'LONDON ENGLAND......CONSIDER YOURSELVES.....WARNED!'
So begins Public Enemy's sophomore album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. And yes, you need the warning. Their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, dropped like a bomb, and its follow-up was no slouch either. Most consider it one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever. It certainly says something that, in the notoriously 'here-and-now' world of hip-hop, an album from around 15 years ago can still command so much respect - not just from hip-hop fans, but from practically everyone. Ironically, it seemed to have even more effect in the rock world than in the hip-hop world. Certainly, there was a little band who took the ball Public Enemy had and ran with it - they were called Rage Against The Machine. Zach De La Rocha aspired to Chuck D's fiery political polemic, Tom Morello designed his guitar innovations upon the stylings of Terminator X and the Bomb Squad. Public Enemy have also heavily influenced the Manic Street Preachers - at least three of their songs have sampled PE, and Terminator X even guested on Generation Terrorists to remix Stars & Stripes.
Each of Public Enemy's first three (and best three) records, over time, has come to appeal to a different group. Underground hardcore hip-hop heads love Yo! Bum Rush The Show. Fear Of A Black Planet - the follow up to this album - has found a following in the general public. (You often find that Fear Of A Black Planet makes it higher than the others in reader-voted polls.) Which leaves It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back as the critic's album. Certainly, it's the highest hip-hop album (full stop) on Rolling Stone's list (#48). It made it to #1 on Q magazine's Best Rap Albums Of All Time list a few years back, too. (Q is the nearest English equivalent to Rolling Stone.)
It's not a choice I'm going to argue with. This album practically detonates inside your speakers - sonically, this stands up to the hardest of thrash metal. In fact, Slayer's Angel of Death is sampled here for the standout track, She Watch Channel Zero?! Lyrically, too, few albums pack this much punch. You'll probably guess from the title that this is an album inspired by racial tension and persecution, and Chuck D is PISSED - his revelations and accusations read like a series of punches to the gut. Samples of famous black revolutionaries keep occuring throughout too - most notably on the awesome Night Of The Living Baseheads.
'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....'
The use of quotes might get tiring, if the album wasn't so endlessly quotable itself. Chuck's lyrics don't feature the kind of tongue twisting poetry of, say, Eric B & Rakim's Paid In Full, but he's got a message, and he damn sure knows how to tell it. From the hip-hop orientated quotes - 'Bass for your face!', 'I'm the epitomy of Public Enemy', 'I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin' - to the polemic that will stay with long after you've put this album back on the shelf -
'Even masons, they know it
But refuse to show it
But it's proven and fact
It takes a nation of millions to hold us back.'
Chuck D seemed aware of this fact - 'You back the track, you find we're the quotable', he raps on Prophets Of Rage. No doubt it was his intention. Once you listen to this album, you start quoting it, and then, the message seeps through....
I hesitate to describe the actual musical side of Public Enemy, because it often puts people off - it looks a lot worse on paper than it sounds in real life. Nonetheless, I will. The Bomb Squad and Terminator X's trademark sound is often described as a kettle repeated coming to the boil every 3 seconds. Obviously this isn't true of every track they ever made, but it's a feature. The music represents an organized chaos - dissected it just noise, not music, but it comes together to form a backing that never gets boring, or old. It's scary to think that this album was released 16 years ago, because hip-hop has a tendency to sound dated even 16 months after it is released. The freshness probably stems from the uniqueness of it. Public Enemy still sound like no other band. Rage Against The Machine are the easy comparison - but you'd have to link it to, say, the wailing guitar effects in the verses of Bullet In The Head, but much faster, and improvised more. Most people label Evil Empire as a homage to Public Enemy - certainly, Bulls On Parade and Year Of Tha Boomerang, for instance, have a lot of sounds inspired by this album, just styled to a rock context.
If ever somebody tells me all hip-hop is rubbish, this is the second album I pull out (after De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising). All the accusations usually levelled at this music - unintelligable, obsessed with guns and misogyny, repetitive, pointless - do not apply here. What you get instead is an intelligent album with heart, passion, and fire. A special mention must go to Flava Flav too, who is vital to the band. If Chuck D was the only vocalist, things may well have been too pious, or too much hard work. Flava adds humour, surrealism, and FUN. Wierd, trippy fun, but fun. An idea sorely under-rated in hip-hop.
Arguments about what the greatest hip-hop album (or even greatest Public Enemy album) is are ultimately useless. All you need to know is that it's great. Not many rap albums are indespensible. This is.