Landmark Productions: Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

From start to finish, Public Enemy’s second album is one of hip hop’s towering achievements. Believe the hype, says Andy Price…

Producers Hank Shocklee (The Bomb Squad), Chuck D, Rick Rubin (exec)
Engineers Greg Gordon, John Harrison,
Jeff Jones, Jim Sabella, Nice Sansano, Christopher Shaw, Matt Tritto, Chuck Valle

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The Tracks

1: Countdown To Armageddon
2: Bring The Noise
3: Don’t Believe The Hype
4: Cold Lampin’ With Flavor
5: Terminator X To The Edge of Panic
6: Mind Terrorist
7: Louder Than a Bomb
8: Caught, Can We Get A Witness?
9: Show ‘Em What You Got
10: She Watch Channel Zero?!
11: Night Of The Living Baseheads
12: Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
13: Security of the First World
14: Rebel Without A Pause
15: Prophets of Rage
16: Party For Your Right To Fight

Public Enemy’s debut record, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, was released to great acclaim in 1987, marking a brave new approach to hip hop that shot a jolt of electricity through the fledgling genre. Produced by long-time collaborator and friend Hank Shocklee, leading his freshly assembled production team The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy made a bold and ambitious first statement.

But if the debut was akin to a singular jolt, the follow-up, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was the sonic equivalent of a nuclear explosion, and a perfect marrying of Chuck D’s hurricane of sociopolitical lyrics with a musical backdrop that was startlingly innovative.

Production began on the record shortly after the completion of their debut: “On the day that Yo! Bum Rush The Show was released, we was already in the trenches recording Nation of Millions,” Chuck D later said. Work started at Chung King Studios in Manhattan, but due to difficulties with the engineers – who had little regard for the newly emerging hip hop genre at the time – they moved to Greene St Recording in nearby SoHo, where they had more flexibility and freedom.

The production ethos that Shocklee and his Bomb Squad adopted was one that utilised found sounds, manipulating quirky sonic textures and harvesting samples from classic recordings; using E-mu’s iconic SP1200 sampler, they concocted a series of densely textured tracks. As Hank Shocklee would later tell Stay Free magazine: “Public Enemy was all about having a sound that had its own distinct vision. We didn’t want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff – bass lines and melodies, chord structure and things of that nature.”

The SP1200 sampler was heavily used throughout production

The album was conceived in the same vein as their ferocious live performances, which had directed the band’s musical direction since the release of their debut, and the tempo of their new tracks was significantly faster.

DJ Terminator X was a significant weapon in PE’s sonic arsenal; on the track Rebel Without A Pause he contributed the signature transformer scratch (named for its resemblance to a noise made by an Autobot in the kids’ cartoon Transformers) which he had honed on the road. Shocklee admitted that the musical force of the album was very much directed by Chuck D’s vocal prowess and rapid-fire delivery.

The musical underbelly had therefore to be suitably sonically intense; tracks such as the James Brown sample on Bring The Noise and the mighty, swirling bass-thump of Rebel Without A Pause also allowed increasingly integral ‘hype-man’ Flavor Flav room to contribute his own brand of street wisdom to Chuck D’s politically charged lyrics – a dynamic that balanced the weight of much of the album’s lyrical depth with enthusiastic, infectious interjections.

Can I Get A Witness?

At the time, using samples from copyrighted music in this way was a new concept for both the artists and the legal framework of the industry, which led to much legal wrangling over the rights to the audio used in Public Enemy’s material. Chuck D documented the legal troubles that the band faced over the track Caught, Can I Get A Witness?, which features the lyrics, ‘Caught, now in court, cause I stole a beat, this a sampling sport, mail from the courts and jail, claims I stole the beats that I rail. I found this mineral that I call a beat, I paid zero.’

Second single Don’t Believe The Hype was released in 1988 and reached number 18 in the UK singles chart

Sampling became widespread in the late 80s and record companies began to take note of copyright infringements. An increasing number of artists started to be sued for using untreated elements of copyrighted music. By the time It Takes A Nation was released, none of the samples used had been officially cleared; their use was ultimately negotiated by the relevant companies, Shocklee and PE long after.

The record was finally completed and clocked in at exactly one hour in length; a deliberate decision that would equate to 30 minutes each side (in those days, vinyl and cassette still outsold CD as the preferred format).

Shortly before mastering, Shocklee decided to flip the sides to emphasise the implications of a live performance – the album would begin with noted British DJ Dave Pearce introducing the band during their first UK tour, before segueing into the opening track Countdown To Armageddon.

The album proved controversial on release, with middle-class white America not prepared for the political assault in the lyrics and the band’s militaristic imagery. However, the album’s influence on the hip hop genre was seismic and over time became regarded as one of the epoch-making recordings of the 80s, paving the way for the eventual dominance of hip hop as a genre.

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