Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold us Back' At 35

Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold us Back' At 35

Published Wed, June 28, 2023 at 1:00 PM EDT

Public Enemy's sophomore album It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back is widely celebrated as one of Hip-Hop's greatest full length albums.

The Bomb Squad's infamous "Wall of Sound," Chuck's booming voice, cadence and information, and Terminator X's cuts and scratches were in many ways a culmination of the group's disappointment in their debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show and the sonic innovation that was happening in Hip-Hop at the time.

“The song that made Rick Rubin wanna sign me was “Public Enemy #1,” but we made that in ’84," Chuck D explains. "The song used to bang throughout Long Island in ’84 and ’85, but it was now 1987."

Yo! Bum Rush The Show,was created and recorded in a transitional period for rap music. When the songs were recorded, sampling was not the dominant process of rap production. The drum machine was still very much an essential tool, and producers were manually mixing snippets of songs over drum machine beats.

'Rebel Without A Pause' was our first hit record. The energy, response and momentum from that song transferred directly into It Takes A Nation of Millions

- Chuck D to The Foundation, 2012

Rebel Without A Pause

Between 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush The Show and 1988’s ...Nation of Millions... came the single “Rebel Without A Pause”/”You’re Gonna Get Yours.” The latter was a song from Yo!..., but “Rebel Without A Pause” was a brand new sonic assault, which Chuck D matter-of-factly says was their first hit record.

"The energy, response and momentum from “Rebel Without A Pause” transferred directly into It Takes A Nation of Millions. We went into making that record like it was a military mission," he says. "Me and Eric Sadler (a member of the Bomb Squad production team) heard 'I Know You Got Soul' by Eric B. & Rakim and we said that it was inconceivable that a song could be that good."

I Know You Got Soul

"We sounded dated because we were caught in the major (label) system and we released an album 9 months after it was completed," Chuck explains. "Eric B’s brother Ant Barrier (R.I.P.) I love him because he was the biggest P.E. critic always saying that I had an old style like it was ’82. But here we are with Yo!... that should have dropped in ’86 and it drops in ’87. Eric B. & Rakim had already changed the game with 'Eric B. Is President' and 'My Melody'; KRS had 'South Bronx,' Ultramagnetic [MCs], Stetsasonic are all bangin’ and here we are with "Public Enemy #1" which we originally did in 1984!

After hearing 'Know You Got Soul' we weren’t broken, but we just came out with our album – March 1987. We were supposed to come out October ’86. The hot records from the summer of ’86 would still be lingering, but those records changed everything. We got pushed back to March because the Beastie Boys were pushed back to October because Bruce Springsteen pushed them back - they were supposed to come out in June. They were talking at one point of dropping LL COOL J [1987s Bigger & Deffer] before us, and that would have pushed us out!"

Chuck explains how "I Know You Got Soul" led them to James Brown.

"The final straw was when me and Eric Saddler went to Old Westbury College where Kool Moe Dee was still a student and the DJ played 'I Know You Got Soul' five times in a row, and every time he played it, it got better and better. It was the greatest fuckin’ record I ever heard in my life, man. We knew that we had to make a record like that, and we had to use James Brown. The noise was 'The Grunt' by James’ band The J.B’s. The result was 'Rebel Without A Pause.'"

It Takes A Nation Of Millions

“Rebel Without A Pause" made such an impact that it was included on ...Nation of Millions...

Another “pre-album” track was "Bring The Noise" from the Less Than Zero motion picture soundtrack. "Rebel Without A Pause" and "Bring The Noise" were perfect releases that gave a now eager fanbase a glimpse of what was to come soon. Chuck D says that Rick Rubin had reservations about including both songs on It Takes A Nation... “We had to fight Rick on that one. He generally left us alone and we had creative control. I believe that he sat in on a mix of 'She Watch Channel Zero' because we were using Slayer on it. Other than that he left us alone to create.”

If Public Enemy’s mission statement was to raise 5,000 potential Black leaders based on Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s teaching that Black people should seek leadership from within, then ...Nation... was the platform to reach that number. With the first official single “Don’t Believe The Hype,” the anticipation for this album, which was laid out like a sonic movie, was at an all time high, and the mind revolution was in full effect. If the sequencing of albums is a lost art due to the a la carte way that music is consumed today, one should visit the perfect sequencing of the album for a reminder.

Though rap releases contained skits before this release, (and Keith Le Blanc had joined Malcolm X speeches with Hip-Hop beats as early as 1983), no one had ever made a statement with these techniques the way that Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad did on this sonic opus. The title “Countdown To Armageddon” is an attention grabber by itself and even though it consists of simply applause and sirens from one of their U.K. tours, the frantic noise is a perfect intro to a reworked version of “Bring The Noise,” which slides right into “Don’t Believe The Hype,” a response to negative press reviews of the groups paramilitary image and live shows.

The uptempo “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” is a glimpse into the world of Hip-Hop’s #1 hype man and an introduction to his own slang and language. When a scratched interpolation from Queen's classic theme from the Flash Gordon soundtrack comes from nowhere, placing DJ Terminator X’s voice over Flash’s as savior of the universe, things go completely off the rails and remain that way for the 4 minutes and 32 seconds of what is essentially a backwards sample of “Rebel Without A Pause” called “Terminator X To The Edge of Panic.” The noise continues with an instrumental track with Flavor Flav’s voice sampled throughout called “Mind Terrorist” that segues into one of Chuck D’s greatest vocal performances “Louder Than A Bomb.”

Public Enemy, 1987. Public Enemy, 1987.

The mind of Chuck D is full of uncharted territory. “She Watch Channel Zero” is the story of a Sister who’s “brain is retrained by 24 inch remote” controlled television. Years before reality television, Chuck tackled the results of the addiction of empty programming on society.

There are certain songs that are indelibly connected to the music videos that accompany them. Michael Jackson’s Thriller comes immediately to mind. But it’s doubtful that anyone who saw the video for “Night of The Living Baseheads” upon its release can separate the memory of the audio from the visual. “Baseheads...” remains one of rap music’s most creative music videos (my 11th grade sociology teacher made viewing it a graded assignment). Before rap records embraced the use and/or sale of drugs Chuck and company examined and condemned the damage inflicted on communities by both the seller and the user.

Although the words "instant classic" float around often these days regarding music, no such thing exists. A classic is deemed as such only after enough time has passed to measure the impact and influence of a piece of art on future generations, and how the piece has stood the test of time. In 1988, It Takes A Nation of Millions... was a great album amongst many, in a year that many declared Hip-Hop's greatest for album releases. 35 years after its release, it is widely regarded as the best album in the history of the genre by critics and publications, Public Enemy's contemporaries and most importantly by the people.

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