Artwork Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

In the mid to late 1980s, hip-hop was beginning to evolve. The days of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were coming to a close and a new wave of hip-hop acts was emerging. This was the start of the Golden-Age era, which included Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul and of course, Public Enemy.

Public Enemy consisted of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X at the time of this album’s release. This was their second album following 1987’s “Yo! Bum Rush the Show.” “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is considered to be one of two game-changing hip-hop albums released in the summer of 1988 (the other being N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”).

When digesting Public Enemy’s music, you notice that it doesn’t follow the rock-influenced beat of Run D.M.C. or the violent gangster life of N.W.A. Public Enemy believed in what Gil Scott-Heron believed in: using music as a means for people to go out and make a difference in the world. This is done by Chuck’s demanding, angry and passionate lyrics. He makes his stand clear right at the start with “Bring the Noise,” a track that sets the tone for the album with its explosive pace that provokes an indescribable reaction, this feeling that you are part of something revolutionary.

This also is where you are introduced to the production of the Bomb Squad. It’s a style that was experimental for the time. There are various samples that are repeatedly played and layered throughout the song, which is very abrasive. It’s a method that can be very annoying to those new to Public Enemy and especially those who’ve never listened to experimental hip-hop. However, this style of production also backs up the lyrics.

Tracks like “She Watch Channel Zero?!” prove my point. The song is a criticism of consuming too much TV because it can blind a person’s sense of reality. It features a sample of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” which gives the listener a mind-numbing sensation like the white noise on a TV set.

I love Chuck’s perspective on the topics presented here on the album. “Night of the Living Baseheads” is an anti-drug song and tells how drugs are a major problem for people (particularly African-Americans) moving forward in society. Chuck notes out plenty of characteristics to know if someone is involved with drugs. He points out their behavior, their locations, the crimes committed and the punishment that comes along with the involvement.

Another personal favorite is the track, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” This provides gritty storytelling from Chuck of how he was thrown in jail and got out successfully. The samples provided in the track provided a vibe akin to that of a spy film. There’s not a lot of layering so it’s not as crazy as the other tracks which brings a nice change to the album.

I can’t also forget about Flavor Flav when it comes to talking about Public Enemy. One of the greatest hype men ever, Flavor Flav has a high-pitched voice and a trademark “YEAH BOI!” yell which provides a contrast to Chuck’s demeanor. “Rebel Without a Pause” is a good example of these two working. It shows Chuck delivering his lyrics at a high pace while in between verses, Flavor Flav tells him that he should slow down because the audience is losing track. It’s a good balance of the seriousness and the comedic relief these two can offer.

You can see how “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” was a template for many artists to help take hip-hop to the next level. It’s not surprising to see groups such as Death Grips follow what the wild production of Bomb Squad was doing. You can also see how the likes of Nas and Kendrick Lamar have placed a lot of focus on the lyrics and storytelling in their music. In fact, “To Pimp a Butterfly” reminds me of “It Takes a Nation” for their takes on political topics.

This is an album that belongs to the Hip-Hop 101 course, it’s really hard to imagine what the genre would have been if this album didn’t exist. For anyone new to the genre or those who want to hear the classics, this is a priority listen! Do take a few listens to fully grasp the album because this isn’t designed to be played at parties. This is an album that makes you sit down and try to understand the problems that surround us. What makes this album even more special is that it’s a fire that continued on for generations and inspired people to make a difference. Many of the artists we love now are indebted to Public Enemy. All I can say is “Yeah Boi!”


Track Picks: “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Louder Than a Bomb,” “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” “She Watch Channel Zero?!” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Rebel Without a Pause”

Label: Def Jam Recordings


Listen to the album here: