the mountain for at least a strong year, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best ever; it is a flawed masterpiece, unfortunately dated in places, still held in high esteem because of the resonance of its moment in the sun. I can however also tell you that it deserves so much of its praise because it is one of the most fearlessly creative records of all time, with a rare mix of Punk Rock’s passionate dissatisfaction and refusal to settle for less, and the over-the-top ambition and bombast of Arena Rock in order to get one’s point across – all crammed into a Hip-Hop mold that at the time was struggling to expand not only artistically, but commercially. Nation Of Millions did indeed break the mold into a millions of pieces, creating a layered sonic blueprint for more than just Hip-Hop. The reach of Public Enemy’s influence is extremely long and powerful in these past 20 years. I’m just saying – it’s not a perfect record; there are simply better Hip-Hop albums out there.

But let’s talk about the good… After debuting a year earlier with some good songs and some awkward growing pains on Yo! Bum Rush The Show, P.E. announced their second-wave battle plan by releasing “Rebel Without A Pause” as a b-side to Bum Rush’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours”. Taken on its own, “Rebel” still sounds like the revolutionary statement it is, an earthquake sending shockwaves through all of music. For four minutes, the beat is relentless, the shrieking horns piercing eardrums everywhere, over a perfect Funk foundation. Chuck D spits a wealth of confrontational rhymes, taking on all doubters with fury that Johnny Rotten could have only prayed for. The stage was set, and with the live intro of “Countdown To Armageddon”, DJ Terminator X drops an air raid siren just to let you know that P.E. is coming for you, and you better run, cuz you’re fuckin’ screwed, and as Professor Griff notes, “Armageddon – it been in effect – go get a late pass!”

Chuck D’s voice is one of the greatest sounds in Pop music history, charging onto the scene with a “BASS! How low can you go??” Kicking off the album with “Bring The Noise” is a brilliant move considering that it not only presents Chuck’s best foot forward, but it encapsulates the many themes that he and the group are about to tackle on the rest of the record. Where 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet (#42) was largely a sonic statement by P.E.’s production team The Bomb Squad, Nation Of Millions is undoubtedly Chuck’s record. His voice, honed through years of college radio, put Public Enemy on the map. He didn’t sound like he was overdoing it like Run-DMC, but he wasn’t subdued like Rakim either; he wasn’t stroking his ego too much like LL, and he wasn’t being boisterous for attention like the Beastie Boys. Chuck was simply incensed by the world around him, and felt the need to give the world “CNN for the streets”, his specific aim of combining The Clash and Run-DMC. On “Prophets Of Rage”, his voice is mixed high in the mix, putting his vicious messages in the front of the churning soup of The Bomb Squad, distilling his New School leadership by saying that he’s “past the days of ‘yes y’all-ing’”. On the flat-out amazing “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”, Chuck confronts the hypocrisy of the US government by unfurling a jailbreak narrative, escaping from the cell he was imprisoned in, he says “because I’m militant”, during the first verse of “Bring The Noise”. Compared to other standard bearers of the New School, like Rakim, KRS-One, and Big Daddy Kane, Chuck rapped in the most abstract style. Allowing hype man Flavor Flav to play the exclamation point, Chuck rhymed with a singular non-flow; like John Coltrane, who he notes, on “Don’t Believe The Hype”, he was compared to, Chuck lets his words follow the beat, rarely trying to cram words where they won’t fit, and having no problem pausing to let the music catch up.

The Bomb Squad, led by Hank Shocklee, provided the soundtrack for Chuck and Flavor’s fiery political rhetoric. On Nation Of Millions, they explored the James Brown “Funky Drummer” breakbeats that were prevalent at the time, but in a more hectic manner, sometimes laying down more than one percussion track to give the songs added punch. They also sped the tempos up, shocking Hip-Hop fans and peers alike. “Bring The Noise” flies out of the gates, and the rest of the album rarely lets up. Gritty Blaxploitation Funk rhythms were layered with Rock guitars – “She Watch Channel Zero” samples a Slayer riff – topped with piercing squeals of disembodied horns, elevating tracks like “Louder Than A Bomb” and “Terminator X On The Edge Of Panic” to the level of Hip-Hop essentials. And if it wasn’t noisy enough for you, Flavor on Nation Of Millions is almost like another instrument of The Bomb Squad, hollering the whole time, with his clock to let you know what time it was. Best of all is “Night Of The Living Baseheads”, P.E.’s scathing examination of the drug epidemics crippling the inner city in the 80’s, giving equal time to chastising the addict and the black dealer destroying his own people. The song is everything you want from Public Enemy crammed into three minutes, Chuck and Flavor’s voices over honking car alarms and a beat making sharp turns, Terminator X slicing up records like no DJ before him.

If you happen to be over 30, and in your reminiscence you still want a clear reason why Nation Of Millions isn’t higher on the list, I’ll present you with this: as a piece of art, a part of popular culture, this album is more important now in a non-musical capacity than in a musical one, and strictly on a music basis, I’m weighing the other albums to come as stronger pieces of art or more concise statements. Additionally, now that music has caught up to The Bomb Squad’s advances, you find yourself starting to look for the advances the album produced socially. Nation Of Millions was the second Hip-Hop album I bought, and recognizing how it’s enriched my life, it seems to me that it should be the second or third Hip-Hop album that everyone buys; everyone starts with the one or two albums that get them into Hip-Hop, but then should come P.E., because not only does it illustrate Hip-Hop’s wide open potential, even twenty years later, but it promotes racial confidence, understanding and equality. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m proof. I might get a lot of flak for this, but I would say that having grown up listening to Public Enemy’s messages and street reports on the life and world of the black man in America, I move through life with infinitely less of the suppressed, subconscious racism that seems to plague people I know, who probably had it instilled in them from an early age, especially people from the older generations. Public Enemy did that for me - it allowed me to encounter the people of the world on an even playing field, and that’s more of a gift to the world than any of P.E.’s tracks bumping in your trunk. I would even draw the line forward to the trends of wide open Pop music, to discerning Indie hipsters openly loving Timbaland as much as, say, Aphex Twin or Pere Ubu – good music is good music. As much as whichever late 80’s Alternative Rock band you want to name who helped crack the mainstream open for the 90’s to rush in, Public Enemy was equally important, inspiring intelligent debate and discussion through heart-stopping adrenaline-rush music. In the end, it doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect, cuz change is never perfect, and considering that in just the two years prior, we were still listening to the skeletal boom bap of Run-DMC, Public Enemy’s cacophony of ecstatic noise is definitely a case of the new boss being leagues beyond the old boss.

01. “Countdown To Armageddon” [interlude]
02. “Bring The Noise”
03. “Don’t Believe The Hype”
04. “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor”
– “The name of my DJ” [interlude]
05. “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic”
06. “Mind Terrorist” [interlude]
07. “Louder Than A Bomb”
– “Rock the funky beats” [interlude]
08. “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”
09. “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” [interlude]
10. “She Watch Channel Zero?!”
11. “Night Of The Living Baseheads”
– “Bass for your face” [interlude]
12. “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”
13. “Security Of The First World” [interlude]
14. “Rebel Without A Pause”
– “Bring that beat back” [interlude]
15. “Prophets Of Rage”
16. “Party For Your Right To Fight”

"Bring The Noise" [audio]

"Night Of The Living Baseheads" ["Dope" extended video]

"Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" [single edit - video]

"Rebel Without A Pause" [video]

- BONUS: "Don't Believe The Hype" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Cold Lampin' With Flavor" [audio]
- BONUS: "Louder Than A Bomb" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Caught, Can We Get A Witness" [audio]
- BONUS: "She Watch Channel Zero?!" [audio]
- BONUS: "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" [audio]
- BONUS: "Rebel Without A Pause" [audio]
- BONUS: "Prophets Of Rage" [video]
Released to promote the Power To The People & Beats greatest hits album
- BONUS: "Party For Your Right To Fight" [audio]

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