Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20: Public Enemy, "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back"

Artist: Public Enemy
Album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Year: 1988
Label: Def Jam

Throughout its history, rap music has usually changed slowly, with one style blending and then reforming into the next. This constant flow makes it difficult to ascertain exactly which artist(s) it was that changed the style into the new form. However, in the case of Public Enemy, there is no doubt that, from the moment their first album arrived, they permanently changed everything it meant to be a rapper. Taking the most aggressive, yet intelligent approach that had even been heard, both the music and lyrics of Public Enemy rewrote the rules of the genre, whilst simultaneously scaring the hell out of most of the word. Though each of their first four albums are absolute hip-hop classics, it is Public Enemy's sophomore effort, 1988's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, that rises above the others' as the groups finest effort.

Arriving just fifteen months after their earth-shattering debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy's second record delivers on all of the promise of its predecessor, and then some. bringing some of the most hard hitting, pointed, and politically charged lyrics in music history, the name of the group was more than fitting, as Public Enemy were seen as an extremely dangerous act. The music was just as jarring, with amazing loops and soundscapes by the notorious Terminator X and "The Bomb Squad," and the stellar production of one Rick Rubin. Though appearing to be only moderately commercially successful a the time, the fact that such a "heavy" rap record cracked the Top 50 in those early days of rap is a statement in itself. Covered and referenced from artists like Rage Against The Machine and The Pharcyde, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back remains one of the most highly respected and influential rap albums ever recorded.

The music and beats created by The Bomb Squad were truly something that had never been heard, and the density within their compositions remains unrivaled to this day. Using samples from artists ranging from James Brown to David Bowie, from Big Audio Dynamite to Slayer, the sound in the finished product is nearly as remarkable as the diversity in the artists therein. Case in point is the legendary duet with Anthrax, "Bring Tha Noize." Though it would be re-recorded for Public Enemy's Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, the original version is worth hearing as well. The turntable work of Terminator X was also far more aggressive than any that had been heard previously. With his scratching and loops taking a more prominent place in the music than his peers, Terminator X used the first few Public Enemy records to prove that the turntables were an instrument as much as the beats or vocals on hip hop tracks. The combination of The Bomb Squad and Terminator X produced what can only be called a "wall of sound," and such feats have not been rivaled before or since, making their work that of legend.

The core of Public Enemy revolved around the juxtaposition between their two main rappers, Chuck D and Flava Flav. While in later years, Flav would fade more into a "hype man" role, his rhymes and work on their early records prove his ability as a top notch emcee. Chuck D remains one of the most exalted and revered rappers and minds of his generation. Spitting on topics from phone tapping to equal rights to black on black crime, no subject was taboo to Chuck D, and he presented each issue with an unforgiving clarity. Attacking one of the most relevant issues of the day, the classic "Night Of The Living Baseheads" is an all out assault on the plague of crack-cocaine usage by the African-American community. The song furthers the feeling of "danger" by the title, an obvious reference to the cult classic zombie movie, Night Of The Living Dead. Perhaps the best known song off of the album is the legendary, "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos." A fictional tale being told in the voice of a Vietnam War draftee, the song contains some of Public Enemy's most famous lyrics. The opening lines, ""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/picture me giving a damn /I said never!'"

From the revolutionary music and beats to the peerless lyrical work, there has never been another group like Public Enemy. The phenomenal walls of sound created by the piled sampling of The Bomb Squad, and mixed with the peerless turntable styles of Terminator X makes the sound of Public Enemy one of the most unique you'll ever hear. Setting the bar for the standard in "conscious" hip hop and pushing the boundaries on what could be addressed within rap, the group remains the finest example of everything hip hop should be. From the rhymes and comical character of Flava Flav to the hard hitting, rebel rousing rapping of Chuck D, there is simply no other duo in hip hop history that can even remotely compare. Though each of Public Enemy's albums are nothing short of remarkable, their second record, 1988's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is an absolute hip hop classic and one of the most influential records ever made.

Standout tracks: "She Watch Channel Zero," "Night Of The Living Baseheads," and "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos."

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