As markedly different from Hip Hop now as it was then, Public Enemy‘s confrontational politics and bludgeoning sound collage stood in stark contrast to the neo-Rockwellian bliss of 80’s consumerism and the sunny demeanor of pop radio. While the mainstream found solace in “We Are the World,” PE sought to get to the root of the problem instead of throw money at the end result of oppression, examining the hypocrisies of world culture and its subjugation of people of color.
Thankfully, Public Enemy isn’t a paper tiger bestowing wisdom from an ivory tower, but a movement interested solely in the advancement of the art form and empowerment of the black community. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the movement’s manifesto and its clearest artistic statement of opposition to the hype of celebrity, bureaucracy, and wealth, ironically constructed from the raw materials of the media they’ve conspired to make obsolete.
The message in the music is carried by the stern, guttural baritone of Chuck D (née Chuck Ridenhour), a defiantly philosophical scribe concerned more with countering the disinformation spread by the powers that be than “Yes Y’allin'” or mincing words. Chuck’s quips are snappily written, but unflinchingly solemn, chastising the artificial fantasy of entertainment and exposing the domino effect of media brainwashing and how it shapes black self-image. This degeneration is even paralleled in his content, progressing from low self-opinion (“She Watch Channel Zero?!”) to lack of compassion (“Night of the Living Baseheads“) to incarceration (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos“). The fear of prison and helplessness of the imprisoned is both literal and figurative, reflecting the dehumanizing effect of the American penal system and the way it parallels the constraints of societal prejudice and the fallacy of racial equality. It’s a sobering discourse, amplified to a feverish maelstrom by the impenetrable body of discord created by Chuck’s backing band.
Mixing materials by hand, culling from an endless catalog of musical sources, The Bomb Squad construct monoliths of sound, muscular and maximalist waves of re-contextualized media soundbites and caustic sirens. The severity of their sound is an aural representation of the lyrical content, merciless in its quest to awaken the listener to full attention. Those struggling to find a reference point might take it for funk, played at accelerated rates and with little interest in dancing, but this has more in common with Negativland than The Meters. It even seems to show contempt for its sources, perverting the “marketability” of mainstream media into a piece of subversive activism, morphing benevolent maraca into crackling rock cocaine or channel surfing into a frustrated mass of white noise. It’s this delicate pairing of subtext and atmospherics that generate the kinetic nature of the composition.
The most propulsive piece of the puzzle is “Rebel Without a Pause,” which blasts off like a roman candle, enrapturing the ear with nagging trumpet squeal and commanding political rhetoric. Chuck’s authoritative force reigns in the listener with a simple “Yes,” cutting through any distraction caused by the perpetual, unsettling shift in sound. Stressing his vocal expertise while highlighting his role as enlightened outsider, Chuck wages war on black radio that refuses to endorse challenging black art and makes a plea for stimulating lyrical content and political involvement. Realizing that ideological rants can be stuffy unless properly packaged, Chuck wraps his incendiary dialogue in a melodic slew of puns and slogans, using ingenious verbal tactics to overthrow Reagan (or is it “ray-gun”) and re-ignite interest in black nationalism. His message is vital, but his urgency and excitement is far more palpable, as is the rush of Flavor Flav’s drum beat and DJ Terminator X’s tense record scrapes and scratches.
It’s a goosebump-inducing commotion, intellectually and emotionally stimulating, undeniable in its power to inspire, motivate and frighten. Disagreeing with Public Enemy’s politics doesn’t even diminish this immediacy, as the resourcefulness of their dexterous musical pastiche would be enough to elicit an emotional response from the most conservative of Republicans. Whether this hypothetical right-winger would enjoy the music or not is besides the point to Public Enemy. It Takes a Nation… was intended to rattle cages and motivate change. I doubt they even knew how much it would do for the form, both in gravity and virtuosity.
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was ranked #9 on Matt Deapo‘s Hip Hop Top 50, a ranking of 50 of the best Hip Hop albums recorded between 1978 and 2006, based on this consideration and these rules.