Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
You may find yourself punching the sky during these songs without regret
There are no words too hyperbolic, no expressions too excited to describe the tectonic impact Public Enemy's second album had on the world. It is that vital and that infecting. Nominally a rap album, It Takes A Nation… is more like a sound grenade, thanks to the Bomb Squad's quadruple-stacked sampling, hypeman par excellence Flavor Flav's sonorous squeal, and leader Chuck D's stentorian flow — dependent not so much on meter, like most rappers, but instead a kind of confident, formless roar.
"Chuck's a powerful rapper. We wanted to make something that could sonically stand up to him," The Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee told the Daily News when the album was released. So drum maniacs Hank and his brother, Keith, along with the musical heart of P.E., Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, seized the challenge, creating songs, if you can call them that, that whinny and snarl and ping and clash, incorporating screeching saxophones, cross-cutting vocal samples, hissing teapots, hard-nosed breakbeats, and empty hallway pianos lines. It's a fast and new kind of electric blues — or, in places, a broken, discordant jazz — they stumbled upon. Chuck takes the music and uses its harshness to deliver unrepentant political jeremiads. "The follower of Farrakhan/ Don't tell me that you understand/ Until you hear the man/ The book of the new school rap game," he raps on "Don't Believe The Hype," the totemic single. Chuck's politics are confusing beyond calls for righteous Black Panther and Nation of Islam-inspired unity. But as The New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote at the time of the album's release, P.E. refracted the notion of "individualism" in rap, demanding a new "community," encouraging activism and cynicism in equal measure. Whether denouncing a rotting, rotten prison system and governmental authority on "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos," or the locally debilitating crack epidemic on "Night Of the Living Baseheads," Chuck's fury is so persuasive, you may find yourself punching the sky during these songs without regret. It Takes A Nation… has aged remarkably well, as sonically arresting, and socially unforgiving as any album you're likely to hear. No one made being uncompromising so inspiring.