Dispatches From the Edge of Panic: 30 Years of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Features, Rewind
Martin Douglas

There is a big reason why It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is still every bit as resonant as it was when it hit record store shelves with the impact of a Molotov Cocktail explosion thirty years ago, and that’s because things haven’t changed for the black community all that much. Sure, hip-hop’s not considered a “fad” anymore, and there are a few more black artists from this and other industries making good money from it, but income is hardly a salve for centuries of psychological and legislative oppression. Not to mention the weight of our ancestors as black people -- ferried to this land on boats, murdered for using our right to assemble in the fight for civil rights, the climax of the latter happening barely twenty years before the 1988 release of this album.

Public Enemy’s transcendent sophomore album was woke long before woke was a definiable term, let alone as trendy as it is in 2018. Its impact levelled hip-hop music right around the time the genre began its decades-long run as the display case of which white voyeurism set its binoculars. Along with N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, released a scant month and a half later, It Takes a Nation was more or less the catalyst for mainstream (read: white) America to show a genuine intellectual interest in rap music. (It was also the catalyst for N.W.A.’s Ice Cube to tap producers the Bomb Squad for his first full-length after leaving the group, the equally incendiary, aggressive, and smart AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.)


In a 1988 SPIN interview with John Leland – which eventually turned contentious and was ended abruptly by the journalist – frontman Chuck D said, “Rap serves as the communication that they don’t get for themselves to make them feel good about themselves. Rap is black America’s TV station. It gives a whole perspective on what exists and what black life is about. And black life doesn’t get the total spectrum of information through anything else. [...] The only thing that gives you straight-up facts on how the black youth feel is a rap record. It’s the number-one communicator, force, and source in America right now.”

A very famous descriptor of rap by Chuck is “the black CNN,” which is not built on studies and polls, but the very real feeling of being a part of the community, first-hand observation of the apathetic cruelty levied upon it, the crack-cocaine epidemic, the dulling effects of mindless entertainment, rap artists being sued over uncleared samples, and the falsehoods of American history textbooks. It’s one thing to read off statistics, it’s another thing to witness your community being ravaged by drugs, to drive through your neighborhood and see black people selling poison to other black people, and then set it to the blaring horns and clattering percussion of “Night of the Living Baseheads.”


Chuck has frequently noted he wanted to create an album along the lines of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a record that reflects the struggle of being black in America so poignant, ambitious, and nakedly despairing, it took subterfuge for Berry Gordy to sign off on its completion. But while What’s Going On’s most pivotal moments center around a Vietnam veteran coming home and feeling betrayed by the country he fought for, It Takes a Nation keeps a watchful eye on the war right at home.

Peep the opening words of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”:

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

On the surface, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is chilling storytelling, a song-length narrative about a man unwilling to cooperate with the Selective Service System who ends up leading a jailbreak. Dig deeper and there are age-old themes of African-Americans serving for the military and the stark, depressing reality of prisons being packed with black and brown faces. Unpacking the former is a matter of observing the disparity of respect offered between white veterans and veterans of color as well as the general culture of racism in the country, essentially giving your life to a country that continues to undermine people because of their cultural background and the color of their skin. (Modern-day examples of the treatment of military service people of color are offered in illuminating detail in this recent Pitchfork interview with hip-hop artist JPEGMAFIA.)

With the mile marker of a squealing, sped-up trumpet sample going off at the end of every bar, sounding somewhere between a party favor and a bike horn, the brick-heavy funk of “Don’t Believe the Hype” takes subliminal shots at Leland and Robert Christgau while decrying the notion of the classic media spin of an artist’s message. One side of the coin says Chuck seems sensitive to criticism, while the other says he’s firing back on a message these critics don’t understand, and won’t because of the nature of privilege.

From the aforementioned SPIN article: “‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ is about telling people, ‘Listen, just don’t believe the things that are told to you.’ Go out and seek, challenge information. [...] ‘Writers treat me like I’m Coltrane, insane/Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind/We’re brothers of the same mind, unblind.’ We both know what’s happening, but we’re treated like we’re bugging. That’s why I say I’m treated like Coltrane. ‘Cause when Coltrane took his stance in the mid-’60s, a lot of writers came crashing down on him because of his radical stance.”


Of course, Chuck’s sermonizing – which hits with the force of a first wrapped in a chain – is only half of the story here. According to Hank Shocklee, napalm-carrying member of the Bomb Squad, the musical approach of the album was to augment Chuck’s concrete block delivery. (“Chuck’s a powerful rapper,” Shocklee once told the New York Daily News. “We wanted to make something that could stand up sonically stand up to him.”)

The Bomb Squad, straddling the line between being frighteningly melodic and unabashedly unmusical, created a monolith of musique concrète, chaotic and bruising. Their beats, especially here, were an orchestra of confrontation and pandemonium; everything happening at once like a riot at the City Center. Terminator X scratches with fervor and skill back when DJing was as common in rap as rappers themselves, far from the fading but still very vital art it is today.

And then, there’s Flavor Flav, the court jester to the regal presence of Chuck, taking a solo turn on the funky, dissonant, and lighthearted “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor,” enjoyable enough to warrant a return of “lampin’” as a slang term, although nobody really hangs out underneath street lights anymore.

With the massive quality of the music, it’s a testament to the strength of Chuck’s presence and words that he remains out in front. The profundity of his pro-black message can’t be overstated here. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back begins with a demonstration by the S1Ws -- or Security of the First World -- led by the group’s minister of information Professor Griff. The controversy surrounding Griff’s comments about white and Jewish people following the release of the album was bountiful enough to have its own daylong breakdown, and the militant delivery of Public Enemy’s blackness was conflated with hate speech as a result.

But in actuality, the group’s militancy was a “peace at all costs” measure. It doesn't take an ethnic studies major to determine why the group is called Public Enemy, why their logo is a young black person in the center of a firearm’s scope. African-Americans are judged, persecuted, and murdered simply by virtue of the color of their skin. This landmark record was released three decades ago, and my previous sentence was written in the present tense. The notion of anti-blackness is a centuries-old practice, co-opted by the highest stations of American government and sadly showing no signs of letting up. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the pummeling document of a rap group using art, organization, and consciousness to fight back, and in their bravery created something timeless as a result.

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