“I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers”
Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos is a track from Public Enemy’s classic second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It is built on a high-pitched piano sample from the 1969 Isaac Hayes song “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” from the album “Hot Buttered Soul“.
The lyrics deal with a fictional story of an escape from a US prison. Chuck has been drafted (“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”); however, he refuses to become part of the army (“Picture me giving a damn / I said ‘never!'” and “They could not understand that I’m a black man and I could never be a veteran!”). The main idea behind this is that the (unnamed) war is wrong, with a hint of pure indignation towards the treatment of black people by other parts of American society (“here’s a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me”). This serves to both criticize racism and the prison system (“Four of us packed in a cell like slaves”).
Chuck is then taken to prison, from which he attempts to escape. “Black Steel” is a reference to a gun, which he needs to escape. By the end of the second verse, Chuck has taken a gun from a C.O. (corrections officer) who was “fallin’ asleep.” (“But ever when I catch a C.O. / Sleeping on the job/My plan is on go-ahead.”)
With gun in hand, Chuck and the other prisoners escape “to the ghetto – no sell out.” Chuck then comments on how there are 6 C.O.s who he “ought to put their head out.” He does not, at first (“But I’ll give ’em a chance ’cause I’m civilized”), but after a female tries to thwart the escape she is shot, (“Got a woman C.O. to call me a ‘copter / She tried to get away, and I popped her”), presumably dead (“I had 6 C.O.s, now it’s 5 to go”).
The final verse ends with Chuck and the rest of the prisoners on their final escape. They are confronted with shots and there is a state of chaos. Chuck makes a comment about prison and racism (“This is what I mean—an anti-nigger machine”), which later became the basis for another Public Enemy song, “Anti-Nigger Machine” (featured on the 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet). Finally, the S1Ws come to the rescue. The song ends with the line “53 brothers on the run, and we are gone” indicating a successful prison escape. (However, in the video for the song, this line accompanies the image of Chuck D being hanged by the triumphant warden of the prison, suggesting that the prison riot was crushed and the final verse is nothing more than the wishful thinking of a “dead man walking.”)
The song features a slower, more melodic beat in comparison to other songs from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back but still remains highly chaotic. Aside from the aforementioned Hayes sample, the song samples “Little Green Apples” by The Escorts and “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder.