Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
It made no sense at all.
An avalanche of jack hammer beats. An exploding cluster of chaos samples. A river of righteous rhymes that hit like a right hook from Tyson.
Few records tip the world of its axis. Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” kicked it to the kerb and told it to find it’s own way home.
Back in 1988 Hip-Hop was still a novelty sideshow. Music’s idea of slum chic. A little exotic, a pinch of danger and a splash of street fashion.
When Run DMC tag teamed with Aerosmith to take Hip Hop overground with “Walk This Way” they did so inadvertently on the terms of the white establishment.
Reworking an old school rock groove. Renovating the reputation of a burnt out rock band. Giving MTV an acceptable voice of black attitude.
For generations black artists had calibrated their work to suit white tastes.
The language and narrative of Chuck Berry, the aspirational optimism of Motown – hell, the shake it and make it pose of disco.
It was an uptown attitude buffed and shrunk wrapped for downtown tastes.
Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” was the harbinger of what was coming. By 1988 the hurricane had arrived.
“It Takes A National of Millions To Hold Us Back” wasn’t interested in playing ball to rock the mall. It was a manifesto for and by a new generation of young black voices about them, for them.
It took you a while not to take that the wrong way. There was a riot goin’ on and it felt as though you weren’t invited.
You soon came to realise though that you were welcome, but you had to surrender everything you thought you knew at the door.
This album was such a buzz bomb of sounds, slogans and samples it was initially disorienting. It was like a sonic tumble dryer and it turned your world upside down.
Just like the first time you heard Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” the music seemed a foreign language.
You had to learn how to listen all over again.
Once you got with the program “It Takes a Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” was like a university of sonic revolution.
Hank Shocklee and his Bomb Squad produced such a maelstrom of beats and samples it remains hip hop’s high water mark sonic canvas.
It was like letting lose Jackson Pollock on the decks. Beauty in methodical chaos.
“Night of The Living Baseheads”, “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” & “She Watch Channel Zero” were the state of the nation address America didn’t want you to hear.
Chuck D delivered his lines like heavyweight contender, landing his punches perfectly. His militant mantra was perfectly offset by Flavor Flav’s cool fool act.
Together, they seemed unstoppable. It was Scary, smart, funny, furious.
It still is.