DJ Riz Rollins Chats with Larry Mizell Jr. About It Takes A Nation and Living in a World Spotlighted by Public Enemy


As we continue to breakdown Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, we’ve been featuring interviews with the minds behind the record, scholars, and other artists who were impacted by the music. As we’ve seen, living in the moment when this record entered the world was like a tectonic shift in the landscape of hip-hop and popular music as a whole. In a back and forth interview, KEXP’s DJ Riz Rollins and former Street Sounds host Larry Mizell Jr. discuss (via Skype, Mizell now lives in Arizona) 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. Stream the conversation and check out some highlighted commentary from Mizell Jr below.


On Living in a World Spotlighted by Public Enemy

”I meet people, I meet my neighbors and they're cool and everything but it's just like... I don't know where everybody's at. It doesn't mean they're not human, that we can't have a human interaction. But it's very important to me that people around me value me and people who look like me as humans and believe that I have the right to exist and not be locked in a cage. This is the reddest place in the West. I definitely see the MAGA stuff and the trucks trailing big flags and everything. I live in a town where Joe Arpaio lives. So it bugs me out, for sure. I think the first time I ever thought about Arizona was "By The Time I Get to Arizona" and what that was about. How they hated on the MLK holiday... I was only marginally aware of this, but my dad's cousin Don Mizell, who was a record exec and everything and the producer, he was involved in that whole Stevie Wonder campaign to get the holiday ratified and everything. So just being aware that there were still places that I could get to – it wouldn't take that long – that resisted the the ideas of the incredible humans like the Reverend Doctor, it blew my mind and definitely stays with me. While I'm out here, I definitely watch out. I definitely play the speed limit and all that.”

On the Intentional Visual Aesthetic of Public Enemy

” I didn't have MTV or anything. I would see local video shows. They were just really strong. Chuck with the Pirates hat, the S1Ws. I mean, visually, there might not have been a colder rap group in terms of their visual presentation. How they looked,that was obviously an aesthetic choice even to the point that Terminator X, he himself is an aesthetic choice because he wasn't doing that scratching. That wasn't him. As much as they were holding him up, he looked like a big black Terminator with the big shades on. But really the dude who was doing it was a comparatively smaller Latino cat named D.J. Johnny Juice who ended up getting some credit for that later. But they esthetically wanted to look a certain way. They wanted the DJ to present like this. They wanted the S1Ws to be doing the martial arts.”

On Chuck D’s CNN Quote and Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

"When Chuck said the CNN quote, which is just huge, I do think that applies more to Public Enemy than anybody else. It was kind of a double edged sword, because it got invoked endlessly after that to kind of cover for stuff that was really more the BET than CNN. It was just exploitive and recklessly individualists and didn't really have to do with the outside world. I think a lot of people kind of got caught up. But I get it, because they were under attack. You know congressional attack, people were running over their tapes and CDs with steamrollers. It's hip hop against the world, so close ranks and they got to use any rhetoric they can. I don't have a problem with that. But there came a time when was just like, "Ok stop saying the CNN, you ain't the CNN. Y'all are fake news. You're the QVC! Y'all more like the QVC right now. So cut the bullshit, you ain't fooling nobody." It was still an amazing, eye opening sentiment to a lot of people to understand that hip hop was very valuable because it presented a world view from people who didn't get to have a voice."

On the Genius of Chuck D

”I would absolutely say that kind of themes and motifs that Chuck and co. were bringing to the game were hugely influential in my life in making me think about the world around me and what was happening and what was happening to people who looked like me. It definitely bridged me over into reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X of course. Chuck's style is so singular in terms of that kind of propulsive, kind of super booming bellicose style he had. For sure. Absolutely. He could be really direct. He could be like a shotgun. He could be really kind of impressionistic. You know, "Selling, smelling, sniffing, riffing" – he's talking about coke but he's the doesn't have to say it. That's just an interesting way to approach talking about it. And it's not even... talking about crack! It's just like he was just painting so expertly.”

On How Public Enemy Captured the Essence of Samples

”That's a cold thing, the way the people sample where some where the original artist was trying to trying to get at. That's a very special aspect of being a hip hop listener. Not just, "Oh this was sampled by this" in that kind of catalog librarian thing. But, "Oh, there's a feeling in these old records that maybe people got back, maybe they didn't. But yeah, James [Brown] was absolutely sounding the siren for black America, trying to exemplify with everything he did. Shocklee and them just got it. They got that little bit and just turned it into a whole sound.”

On Political Consciousness in Hip-Hop”

”If you think about political consciousness in hip-hop, overt political consciousness, there's nobody else you think of first. And at the same time, how overt they were with that I really think had a huge effect on bringing young white listeners to hip-hop and kind of shaking them out of the FM radio dial stuff that they were fed and thinking about James Brown to Malcolm X. Because that was a time when those listeners are really fascinated by stuff that maybe seemed kind of verboten in a way that I don't know if young hip-hop listeners these days approach music.”

On Flavor Flav

”Flav is one of the most genius counterpoints I've ever seen a musical group have. It wasn't just Chuck yelling at me, there was this really fun, dancey Flav cut on a few of those albums that got me in. And he was just arresting in the videos in particular. The clock, obviously, the way he wore his hat, the way he danced. I mean the Flavor dance was a big deal to the point where they even had that in the video where they had the old Flavor dance and then they showed you the new Flavor dance. Flavor was branding, you know.”

The story of P.E. is very revealing even in how we came to view Flav via reality TV later. You know obviously the kind of things, the kind of imagery that he kind of was becoming associated with via like VH1 shows – it's not really in line with the revolutionary rhetoric of their of records. But at the same time, I think it's been very informative just to see how that character could play out in American society. So it's instructive in a way to me that's still in line with Public Enemy's general level of instructiveness they were for so many people.

On The Importance of Night of the Living Baseheads

”I remember early on watching it and it just kind of struck me because I lived in a situation like that. My neighborhood looked like that. It looked like zombie land. And I didn't really know what was going on, but I knew it had some to do with something called crack. They were talking about it and it wasn't good. It was just kind of a scary, uncertain time and they really encapsulated a real righteous anger.”

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