Public Enemy: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

January 01, 1970

 

(Continuum
Books)

 

www.33third.blogspot.com

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

It’s hard
to remember just how unique, and subsequently influential that Public Enemy’s
sophomore album would become. While the rap group’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, would receive
mild acclaim in hip-hop circles, the following year’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was like an atomic
bomb dropping in the heart of New York
City. The artistic growth shown by Public Enemy, both
in the lyrical scope of frontman Chuck D’s raps and in the group’s overall
performance, between the two albums is remarkable. The Bomb Squad’s production
work – a dense sonic collage of samples, sirens, and explosive rhythms – was
revolutionary for the era, and would be imitated ad nauseum (to a lesser
effect) by a horde of rap-outfits-as-rock-bands to follow.

 

Writer
Christopher R. Weingarten, as controversial at times as Public Enemy, is a
well-known Brooklyn-based music blogger and contributor to a wide span of music
rags; from rap original The Source and rock’s Spin to the alternative newsweekly Village Voice and heavy metal magazine Decibel. His contribution to the
uniformly excellent 33 1/3 series from Continuum tackles the making of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us
Back
, shedding new light on the backstage maneuvering and
by-the-seat-of-the-pants thought process that resulted in what could easily be
termed the most radical record release of the 1980s.

 

Weingarten
begins his journey in 1951, with a young Clyde Stubblefield – who would grow up
and become James Brown’s groundbreaker drummer – attending a military march and
getting hooked on the martial rhythms of the soldiers’ feet. With a move akin
to literary whiplash, It Takes A Nation
Of Millions To Hold Us Back
jumps to Manhattan,
New York City, circa 1987 and
Public Enemy getting booed off the stage by Grandmaster Melle Mel of rappers
the Furious Five. From this point, It
Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
provides a roller-coaster ride
of cause-and-effect as Chuck D and The Bomb Squad, producers Hank Shocklee and Eric
“Vietnam” Sadler, carefully craft the album rhyme by rhyme and sound
effect by sound effect, the album’s dozens of seconds-long song samples
cementing the new technique among rap producers and creating a sonic texture
that nobody could have believed to exist beforehand.

 

Don’t
worry – Weingarten gets back to Stubblefield, the book’s protagonist, of sorts
– whose improvised drumbeats on the James Brown song “Funky Drummer”
provides the steel-girder rhythmic foundation for several songs on It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us
Back
, the fleeting sample creating a familiar aesthetic theme running
through the album. Weingarten walks us through the primitive sampling
technology and The Bomb Squad’s herculean efforts to piece together a backdrop
of dozens of samples of JB, Funkadelic, British glam-rock stars Sweet, even PE
themselves, from a live performance among many more samples, the crew creating
a once-in-a-lifetime tapestry of sound that would never again be duplicated by
Public Enemy or, given the litigious nature of the music biz, by few others,
including Dr. Dre.

 

Weingarten
addresses the band’s radical politics and revolutionary-clad onstage imagery,
delving deeply into the stubborn racism experienced by PE forefathers such as
Brown, or George Clinton, which helped create the mindset in the first place.
Martin Luther King, Jr.; Isaac Hayes and Stax Records, the Wattstax show; Jesse
Jackson; Clinton’s P-Funk; rap pioneers Run-DMC; and much more are covered by
Weingarten in taking us to the place where Public Enemy could create a
masterpiece.

 

Throughout
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us
Back
, Weingarten spins a tale of generations of African-American popular
culture and music, which would result in Public Enemy and this single classic
album. Weingarten’s prose is crisp and informative without ever seemingly
bogging down in boring minutiae, the author displaying both a familiarity with
and a passion for the subject matter, his words eye-opening and entertaining.
For fans of Public Enemy, or anybody interested in rap music, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us
Back
provides an important story about a singular (historic) moment in
time.

 

            

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