When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, the Long Island hip-hop pioneers had been together for three years and had already put out the Yo! Bum Rush the Show album a year prior. The record buying public already knew that Chuck D was a masterful lyricist, and Flavor Flav was the clock-adorned hype man. But the group knew that they had something special in them, and they sure as shit had something important to say.
Nation of Millions is widely recognized as one of the most important albums in music’s — not just hip-hop’s — rich history. That’s no accident; the band themselves acknowledged that they were setting out to make a hip-hop version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. That Motown classic had taken a 1971 soul crowd by surprise, coming out of the loved-up ’60s. Whereas before Motown fans were singing along to “How Sweet it is (To Be Loved by You)” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, suddenly they were forced to examine the state of the world through the eyes of What’s Going On’s character, a veteran returning from Vietnam. Drug abuse, poverty, green issues, war — Gaye sang about it all, and peachy dance routines
Seventeen years later, Chuck D was inspired. The band were already busy working on the sophomore effort on the day Yo! Bum Rush the Show was released, as well as making a conscious effort to up the socially aware lyrics. They also wanted to boost the tempo. Those two things combined resulted in a fierce, vital record that doesn’t sound particularly dated as we go into 2020.
The working title of the album was Countdown to Armageddon, which hints at their mindset during recording. They eventually settled on the final title, lifting a line from the song “Raise the Roof” off of their debut album.
They instead used the “Countdown to Armageddon” name for the album’s lead off track — an intro that featured samples from the first album. It’s a cool way to transition from that debut, before the band drives in hard with “Bring the Noise”. The track, which was later rerecorded as a collaboration with thrash band Anthrax, to great effect, contains references to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan plus instances of police brutality.
“Five-O said, “Freeze!” and I got numb
Can I tell ’em that I never really had a gun?
But it’s the wax that the Terminator X spun
Now they got me in a cell cause my records, they sell
Cause a brother like me said, ‘Well’
Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to
What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.”
– Public Enemy – “Bring the Noise”
The next track, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, is equally hard-hitting and important with Chuck D explaining that, guess what, not all black people are fucking criminals.
“I’m not a hooligan
I rock the party and
Clear all the madness, I’m not a racist
Preach to teach to all
(‘Cause some they never had this)
Number one, not born to run
About the gun
I wasn’t licensed to have one
The minute they see me, fear me
I’m the epitome, a public enemy.”
–Public Enemy – “Don’t Believe the Hype”
As the tracks continue, the listener is given some perspective regarding the life of a black American in the late ’80s, and much of the subject matter is equally relevant today. Black listeners could relate while non-black listeners could listen and try to empathize as D painted a bleak picture, though of course still not fully understand the experiences. Chuck D isn’t playing the bravado card. He’s not threatening to kill cops or off rival gangsters, à la both Ices (-T and Cube). Rather, he’s saying: ‘My friends and I are doing nothing but going about our lives, breaking no laws, and still our lives are in danger because of police brutality and racists in power.’ Check out the words to “Louder Than a Bomb”.
“The FBI was tappin’ my telephone
I never live alone
I never walk alone
My posses always ready, and they’re waitin’ in my zone
Although I live the life that of a resident
But I be knowin’ the scheme that of the president
Tappin’ my phone whose crews abused
I stand accused of doing harm
‘Cause I’m louder than a bomb.”
–Public Enemy – “Louder Than a Bomb”
On “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” the band turns their attention to the legal complexities of song ownership when hip-hop artists are sampling.
“Caught, now in court ’cause I stole a beat
This is a sampling sport
But I’m giving it a new name
What you hear is mine
P.E. you know the time
Now, what in the heaven does a jury know about hell
If I took it, but they just look at me.”
–Public Enemy – “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?”
They shift direction again for “Night of the Living Baseheads” which details the crack cocaine epidemic, which was destroying inner city neighborhoods.
“The problem is this, we gotta’ fix it
Check out the justice, and how they run it
And brothers try to get swift an’
Sell to their own, rob a home
While some shrivel to bone
Like comatose walkin’ around.”
–Public Enemy – “Night of the Living Baseheads
The album concludes with “Prophets of Rage” which, of course, was later used for the name of the group which saw Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real team up with three members of Rage Against the Machine. The final track is “Party for Your Right to Fight” a play on the Beastie Boys classic.
Ultimately, the band achieved their goal of recording a hip-hop What’s Going On? This album covers poverty and drugs, institutionalized racism and financial disparity. To this day, it remains a must-have record. Meanwhile, both albums have influenced a multitude of artists that followed and proved that a successful musician can be political and still sell a lot of records. The shockwaves from both are still being felt today.