Class Of '88: Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Do your homework. It is a rare occurrence where a Rap album is a classic from the intro to the outro and singlehandedly changes the scope of Hip-Hop culture in one fell swoop. Yes some have succeeded with bringing us timeless material; but only a certain few have clearly impacted our social awareness through rhyme. Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam) did just that. Originally released on April 1st 1988 PE’s sophomore effort would be their magnum opus.

Never before has Rap played such a prominent role in social and political issues. Their blatant criticism of lopsided media would wake up our communities. Before PE, songs delivering in depth social commentary were limited to artists like KRS-ONE and a few others. With the success of Public Enemy’s politically charged “Don’t Believe The Hype” and the booming “Bring The Noise,” those doors were broken wide open. Afrocentricity would be then widely celebrated through dress and subject matter by A Trible Called Quest, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers amongst many others.

Even the group’s militant make up would change the game in regards to how groups represented themselves. Chuck D. would prove to be a formidable front man. His anti-war story penned on “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” painted a clear picture of how much of a lyrical force Chuck really was. His wise words were brightly complimented by Flavor Flav. Arguably Rap’s greatest hype man, his court jester charisma found all through the album; namely “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor,” often provided a much needed contrast to the PE’s stern stance. All backed by the Professor Griff and the S1W’s (Security of the First World), these bodyguards would bring a silent seriousness to the band’s stage show and videos with their mix of military drill infused dance choreography.

Sonically It Takes A Nation set new standards. Entirely produced by The Bomb Squad, the songs were dense and came at a rapid pace. Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler made their contemporaries look for sounds outside of the excessively overused James Brown library. Classics like “Night Of The Living Baseheads” would encompass over fifteen different samples and “She Watch Channel Zero’s” infamous metal guitar would be borrowed from Thrash Rock group Slayer. Additionally, DJ Terminator X’s defined cuts brought everything back to the essence.

Today It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back still weighs a ton. As one of the greatest and influential Rap albums ever; we pay tribute to it twenty years later. We get a track by track commentary from Chuck D. on how it all came together. Peep game.

“Bring The Noise”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Bring The Noise” was originally a song for the Less Than Zero soundtrack for Def Jam [Records] and when it came down to it, it was really our second B-sided street hit. We was known for always doing the B-side of something. It was never the A-side that was ever promoted at radio. “Bring The Noise” was the B-side of Less Than Zero soundtrack single releases and when it got time to It Takes A Nation, Hank Shocklee and I were adamant about telling Rick Rubin that “That Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise” had to be on the It Takes A Nation album because they were records that were already known in the streets. The album wasn’t [like] every cut was brand new; we had to actually put some songs we had as the flipside of some singles and they both happen to be hot B-sides. That’s “Rebel Without A Pause” that came out in May of ‘87 and the second one was “Bring The Noise” which was November ’87.

“Don’t Believe The Hype”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Don’t Believe The Hype” actually was made before “Bring The Noise” for the Less Than Zero soundtrack. We actually thought it was rather slow so we put it in the can. One day myself and Hank heard DMC in his Bronco truck playing “Don’t Believe The Hype” from one of the tapes that had gotten around Def Jam and it kind of totally flipped us into saying well “Dam that joint is kind of hot.” In May 1988 that was our first single. “Don’t Believe The Hype” was a simple thing of don’t believe the information; that’s what we were trying to tell people. Just don’t take it for word; challenge it. If you don’t do it you’re a robot. There are a lot of people that have given into roboticism; we think they’ll change again.

“Cold Lampin’ With Flavor”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” was something that Flavor had in his mind all the time and it was an outlet we made that was fast, crazy, and quick enough and Flavor stepped up to the task. It took about a year to write and put everything up in one nutshell. The energy of the record matched the energy of It Takes A Nation. The biggest thing with It Takes A Nation that it was a faster record because we knew movement on stage was very important so we made a record that was matching our intensity and speed on stage. So “Bring The Noise” was a hundred and nine beats per minute which was faster any other Rap record. We knew we could keep up with it. So “Bring The Noise” and It Takes A Nation introduced a faster Hip-Hop sound. And also we introduced breaking up records, you know instead of going from song to song to song; we introduced those kind of skits. Really we introduced a lot of the aspects of the live audience from London. We did a London tour in November of 1987. We wanted to show everyone in the United States that if you ain’t up on us, the rest of the world is. We showed the media that Rap was worldwide. People that were thinking that we weren’t hot enough, well the rest of the world is on it and you better get up on it. Because we have people in London and everywhere else; still to this day we tell the United States if you think you on top, we’ll tell you are actually behind the rest of the world.

“Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: Myself and Terminator was trying to make a record that was indicative of the speed of the instrumentals and also the aspect of the DJ. So Terminator actually contributed parts; we just took “Rebel [Without A Pause]” and ran it backwards. We ran the voices in the middle of the choruses from Minister Farrakhan speech in 1980 that he had for the Jack The Rapper conference talking about the responsibility of Black music and Black radio. It still rings loudly today.

“Mind Terrorist”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Mind Terrorist” was just an instrumental that we wanted to break up in between songs. It introduced instrumentals, and introduced concerts. We didn’t want to go to cut to cut, It Takes A Nation was almost our reflection of how a radio station should be. It was a nonstop 60 Minutes.

“Louder Than A Bomb”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Louder Than A Bomb” was one of those records we never performed live because there were records that were faster and similar. “Louder Than A Bomb” was pretty much telling everybody don’t be afraid to say anything. Even though the FBI was tapping my phone, it ain’t no secret at all because I’m louder than a bomb. You ain’t got to tap my phone; I’ll tell you. And I’ll tell millions of others in this Rap song; I’m not keeping any secrets. I’m letting you know I’m a Black militant nationalist in my heart and in my spirit.

“Caught, Can We Get A Witness”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Caught, Can We Get A Witness” was a record we found a couple of samples that set the rhythm and we wanted to present a court room scene of going court because we were sampling and it all really became true (Laughs). We actually borrowed some sounds from the Stax [Records] catalog and The Bar Kays and some other sounds that was in there and we pieced together a song that talked about the right to sample and being in the middle of a court.

“Show Em Whatcha Got”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: Actually “Show Em Whatcha Got” was the first song on the album. Back then you had A-sides and B-sides as far as cassettes and records were concerned. At the last minute Hank flipped the sides and said “Nah this should be the B-side.” So it introduces the B-side opposed to the A-side. That’s probably the trivia about that song. It was just an instrumental with a groove underneath it with Sister Ava Muhammad talking about sisterhood and how we need to step up to the plate and be accountable. We actually sampled a snippet from a group in the ‘70’s (“Darkest Light” by Lafayette Afro Rock Band). Then Jay-Z did it later on. To see that record come to life with Jay-Z was actually like wow; this is what it’s all about.

“She Watch Channel Zero?!”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “She Watch Channel Zero?!” was our second record that we actually took some Rock aspects and got down with it. We actually took a Slayer sample (“Angel Of Death”) because Slayer was distributed by Def Jam and I said “Well music is music.” Rock and Roll was definitely in our blood, where RUN DMC paved the way; we stepped it up and kept with it.

“Night Of The Living Baseheads”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: We were attacking drug dealers and the drug trade at that time. We wanted to make drugs appear nasty to young people. At that time crack had already wiped out New York and the east. It was already spreading throughout Detroit and Chicago. So we said a lot of young people listen to Rap music we can make our first video off “Night Of The Living Baseheads” and make a statement. We wanted to make drugs look nasty. If you can make a kid go “Uggh,” they’ll have the tendency not to mess with it. I think the problem now is that you got a lot of rappers who don’t tell the truth and ain’t telling the truth about themselves. A lot of them are good cats. If they sold drugs they weren’t good at it. That goes from Jay-Z down onto the bottom (chuckling). So they continue to glorify and tell stories about something they weren’t really good at, that someone else was good at but they never talk about the person that pays the price. I call them half truths. So anybody talking about dealing, they only tell half truths and never tell the full story.

“Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Black Steel” is the other side of that. If you going to be jailed, be jailed for your beliefs for fighting for all the people. I was jailed because I didn’t believe in the war and my thing was I deserve to be free. It’s a difference between someone who violates their community and or is a knucklehead who continues to not do better and go to jail for violating their own community opposed to someone who is a political prisoner who looks out for all the people. There’s a distinct difference. My thing is don’t tell half the story, tell the full story. My challenge to Rap is if you want to actually be the thug gangster dealer then you need represent in front of that crowd and be able to reform and go the jails and do prison tours like Johnny Cash. If you can’t take it there then who are you talking to and who are you trying to take advantage of? Some little white kids in the suburbs and tell them some story of some aspect that you ain’t? Let’s not be half; let’s go all the way then. If you want to talk about how you this, how you that, then talk to your constituency and try to hide that screwface, that screwface ain’t working man (chuckling). I think they scared.

“Security Of The First World”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: An instrumental that signifies the strength, intelligence of the S1W’s.

“Rebel Without A Pause”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Rebel Without A Pause” is our breakthrough single that was broke by Lady B. in Philadelphia and Chuck Chillout in New York. They broke that record respectively and it was basically myself, Hank Shocklee, Erick Sadler, Keith Shocklee, Flavor Flav, and Terminator X made it. It was our statement to say “Hey, we can make the records that everybody is making right now and even make them faster.” Rakim and KRS ONE changed the game of rhyme; they changed it with their phrasing and they introduced a style of rhyme that changed Rap forever. That was my first time of trying what they introduced. I thank those brothers forever. Ra is truly the God and KRS ONE is the most feared rapper of all time. When I said Jay-Z is the greatest rapper of all time; he’s the epitome all the way up to his point. People trying to challenge me like I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I know what the hell I’m talking about. But Rakim is the God rapper and KRS ONE is the most feared rapper of all time. KRS ONE is the only rapper I seen everybody stepped their game up when he walks in the room. If someone were to say “Who’s a rapper here?” everybody is going to keep their hands low they don’t want to actually get in his way.

“Prophets Of Rage”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: “Prophets Of Rage” I wrote while being in traffic on the Kosciusko going into the city from Queens into Brooklyn. There was a track laying around that the Bomb Squad did after I came off from tour and I wrote in traffic. And sure enough I wrote it under a sign that later on the bridge when you go into Brooklyn it says “Welcome To Brooklyn: Believe The Hype!” That’s exactly where I wrote “Prophets Of Rage.” It was definitely one of our showstoppers; it was so fast and so turbulent. One thing we might say there might have been groups that said they might have been better but no one could keep up with our speed and intensity. We were too physical; cats were just slow compared to us. They can’t keep up with our speed; we have the speed of a Rock Thrash band.

“Party For Your Right To Fight”

Produced By The Bomb Squad

Chuck D.: A total quirky song; we wanted to make a song that was reverse opposite of “Fight For Your Right To Party” by The Beastie Boys who are our great friends. The Beastie Boys where fun and frolicking party driven White boys and we were the Black Militant anti-American Rap group. “Party For Your Right To Fight” was talking praise to the Nation Of Islam and the Black Panther party. That was the party.

Public Enemy

"Don't Believe The Hype"

Public Enemy

"Night Of The Living Baseheads"