When you’re talking about the influence of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back on modern hip-hop, who better to talk to than a rapper who’s lived through it? When the album dropped in 1988, Ishmael Butler was still in the early stages of forming the landmark jazz rap group Digable Planets and decades away from his second wave of influence with Shabazz Palaces. Butler found himself fully immersed in the moment that Public Enemy was creating. In a conversation with his friend, collaborator, and KEXP Sunday Soul DJ OC Notes, the two discuss what it was like when Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and The Bomb Squad blasted down the walls with the tectonic shift of “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Rebel Without a Pause.”
OC Notes: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. How do you recall that record impacting you?
Ishmael Butler: Well, first we gotta go back. The only song that I ever remember where I was when I heard it is "Rebel Without a Pause" by Public Enemy. I was walking down 125th Street and I had just got to New York. It was summertime. I was walking down 125th Street, and this dude had a box. He was carrying it. He was walking fast and he walked by me and that's when I heard: [calls out] "Brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters. I don't know what this world is coming to." [makes scratching sounds] Come on, man. And it was over. I mean, like that song... very few things have impact like stuff did back then because it's so easily available, you know, and there's so much stuff that even the greatest sounding songs – there's too much stuff for them to be stand out and pronounced. But back then, man, that song hit like a... it was like a megaton bomb, you know what I'm sayin'. But, let me answer your question. So, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which was the first PE album me and all the cats that I knew had, and we knew that album like it was in our DNA. So by the time It Takes A Nation came out, like, we was already so deep down into the P.E. world that it was like a meteor hit us, you know what I'm sayin'? It impacted everything and everybody in my sphere, my circle. It was, I mean, you know, "Don't Believe the Hype."
Flav. People don't understand that Flav is one of the best rappers – one of the most illustrious group members in a band in the history of music. You know what I mean? His timing on what became the style of ad libbing that everybody still does, man, he invented that. And then his own personal rap songs are incredible. You know, what a guy. So Chuck, Terminator X, The Bomb Squad, ultimate, man. Commanding. Brash. Representing all of our feelings as young black men, back against the wall. But this is the sound of survival right here. It's the style of survival. It's the beauty of taking life in your own hands, you know, like power, man. You know, the rhythm, the rebel, you know, "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," all that. I mean it was a new blueprint, a new philosophy, that was based on things we had absorbed and heard, but it was a new take on it and re-presented with substance and authority, man, and it was life.
OC: What was going on during that time period when the album dropped in your world?
IB: What year was that? '88? So, '88. I was in college up in Massachusetts. UMass. All of the black students there was from up and down the eastern seaboard for the most part. From North Carolina all the way up to Connecticut. This was mostly East Coast people. Public Enemy was... I think we flocked to Public Enemy like our parents’ generation flocked to the Black Panthers because of the charisma, the substance. But the daringness, but also the style. And I think even later on, it was just like the size of the crew. They were one of the first crews to present people on the covers and in the music by name, but they weren't necessarily musicians or had anything to do with the music. It was just the crew, you know what I mean. The S1W's Professor Griff, you know, I mean, Bomb Squad. Like, it was a movement, man. And house music was big then, when you would go to a party. When I went to a party in college they would play it in sets. Like, there'd be a hip hop set, there'd be a house music set, and then they'd go back to hip hop or something like that. And we embraced all of it. Like there wasn't no, 'Oh, he's a house head.' or 'He's a hip hop head.' Like some people, yeah, of course, but for the most part all these things ran next to each other in a party type situation. I remember that, but when it came time for the rap thing and you dropped Public Enemy songs people went mad. Cats went mad, man.
OC: I can only imagine. 1988.
IB: Everybody was wearing black medallions, like a leather robe with a medallion with Africa red, black, and green etched out into the leather. Everybody had that. It was a style symbol but it was also letting you know that you had something in common ideologically, philosophically with these other young people that also recognized this fact. Cats might have Dookie gold ropes on but they still was going to have that black medallion.
OC: Let me ask you about Hank Shocklee. You've already talked a little bit about the production, but do you have any insight on Hank Shocklee specifically?
IB: I feel like Hank Shocklee, The Bomb Squad, they were a revolution in music. I think they had the street approach, the beats approach, the hip-hop approach. They had a certain affinity for rock, live instrumentation also but they was nerdy with it too. They had technical acumen and they was all about equipment and sounds and sonics. Clarity, distortion and figuring out ways... I mean nothing ever sounded like that before or since. Layers and layers of drums and percussion and different sounds and different samples – just a major sea change in the thought in terms of production in any genre. And you know Hank was was the spearhead of that. I used to be at SOUL Records. My friend worked at SOUL Records and that was Hank's label that he started. They had an office down kind of like by Tower Records and the assistant that I was seeing worked there. And also Buckshot Shorty from Black Moon was also interning down – this is before Black Moon took off – but I used to see Hank in his office wheeling. He signed the Young Black Teenagers to SOUL Records which was a controversial thing back then, but also Son Of Bazark was on Soul Records. So he kept it poppin' and I'm sure he's still doing his thing.
OC: Do you have a favorite song, moment, sample, sound, part of the record or something in particular that sounds out to you? I know you said the brothers and sisters part earlier, but is there any song in particular?
IB: Yeah, "Rebel Without A Pause," that [mimics siren sound] – to loop that. I mean to loop that, bro? At that time, as much looping and sampling was going on – and that was like come coming off the James Brown era, where everything was a James Brown sample – that was one of the first things to break out of that. But to think to sample that, that was their idea. And then the breakdown where Flav talks. I mean, that's one of the greatest songs I ever heard in my life. To me.
OC: Any other thoughts on Public Enemy or anything that you want to leave us with?
IB: I'd like to say that Public Enemy are pioneers, you know, in the true sense of the word. People that go forth ahead and clear a path and make things inhabitable and create space for others to follow. They were pioneers. Visionaries. A group of people that was able to work together. A bunch of cats that work together to change the world. Dynamic. Courageous. That's what they were to me and most of the people that I knew at that time, so that's what I would say about them. And Flavor Flav, also, man, like a very underrated performer, musician, rapper. And also, I mean, he's kind of the godfather of the country in terms of reality TV seeing as though we elected a reality TV star. Like, Flav started all of that, you know. All of those shows where you have a bunch of contestants and you work, it all goes back to Flav.
KEXP chats with Hank Shocklee about the creation of Public Enemy's classic LP on its 30th anniversary, covering everything from their use of sampling to carving out a space for themselves in a music industry that had other priorities
The legendary MC was graciousness enough to talk through the mindset the group found themselves in while creating this masterwork. From drawing inspiration from his time working in radio and their aspirations to creating the hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, the incredible rhyme…