Dr. Daudi Abe Reflects on the Precedent Set by It Takes A Nation and the Album’s Legacy in Hip-Hop

photo courtesy of Across The Bridge
Interview by Owen Murphy
Transcription by Molly Wyman

Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was more than just a musical moment. The album’s exploration of black struggle in America is felt deep in every aspect of the project, from the words of Chuck D and Flava Flav to the samples ranging from James Brown to Malcolm X. 30 years after the record’s release, It Takes A Nation is still brimming with history and context to be explored. 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. Check out some of Dr. Abe’s insights below, as featured on our on-air broadcast.


On Looking Back at It Takes A Nation

“At least for me, feeling like looking back on it, that's where they found themselves that put them on this musical path. It felt to me like the lead up to Nation of Millions is where they really kind of found their groove in terms of who they were, what they were about, what they were trying to say, and what it was going to sound like.”

On “Black Steel In The Hour of Chas”

”In the song he's thrown into jail for refusing to be inducted into the army because it's his position that "here is a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me." And, you know, in some ways it's kind of a fantasy scenario about being unjustly imprisoned. If you remember the song is kind of grimy. I mean, in that song he talks about shooting a female corrections officer as she tried to get away. So it's not like a fairy tale or anything. It's just this, like I said, this kind of fantasy sequence of being jailed, of overpowering the staff, and escaping and making it out. The end of the song on the album, the very last line is talking about how "there's 53 brothers on the run, and we are gone." Then, in the video, he's being led to the gallows, and at the end of the song, the fantasy sequence is that he escapes. In the end of the video he ends up getting hung. And so I always felt like the imagery in that video and in that song was was really powerful, and I know that it caused controversy within the mainstream, but I also think that it offered kind of an alternative scenario for young people who were still wrestling with the whole idea of 'what does it mean to be black in America in the 1980's?' For me, that is really kind of the lesson and the lasting message and not "Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos," but also the entire It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”

On Sampling “Funky Drummer”

”Was the James Brown song "Funky Drummer" a big hit when it was released? Now that might have been something that maybe should have been a little bit more recognized because, not only was that sampled by Public Enemy, but it was probably one of the most sampled in all of the 1980's in hip hop. And so that is just the quintessential digging in the crates type beat.”

On Defining “Quintessential Hip-Hop”

“When I was talking earlier about younger people feeling like older hip hop seems under produced to them. To me, that is quintessential hip hop: the stripped down drum track, scratching, sometimes scratching even beneath the vocals of the MC. I mean, you never hear scratches today, really. And if you do, you do not hear it in conjunction with the vocals. So much of that type of stuff is just exactly what I think of when I close my eyes, and I think of kind of the original hip hop style from the 1980's.”

On Flavor Flav

”For people of a certain age, at least visually, the first thing that comes comes to mind is the clock. And, for me, you know, I was always on board with what the clock was supposed to represent just in terms of knowing what time it is and not in the sense of, like, "Oh, do you have the time?" No, you know what I'm saying, knowing what time it is like knowing what's up and what's going on in the world. I always appreciated his unflinching and his unconditional loyalty and support of Chuck. When Chuck was rhyming their live shows were just unbelievably full of energy. Flav was a big part of that. Also, I like that as the group continued to release albums Flav went from being just kind of the sidekick hype man to having tracks of his own. Thinking of, like, "911 Is a Joke," where he's not only having songs of his own, but he's also offering some social commentary about the response time of 911 to certain neighborhoods versus others. Flavor ended up having a few joints of his own. For me, when I think of Public Enemy, and I think of Chuck, and I think of Flavor, you know what I mean, just as much as I think of Chuck when I think about the entirety of the group. For me there is, in the way that there is no Public Enemy without Chuck D, there's no Public Enemy without Flav.”

On His First Impressions Of Public Enemy and “Rebel Without A Pause

“I remember hearing the song "Public Enemy No. 1." I believe that was on Yo! Bum Rush the Show. So I was like, yeah, you know, they're cool. And then, I remember, and I believe it was in '87, going to buy the 12-inch single of “Rebel Without a Pause,” and the beat on that song was unlike really anything that I had heard up to that point. In class a lot of people make commentary about the kind of screeching kind of production, lean, that the Bomb Squad, especially on A Nation of Millions went towards. That whole kind of tea kettle effect on Rebel Without a Pause really kind of typifies, at least for me, the Public Enemy sound that has this kind of hectic, screeching sound to go along with a lot of the hectic subject matter in terms of social issues that they were tackling within their lyrics. So for me, especially on Rebel Without a Pause, it was my introduction to Public Enemy but it was kind of my introduction to me really digging Public Enemy and really, really going down their path and looking forward to their next album that was going to come.”

On Hip-Hop and Making Something Out Of Nothing

”Hip hop is the ultimate 'Do It Yourself' culture. There is an entire generation of kids who grew up in the 80's and into the 90's of self-taught musicians who did not play traditional musical instruments and who essentially learned music by manipulating records. In the 80's and in the 70's there were massive budget cuts, and the first programs to go in schools when you have cuts in education are usually art and music. You still had kids who had the creative urge, but they no longer had access to art materials at school or to musical instruments at school. So what did they do? They start going around painting the sides of trains or they start to discover that, you know, if I don't have access to a trumpet or a flute I do have access to this turntable and these stacks of my parent's old records. It's the idea of making something from nothing out of necessity because, if not, then you will remain with nothing. That creative urge and the drive to really push oneself and the will to want to do it and the joy that comes from it. There's the excitement and the happiness. All of those things were such a big part of this kind of recreational culture that hip hop really was for a long time, at least probably up until, for the most part, the mid to late 80's, before corporations started realizing how much money you can make and start exerting their will. But, you know what I'm saying, just the joy and the happiness and the fun of that time. The creation. When it was all kind of coalescing and coming together speaks to the tenacity of the young people, who, just because of their circumstances, were not going to be defined by maybe what they did not have.”

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