(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History Lesson - Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

A symposium on racial politics that still remains relevant

Like most of white America, my introduction to rap came from The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and Blondie (Rapture) soon followed. The cadences and interlocking rhythmns were like a new kind of modern art. There were rules and influences I could only guess at. The lyrics were interesting, but not particularly deep or challenging.

Two bands turned that perception on its ear for me: N.W.A. and Public Enemy. N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton was like punk rock on steroids; their anger and contempt were barely contained. But if N.W.A. raged, Public Enemy seethed. I loved N.W.A.'s intensity, getting a vicarious thrill, but Public Enemy made me think.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back exposed me to an alternate universe, Having black friends and being liberal didn't count for much as Public Enemy presented their view of America. This wasn't my first taste of this message. I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man as a young adult. I had also heard Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. But It Takes a Nation of Millions... was more emotionally charged. The tension of the music and the authoritative sound of Chuck D's voice hit me like a roundhouse. The opening track Countdown to Armageddon references Scott-Heron's iconic line:
Peace. Armageddon? It been in effect. Go get a late pass. Step! This time around, the revolution will not be televised. Step! London, England? Consider yourselves warned!
But the rising sirens and crowd sounds summon a shot of adrenaline and it feels like a roller coaster ride about to start.

The rest of the album proceeds directly from that beginning: excitement, confrontation, and attitude. The first time I listened, I was primarily pinned between the rhythms of Chuck D's vocal strength and hype man Flavor Flav's bounce. Later listens would reveal the importance of Terminator X's DJ work and the Bomb Squad's production for adding depth to the tracks.

"Too black, too strong" - Bring the Noise bridges the gap between hyping the band and setting a context for their message. Chuck D name checks Louis Farrakhan and asserts a black nationalist perspective as he rushes through his rap. The quick tempo and dense production create a claustrophobic pressure. Terminator X's transform scratch beat and mechanical whine backing add to the tight tension on the track. Flav's hype work provides the only loose moments.

Flavor Flav gets his center stage moment on Cold Lampin' With Flavor. This free style track isn't as political as the other tracks, but Flav's stream of conscious rap has a steady flow and the production maintains the pressure cooker feel.

The black nationalist message gets heaviest on Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos. This track blew me away with its incendiary message advocating civil and uncivil disobedience. The premise is that Chuck D is thrown in jail as a conscientious objector:
Cold sweatin' as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been, they got me sittin' in the State Pen?
I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
Another fugitive on the run
Brother, brother like me begun
To be another one
Public Enemy servin' time, they do the line, y'all
They criticize me for some crime
Nevertheless, they could not understand
That I'm a black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the streets, the situation's unreal
I got a raw deal
So I'm lookin' for the steel
In contrast to all the anti-war songs of the '60s, Chuck D doesn't frame his protest as a peacenik.
Instead, he echoes Muhammad Ali's c.o. rationale, contemptuous of America's white roots. Even as the song's fantasy of a huge prison break builds, it's clear that this is his metaphor for all black Americans in our society. I had the epiphany that I could empathize with this plight, but I couldn't live it or dismiss it. The tightly looped piano sample and the relentless beat fit the song perfectly.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a dual message album. For Public Enemy's African American audience, it's a call to action and an assertion of Black Identity. For the rest of us, it's a symposium on racial politics that still remains unresolved and relevant.

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