Thursday, April 27, 2006

"The Reasons Are Several, Most Of 'Em Federal"

"I got a letter from the government/The other day/I opened and read it/It said they were suckers/They wanted me/For their Army or whatever/Picture me givin' a damn/I said, 'Never!'" So opens the song "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos", one of the many amazing songs on Public Enemy's landmark album, IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988). At # 48, it is the highest placed "rap" album on the Rolling Stone "Top 500 Albums" list. (I guess that makes it the Sgt. Pepper's of rap! Oh, wait, this album holds up better! One of these days, I might get tired of ragging on Sgt. Pepper's...)

Public Enemy, on the Nation Of Millions album, was Chuck D (C. Ridenhour) - "Messenger of Prophecy", lead rapper; Flavor Flav (W. Drayton) - "The Cold Lamper", rapper, sidekick, general comic relief; Terminator X (N. Rogers) - "Assault Technician", DJ; Professor Griff (R. Griffin) - "Minister of Information", liason with S1W, road manager; and, of course, The Bomb Squad - producers. The Bomb Squad consisted of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric "Viet Nam" Sadler, and Carl Ryder (actually a pseudonym for Chuck D himself).

Track Listing:
1. Countdown to Armageddon (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
2. Bring the Noise (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
3. Don't Believe the Hype (Drayton/Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
4. Cold Lampin' With Flavor (Sadler/Shocklee)
5. Terminator X to the Edge of Panic (Drayton/Ridenhour/Rodgers)
6. Mind Terrorist (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
7. Louder Than a Bomb (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
8. Caught, Can We Get a Witness (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
9. Show 'Em Whatcha Got (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
10. She Watch Channel Zero?! (Drayton/Griffin/Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
11. Night of the Living Baseheads (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
12. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (Public Enemy)
13. Security of the First World (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
14. Rebel Without a Pause (Ridenhour/Rodgers/Sadler/Shocklee)
15. Prophets of Rage (Drayton/Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)
16. Party for Your Right to Fight (Ridenhour/Sadler/Shocklee)


Public Enemy's debut album, YO! BUM RUSH THE SHOW (1987) had been a militant call to arms. A quick scan of the titles above should indicate that Nation of Millions picked right up where Bum Rush had left off. From Wikipedia, "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is a 1988 album by the hip hop group Public Enemy. Enormously influential, the album's mix of The Bomb Squad's sample-heavy beats and revolutionary lyrics railing against corporate control, structural racism and police brutality turned the album into a sensation..." not bad. But, "sample-heavy" only begins to describe it. There weren't just '60s/'70s funk samples. There were jazz samples, classic rock samples, even pure noise sampled and repeated over and over, to drill directly into your brain. And, of course, there were spoken word samples, many from various civil rights speeches from Professor Griff's archives. Shit, there were even several instances of samples of Chuck and Flavor's voices from one song used in another song. Lyrically, Chuck D wasn't ryhming about who was a better ryhmer, or east coast/west coast, or who was a bigger pimp. Chuck D was talking about all the things Wikipedia mentions, and much more.

"Bring The Noise" kicks off with a spoken word sample, "Too black, too strong...too black, too strong". Then Flavor chimes in "Yo, Chuck, these honeydrippers are still frontin' on us...etc.", ending with his patented,"Yeeeaahhh, Boooyyyeeeee!" And, then Chuck D's unmistakable baritone, "Bass! How low can you?/Death row, what a brother know." The beeping and squeaking and static samples abound. Terminator X scratches records like he's trying to see if the needle can actually penetrate the vinyl.

"Don't Believe the Hype" has more grating, screeching, squealing noises. The 2nd verse starts with "Yes, was the start of my last jam", a reference to the song "Rebel Without A Pause", which had actually been released as a 12" single before also being included on Nation Of Millions. But, the key passage has to be the beginning of the 3rd verse, "Don't believe the hype/It's a sequel/As an equal/Can I get this through to you?"

Flavor takes his typical, one lead rap per album on "Cold Lampin' With Flavor". It's a pure goof, witness "We got Magnum Brown, Shoothki-Valoothki/Super-calafrag-hestik-alagoothki/You can put that in your don't know what you said book". "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic" samples heavily from Queen's "Flash Theme" (or whatever it's called from that early-'80s Flash Gordon movie), among other places.

"Louder Than A Bomb" uses the line "'Cause I'm louder than a bomb" as a chorus, but whispered, of course. Some great, quick scratches by Terminator X propel this one. Flavor also appears near the beginning, uttering to Chuck, "Show 'em what you got", a sample of which later becomes the basis for the semi-"instrumental" filler song of the same title.

"Caught! Can I Get A Witness!" is the fictional story of a phenomenon that would soon become all-too-real, lawsuits over sampling. Chuck D puts forth the theory that beats are a mineral, there to be mined by whomever might have a productive use for them. (Ironically, when Madonna's song "Justify My Love" later used what would certainly seem to be the beat from this album's "Security Of The First World" instrumental, Chuck D seemed to have a much different view.)

"She Watch Channel Zero?!" is a great, anti-TV rant, with heavy metal guitar propelling the tune itself (was Executive Producer Rick Rubin in the studio that day?). "But her brains being washed by an actor...I don't think I can handle/She goes channel to channel/Cold lookin' for that hero/She watch channel zero".

My personal favorite might be "Night Of The Living Baseheads". I could write a whole post on this one. The intro is from a speech about slaves being brought to America. It ends with the line "And, many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds". Then Chuck D booms, "Here it is/BAAMMM"! A single horn note is sampled and repeated endlessly. Between the 1st and 2nd verse, suddenly Chuck D is a cappella "I put this together to..." There are multiple breaks, and changes of tempo. There's even a David Bowie sample ("Fame") that serves as a break. And the story, which villifies drug dealers, and attempts to shame them for selling to their own people, takes the whole "leave that crack alone"-type of token line to a completely different level of social awareness.

And, now, we've arrived where we started above, at "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos". This is the fictional story of a prison break. It is filled with great soundbites (e.g., "I wanted the Governor, y'all/And plus the warden to know/That I was innocent/Because I'm militant/Posin' a threat/You bet it's fuckin' up the government"). The keyboard sample, I later learned, is from Isaac Hayes's "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic". Flavor Flav calls in on the "prison" phone between verses to reassure Chuck that the rescue is imminent. Chuck's lyrics "This is what I mean--an anti-nigger machine/If I come out alive then they won't come clean" became the basis for the song "Anti-Nigger Machine" from PE's follow-up album FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET (1990). And, of course, at the end, Terminator X provides some of his heaviest scratching ever (apparently of a "Bring The Noise" 12" single), repeating Chuck D's line "Death row, what a brother know". These guys are self-referential to a point only exceeded by the Beastie Boys! Of course, with the Beasties, it usually just seems like an inside gag. With Public Enemy, it's almost always to underscore a far more serious point.

"Rebel Without A Pause" is a great song, with what might be the most annoying of the annoying-noise samples (I love it, by the way) on the entire album! Check out the great lines: "Yes--the rythm, the rebel'..."Radio--suckers never play me"..."From a rebel it's final on black vinyl/Soul, rock 'n roll comin' like a rhino"..."No matter what the name--we're all the same/Pieces...in one big chess game".

"Prophets Of Rage" features more references to civil rights activists and world leaders (e.g., Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher), and a repeated sample "Power of the people say". The album ends with "Party For Your Right To Fight", a militant reworking of the Beastie Boys' "Fight For Your Right (To Party)". It contains the album title: "It's proven in fact/It takes a nation of millions to hold us back".

Bottom line: This album is truly a battle cry, a tour de force, a (whatever superlative you prefer). It is impossible to overstate the impact that this album had on the hip hop world. The production pushed the envelope. The subject matter pushed the envelope. Call it "folk protest music for the dawn of the '90s".

8 Comments:

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2:35 PM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

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But, just on the 1/1000th of 1 % chance that you are a real person, I hope you die by repeated anal rape perpetrated by a donkey with a 27" penis, while simultaneously eating the shit, hot out of a baboon's ass.

Maybe it's time to implement that word verification shit.

3:35 PM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger Rob said...

Best rap album ever? The "Sgt. Pepper's" of rap?

6:54 PM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Rob,

Are you asking me or telling me? I'm going to take the question marks at face value, and assume you're asking.

I know I made the Sgt. Pepper's comparison in a somewhat flippant fashion in the beginning, and never returned to it. Here's what I think:

1) At the time of its release, Nation Of Millions was CLEARLY the greatest rap album of all-time. It was revolutionary, innovative, and fundamentally changed the face of the art form. Many say similar things about Sgt. Pepper's.

2) I am CERTAIN that to a large degree, time has passed Sgt. Pepper's by. Unfortunately, I have not remained current enough with the rap scene to evaluate to what degree the same would be said about Nation Of Millions.

My opinion: yes, greatest rap album of all time. Disclaimer: my exposure to rap has been VERY limited since 1994 or so.

I'd really like to get your opinion, actually.

7:53 PM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger Rob said...

Well, yeah, I think it probably is the best rap album ever. But I will say this: it's definitely not been the most influential. Chuck D's militant politics have had a ripple effect on a lot of underground artists, but as far as flow, Rakim is much more influential on rap MCs. Musically, DJ Premier's jazz loops have had many more imitators/descendents than the Bomb Squad's harsh noise-beats.

All that is just to say that Public Enemy is kind of sui generis. Nation of Millions is one of those timeless-feeling records that sounds as urgent every time you listen to it...

9:02 AM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

I presume you are speaking of the "Rakim", as in "Eric B. & Rakim". I loved their stuff, but I have not kept up over the years.

This is REALLY going to date me, but their contribution to the COLORS soundtrack, "Paid In Full" was AMAZING in its day!!! I might have to pull that vinyl out tonight when I get home.

The line "Pump Up The Volume" was later sampled, and looped at higher speed in that late-'80s dance song (group: "Marrs", I think?) with the obvious title, "Pump Up The Volume".

10:54 AM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Just a quick clarification...

It was a remix of "Paid In Full" on COLORS, "7 Minutes of Madness" or something like that. Really cool.

11:06 AM, April 28, 2006  
Blogger Rob said...

Yeah Paid in Full is classic!

12:40 PM, April 28, 2006  

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