Monthly Spins Special Edition

Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
File Under: old-school, mind-altering, radical hip-hop
It came caterwauling out the windows of passing Old's 98's, screeching and scratching with abstract samples of James Brown's funk and Coltrane sped up until he sounded like a siren wailing, Slayer's and Anthrax's buzzsaw guitars, with trunk bass booming enough to rattle the windows in my first floor apartment; it's vibe was aggressive, menacing and overtly political as it spread bespoke: passed hand-to-hand on bootleg cassettes, many recorded directly over something else, hitting the streets before it's official release date in June of 1988; it was a revolution that was not televised and, at least in the beginning, took place virtually outside the structure of the mainstream system of distribution of record stores, radio, television and magazines, or MTV, a radical collage of black sounds that was suddenly everywhere at once, a viral social-cultural and political experience spreading its message across the city where most white people like myself only felt it but didn't really get it.
Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our god...and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds

[Verse 1 - Chuck D]
Here it is, BAM!
And you say "Goddamn, this is the dope jam"
But let's define the term called dope
And you think it mean funky now, no
Here is a true tale
Of the ones that deal, are the ones that fail

I'm the recordable but God made it affordable
I say it, you play it back in your car or even portable
(Stereo, stereo) Describes my scenario
Left or right, Black or White
They tell lies in the books that you're readin'
It's knowledge of yourself that you're needin'"

Public Enemy came together as a collective in Long Island, NY in 1986 with founding members Carlton Ridenhour (Chuck D), William Drayton (Flavor Flav), (Who met at Adelphi University) as well as including Professor Griff, Khari Wynn, DJ Lord, Hank and Keith Shocklee and the S1W group. PE started out opening for the Beastie Boys during their Licensed to Ill tour and 1987's Yo, Bum Rush The Show was released to a lot of critical attention, 1988's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back went platinum and 1990's Fear of A Black Planet also went platinum and was the first hip hop album to be voted Album of the Year by the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop critic's poll. Their single, "Fight The Power", a sound track contribution to the movie Do The Right Thing was a huge hit and is still considered their signature song and one of the genres greatest.

Critic Stephen Erlewire wrote that "PE brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrete, via the producing team the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before."

In 1988 I lived in a mixed race neighborhood in Wilmington, DE called Trolley Square where there were some restaurants, a grocery store, pharmacy, deli. I lived on 14th Street, a one way street where the old three-story row houses were set up from the street with sets of stairs, so whenever a car blasting music came down the street the sound was amplified and the bass felt deep within the foundations. My street was still about 40% black middle class, single family homes but it was quickly gentrifying, the older folks taxes going up and the houses going to yuppie remodelers and young squares servicing the then burgeoning credit card boom in Delaware. I started hearing "Millions" as I walked down the street, sometimes two or three cars at once playing "Bring the Noise." Walking across the intersection of 14 and Clayton with two cars stopped at once was like walking through some sort of sound radiation. Just snippets of loudness, then the sound was gone again as the cars faded down the street. But if you sat on your porch it wouldn't take long for another car playing the album to go by and you'd hear another 30 second version. I couldn't help but be reminded of Alan Brinkley's seminal 1983 book Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression where he recounts how Huey Long pioneered the use of sound trucks, (a regular truck with a giant megaphone attached to the roof that drove throughout the state blaring his speeches in the run up to elections). Run DMC had opened my ears earlier but I was surprised how much rock was being sampled and used right in the front of the mix.

I would hear it leaking through a black kids headphones, blaring out of the windows of a teenagers room.

"I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew, the music pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys stood out on Garrison and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets and their own bodies."—Ta-Nehisi Coates
One day a BMW convertible pulled up in front of my house playing the record. The young black driver honked his horn and a girl from across the street came out of her house. It was her date picking her up and at that moment I got up my courage and walked up to the car and asked the driver who he was playing. He looked annoyed and maybe a little embarrassed in front of his date that a white boy with a ponytail was bothering him and without turning the sound down at all he shouted "PE" and pulled away. My neighbor's teenage sons were sitting out on their front porch giggling after watching the exchange. "You don't know who PE is?" one of them said to me. "No," I said, "but it's great. What does PE mean?"

Needless to say they were charmed that I was even asking and baffled at how I could be so clueless to this force of nature rocking the entire neighborhood. "Do you have the album," I asked. "It ain't out yet," came the reply. "You got a cassette player and I'll let you borrow it," said my thirteen-year-old neighbor. He went inside and came back a minute later with a beaten up looking prerecorded cassette without a case and handed it to me. I noticed earlier that he was wearing a working, over-sized clock around his neck that many of the band members wore in videos of the day. I asked his cousin why he wore the PE clock and he said, "Because he know what time it is," he said, giving me a slightly disgusted look. "So what time is it?" I asked. "After you listen to the tape you'll know," he said cryptically. I was hoping the PE mystery would be cleared up but what his cousin handed me was a tape that said Michael Jackson: Thriller. "This isn't right," I said. "Oh, no, that's Public Enemy (mystery over). We just record over them." I didn't ask them why they did this, knowing that I didn't want to continue the "clueless white neighbor" routine any further. I thanked them and said I'd give it back later in the day. I had a cassette tape, boom box and what I heard was a completely denuded version of "Millions" on a tape that had been taped over several times and had very little of the bass still intact. But it was enough that I put in a preorder at Berts, my go-to record store (the album officially was released two weeks later) but I realized that there was some entire underground distribution system going on where someone, somewhere got a review copy and it hit the streets immediately like an aural drug.

It wasn't long before I made my own tape because this was music you wanted to listen to very loud and while you were moving through space. I didn't have good speakers in my car, not to mention I was not yet willing to be the one white guy in the neighborhood blasting PE on the street (this was 1988 after all) and I would have felt stupid and as if I were taking possession of something extraordinary and rare that was not mine to take.

In retrospect '87 to about '92 is now considered to be the golden era of hip hop mainly because of it's political awakening, but also because the art of sampling hit it's apogee during these years. It was so new and hip hop so nascent and unprofitable that there was a wild sense of free-for-all, a feeling that (quite rightly) taking snippets of already recorded music and creating beats collages was a poor person's prerogative and the soul of what hip hop was really about. The world of the turntablist and DJ was born here, even though it was destined to come up against push-back once the money started flowing. Hip hop exploded in popularity, making millionaires out of people who often times had no classical music training and who had created this now venerable musical genre out of whole cloth. It was not to last. With their 1989 masterpiece Three Feet High and Rising, the collective called De La Soul used a twelve second sample of the 60's Turtles song "You Showed Me" (actually written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark (1969) for their song "Transmitting Live From Mars." And when De La Soul's album went on to win awards and sell millions the Turtles sued and settled for a sum purported in the 1.5 million range. The lawsuit had a devastating effect on the free-wheeling, take-no-prisoners sampling in hip hop, which never really recovered, given record label's unwillingness to take chances on getting sued and relegating the ability to afford sampling fees only to the richest performers.

Back in 1988 Delaware, at the nearby grocery store, there was always a skinny black guy in his 30's (bum rushing) the white folks as they went into and out of the doors, sometimes begging for spare change, trying to chat up a hot woman or group of teen girls. His whole gig was to put people in an uncomfortable situation where you didn't want to be too unkind to him for fear of his subtle scorn that let you know his radar was picking up incipient racism and disdain. Sometimes he would ask people "Do you know what time it is?" Invariably, they would go to their wrists to look at the exact time, which always made him chuckle and shake his head. After several weeks of listening to the first and second PE albums he finally asked me one day "Do you know what time it is?" I stopped and turned and smiled and said, "It's time for a black revolution." To which he belly-laughed and gave me the Black Panther salute. Of course I didn't really know what time it was at all, I might have had a glimmer of understanding but secure in my whiteness there wasn't as much at stake for me. I was carried along with this feeling of something revolutionary happening, something essentially outside of my experience, but something that nonetheless moved me toward an awareness of my own privilege and opened my eyes to the reality of two parallel and unequal worlds that share the same space in American life.

I put It Takes a Nation of Millions right up there with Revolver, Exile on Main Street, Sex Machine, Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Raw Power and so many more on that most influential albums ever list I keep adding to and subtracting from in my brain. It wasn't until college that I really discovered black music and it wasn't until my neighbor's lent me that tape that I really paid any attention to hip hop. A year later I started hearing a new PE song on the street that was the next single they released called "Fight The Power." I bring this up because I consider the single to be of the same general time frame and vibe of "Millions" and a seminal piece of in-your-face political theater.

Once again the kids in the neighborhood had it before anyone else and I first heard the complete song when I went to see Spike Lee's grand and emblematic Do The Right Thing that came out in the early summer of 1989. Lee actually commissioned PE to write "Fight The Power," to be used specifically as a running motif throughout the movie. There are only two actual "musicians" credited with the creation of FTP, even though the whole thing was created by PE's production team fronted by Hank Shocklee's The Bomb Squad, it was credited specifically to turntableist Terminator X and the classical jazz saxophone player Brandford Marsalis (of all people), who didn't really get PE then, and probably still doesn't, even though he would later recall a grudging respect.

"They're not musicians, and don't claim to be—which makes it easier to be around them. Like, the song's in A minor or something, then it goes to D7, and I think, if I remember, they put some of the A minor solo on the D7, or some of the D7 stuff on the A minor chord at the end. So it sounds really different. And the more unconventional it sounds, the more they like it."

"Fight the power
We've got to fight the powers that be

[Verse 3]
Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don't worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, c'mon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be."

From a distance of thirty years I look back now and see why "Millions" and "Fight The Power" were so important to me, because it really was a personal and cultural awakening. The album woke me to the reality of white supremacy and to just how alienated and angry were so many young, black people in America. The music made me a lot more aware of what their day-to-day reality was and gave me perspective of life in black America circa 88-89 and how it felt and what it sounded like. If anything, race relations have never really gotten better, even under the guidance of a black president. The legacy of It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back reverberates through today's hip hop artists and in the primacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. What "Millions" had to say 30 years ago has never been more prescient and (unfortunately) remains stubbornly timeless.

Anton's picture

I lack adequate vocabulary to tell you just how great that article is.

It was perfect.

badboris's picture

..but I must. Best thing I've read in a very long time.
thanks Joe.

GlacierJeff's picture

"I put It Takes a Nation of Millions right up there with Revolver, Exile on Main Street, Sex Machine, Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Raw Power and so many more on that most influential albums..." I couldn't agree more.

The relentlessness of the production is echoed in so much punk rock, black metal, and industrial music. Its the relentlessness of oppression turned back against the oppressors. Anyway its cool to see this on an "audio" site. Thanks for writing it. Reading the lyrics from "Fight the Power" gave me chills.

rghanbari's picture

For 22 year old me, there was life before “Do The Right Thing” and life after. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was my Red Pill moment. Thank you for the reminder