As the 1980s drew to a close, hip hop had reached a pivotal moment. Whilst a potential for empowerment in mainstream rap had so far remained largely un-tapped, in favour of escapist music built for partying, the racially charged shockwaves of the Reagan era warned of a seismic shift beneath the surface. The rebellion broke like an earthquake with the emergence of Public Enemy. Their reconfiguration of hip hop would skill-fully balance immutable energy with confident idealism, forging a new path for hip hop’s nascent political power.
By the summer of 1988, the group had released It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, an album that, on the surface, appeared just as militant as its title suggested. But within each of it’s sixteen breathless tracks lay an awe-inspiring maze of rhythms, words, samples and ideas, combining to weave a complex tapestry of contemporary Black America. As ‘Countdown To Armageddon’s rallying cry confirmed with doomsday urgency – this was music for the next generation of troublemakers.
Each of these young men had grown up in the prosperous suburbs of Long Island, as part of what became known in the 1970s as ‘The Black Belt.’ Local estate agents had capitalised on racial fear by employing a cynical technique known as “block-busting”, in which prospective black buyers were encouraged to buy the newly vacant homes of the departing population. It’s mostly middle class citizens had the foundations of financial stability but what they faced instead was a daily reminder of an insidious and persistent racism.
Public Enemy’s coalescence fatefully ran parallel to the rise of Def Jam, a New York based label founded in 1984 by long-haired Jewish student Rick Rubin and African-American industry socialite Russell Simmons, which had so far broken new ground in the fertile rap market with crossover artists such as LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and Run D.M.C.
Chuck was compelled to confront the complacency of a black middle class that, he believed, had become too content with merely blending into the background of America’s social fabric.“R&B teaches you to shuffle your feet, be laid back, don’t be offensive, don’t make no waves because, look at us! We’re fitting in as well as we can!” His comments signalled a re-ignition of passion and political engagement, fuelled as much by teenage rebellion as Black Nationalism. Hip Hop was a way of disowning the creature comforts of suburban youth and living life on your own terms – throwing yourself into the Terrordome.
The Bomb Squad, as Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler’s production unit had been named, were developing a chaotic brand of hip hop. Hunkered down in Manhattan’s Greene St. recording studio, the team sought to push sampling technology as far as possible, extracting a plethora of sounds from an army of records, mapping them all to a song’s key and structure, and then playing each of the samples individually, as if it were a live performance. On album standout ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, they even had MC Flavor Flav play their Akai drum machine by hand for the entirety of the track’s 5 minute run time.
This was part of a conscious effort to shake listeners out of their comfort zones. As Hank notes, “We’re used to a perfect world, to seeing everything revolve in a circle. When that circle is off by a little bit, that’s weird… It’s not predictable.” Inspired by the turmoil and conflict of everyday life, distortion and messiness were desirable traits, the team often stomping on records they thought sounded a little too clean.
It was through his lyrical exploration of complex subjects such a media complicity, black incarceration and political suppression that Chuck truly excelled as an MC. Often establishing song titles before their verbal development, the MC used contentious topics as a jumping-off point, exploring the broad scope of these issues in his signature stream-of-consciousness style.
Often credited as the Yin to Chuck’s Yang, Flavor Flav’s regular spasms of ad-lib fuelled irreverence were the vital counterweight to Chuck’s relentless Black Nationalist rhetoric. But while the differences between Chuck and Flav could have represented an irreconcilable split in black artistry and ideology, they instead proved that a satisfying whole could be formed between disparate voices.
And it was indeed the idea of community, for better or worse, which lay at the core of A Nation Of Millions’ ideology. Whether or not they wished it, rappers were to be hailed as mirrors of society, filtering a mixture of daily life and personal perception into a form of mass media which had the potential to affect major change in the way black and POC voices were perceived, both politically and socially.
The symbolic value of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back remains as potent today as it did in 1988, a vital artery of contemporary counter-culture, both within rap and far beyond. Whilst ideas of what hip hop should or shouldn’t portray have only increased in complexity since the 1980s (and in the age of Donald Trump), the genre has assumed a vital and central role in popular culture – a radical means of youth representation.
If The Velvet Underground were punk’s DIY flashpoint, Public Enemy was undoubtedly the hip hop equivalent. And despite the wild intricacies and problematic flaws of their music, the underlying message now seems radically fundamental: Pick up a microphone and make the world listen.
Buy the vinyl here.