In celebration of its 30th anniversary, KEXP presented the latest in our series of album breakdowns on Thursday, June 21st, dissecting the classic platinum-selling Public Enemy record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Over the course of 12 hours for this live radio event, the station played every discernable recording sampled on the album, along with exclusive interviews with Public Enemy co-founder Chuck D, the producer of the record Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad, Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets, former KEXP DJ Larry Mizell, Jr., professor, writer, and historian Dr. Daudi Abe, and more. It’s a celebration of Public Enemy, only on KEXP, where Public Enemy really matters.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is widely regarded as one of the most influential hip hop albums of all time. Conceived by the group as hip hop’s answer to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the album is rooted in the Bomb Squad’s high-tempo, sample-based beats and sounds, mixed with Chuck D’s powerful, politically-charged vocals and Flavor Flav’s surreal and sometimes chaotic hype.
In an exclusive interview with KEXP, Chuck D shared:
"We reached for a lot of obscure records. We wanted to dig into crates before crate-digging was accepted as being a thing. A lot of times we found sounds that were on 45s. They weren't clean. They were on 45s, and a lot of the companies in the '60s, and the '50s and '70s just kept releasing 45s into the marketplace. But there were even b-sides to those 45s that few had actually turned around to listen to."
Hank Shocklee said in another interview with KEXP:
"Sampling was an art form at that point. Everybody would sample, but they would sample maybe a kick, a snare, or maybe just a loop of a phrase. That was the most that sampling was. But for me, it was more about, OK, if we were a band you would have different instruments, and so each sample represents a different instrument being played. So this album was coming from a band's perspective, but strictly made from records that bands were playing on. It was like, 'How do you take music that's been recorded to make music that's going to be recorded?'"
Previous album breakdowns undertaken by KEXP have featured the Beastie Boys classic Paul’s Boutique, and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. The Public Enemy album breakdown featured songs from artists as wide ranging as Stevie Wonder, Slayer, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, David Bowie, the J.B.’s, Kurtis Blow, and Queen.
“There’s no guide book for this kind of radio,” said Associate Director of Programming and Morning Show host John Richards. “We’re going to do everything we can to get it right – it was the wild west of sampling back then, but we’ll have a whole crew of folks digging through their mental record crates to identify every sample humanly possible.”
The Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets MC talks about what it was like to experience Public Enemy's masterpiece as it was unleashed into the world, the brilliance of Flavor Flav, and what the band meant to black youth in 1988.
KEXP’s DJ Riz Rollins and former Street Sounds host Larry Mizell Jr. discuss their own experiences not just living through the release of the record, but living in the world Public Enemy was talking about on the record.
Seattle-based professor, writer, historian, and author of 6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture Dr. Daudi Abe offers insight on this landmark work as KEXP breaks down every track and sample on the LP.