An album bursting with energy, Public Enemy’s 1988 It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is worthy of its hyped introduction:
“Armageddon, in bit and effect. Go get a late pass. Step.
This time around, the revolution will not be televised. Step.
London, England, consider yourselves… worn!”
I’m excited. Bring The Noise follows, telling you to crank up the volume. Great scratching and horns welcome us to the frenzy of musical and lyrical onslaught that is to follow.
Skillfully written and full of musical and political allusion – Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, James Dean, Nelson Mandela, etc. – the lyrics seem to explore four key themes: (i) a defence of their art in the face of poor critical reviews and little mainstream airplay – the band realise the significance of their work* and understandably view themselves as unfairly treated; (ii) supporting the ethics surrounding sampling of other artists’ material; (iii) a fierce political and social lyrical attack on the problems in America at the time, from a pro-black standpoint. There is a strong discontent with the government, portrayed as crooked liars, and corrupt state institutions such as the media and the police, who are both described as racist, as well as condemning societal issues like drugs and the dumbing down of television and music, sexualised for profit. Chuck D. plays this role, with his deeper, more aggressive voice more suited to the angry tone; and (iv) bigging themselves up, which falls mainly to hype-man Flavor Flav.
“I guarantee you, no more music by these suckers. No more music by these suckers.”
“In the daytime, radio’s scared of me, ‘cause I’m mad, plus I’m the enemy. They can’t come on and play me in prime time.”
“The minute they see me, fear me. I’m the epitome of Public Enemy.”
“Radio stations, I question their blackness. They call themselves black but we’ll see if they play this.”
“But since I gave you all a little something that we knew you lacked, they still consider me a new jack. All the critics you can hang ‘em. I’ll hold the rope.”
“They claim that I’m a criminal”
“Some claim that I’m a smuggler… a rap burglar.”
“Caught, now in court ’cause I stole a beat. This is a sampling sport. But I’m giving it a new name. What you hear is mine.”
“You’re quite hostile. I got a right to be hostile – my people are being persecuted.”
“Power, equality, and we’re out to get it. I know some of you ain’t wid’ it. This party started right in sixty-six, with a pro-Black radical mix. Then at the hour of twelve, some force cut the power, and emerged from hell. It was your so called government that made this occur, like the grafted devils they were.”
“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 giving 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 with it, but just that very minute, it occurred to me these suckers had authority.”
“Her brain’s retrained by a 24 inch remote. Revolution a solution for all of our children, but her children don’t mean as much as the show. I mean, watch her worship the screen.”
“Once again, back is the incredible, the Rhyme Animal, the incredible D.”
Musically the album is densely layered with samples, funky basslines, scratches and avant-garde noises**. Never straight forward or simple, Terminator X throws a varied mix of elements into every song, taking the listener in a multitude of directions. It is packed with wonderful little interludes and moments of brilliance: the dirty bassline of Mind Terrorist; the heavenly opening to Louder Than A Bomb; the haunting piano backing to Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos; and my personal favourite, the smooth saxophone of Show ‘Em Watcha Got. Samples are used to particular effect, not only musically but also lyrically, by using snippets of deliberately provocative political speeches, radio reports and attacks on the band.
There is so much energy in this record, from start to finish. (Especially at the finish with the double delivery and more direct lyrics of Party For Your Right To Party). Every track is fresh, charged and in your face. I’ve never heard an album that can keep up such intensity whilst maintaining musical quality and lyrical meaning. That’s why this is a great album.
*Compare this to Vanilla Ice – the biggest hip hop star of the time.
**The phrase avant-garde noises is taken from Wikipedia but it describes the sounds that feature throughout better than I could. Rebel Without A Pause is a perfect example with a single scratch sound forming the base of the song.