1988 – Def Jam
Rap group Public Enemy’s explosive 1988 record It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is a pumping, grooving, highly skilled exercise in confrontation and revolutionary politics. From the opening siren wails of Countdown To Armageddon to the closing beats of the cleverly titled Party For Your Right To Fight this album just grabs the listener by their angry bone, however feeble, and forces them to pump their fists in the air in righteous rage.
Throughout the record Chuck D’s rap style and lyrics, Terminator X’s turntable skills, and Flavor Flav’s supporting interruptions just deliver again and again. Everything about the music works so perfectly with the content, and the content is just so well and thought through that it is actually very difficult not to get into this record. I mean, the biting assassination of white media culture of Don’t Believe The Hype or the furious flames of a man fighting for his right to self determination in Rebel Without A Pause are so gloriously militant that even the most apolitical of music listeners will eventually get behind it all.
This highly charged political edge is, I think, where this record gets all of its power from. The militancy and calls to direct action immediately catch your attention and the well crafted rhymes don’t disappoint as they keep building up layer upon layer of ‘fuck you’ against a oppressive, white-capitalist America. I mean, even as a white, middle-class academic It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back still gets me all riled up, and I can only imagine the kind of reaction is would have from the people it attacks and the people it call to arms.
Going back to a record like this also highlights what in my opinion seems to be the main failing of rap culture today. I mean, while Public Enemy and many of their contemporaries in the eighties were out there spitting raps in order to mobilize the people against perceived injustices, today we have rappers like Kanye West and Jay Z who are just talking about how difficult it is for them to be rich and famous, or others glorifying the violence and problems that go hand in hand with the ‘gangsta’ life. What happened to the war that Chuck D declared in Caught, Can We Get A Witness? When did hip-hop lose the “this is what it takes for peace” message of Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos?
But, this is not the time or the place to talk about what has happened to rap culture in the last fifteen years, this is the time and place to talk about the amazing record that is It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Yes, it really is a truly magnificent aural assault, and there is very little I could find fault with on it. I suppose one could make the argument that at nearly an hour it does run on for perhaps a little too long without much variation in the beats or music, and I would be inclined to agree with this view. That said, if one takes the time to listen to the lyrical content in any kind of serious way this shortcoming of the musical form seems to melt away and the real essence of the record once again comes back to the fore. This means that it is not the world’s easiest album to listen to or digest, it does take a bit of work, but sometimes it’s worth it. I mean, the world is not a simple place and a record that deals with issues like these should never be simple.
In conclusion I would say that Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is truly a great album. It is both musically and lyrically wonderful, and its historical significance really can’t be underestimated. It is definitely an album which I would recommend to anyone and everyone whether they are a fan of rap or otherwise. It’s just something that you really must listen to.
And here is one of the multitude of brilliant tracks from 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
- Counterbalance No. 131a: Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ (Sound Affects) (popmatters.com)
- Public Enemy Live in London – 25th July #Live @KOKOLondon @PublicEnemyFTP @MrChuckD @PublicEnemy_com (trickstasworld.com)
- Rick Rubin Recalls Working On Public Enemy’s Second Album, Praises Chuck D (getwritegossip.com)
- Public Enemy joins Flow line-up (yle.fi)