Uncompromising, bruising, loud, groundbreaking—Public Enemy’s 1988 landmark work “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” has been celebrated as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, amongst other grandiose titles. And such talk is no mere hyperbole. The thunderous voice of frontman Chuck D gave chest-beating testimony of black struggle, pride and presented the B-Boy as a prophet of rage over the Bomb Squad’s (Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Chuck) game-changing, 100-plus-beats-per-second production, sample-heavy style. Less than a decade removed from hip-hop’s 1979 commercial breakthrough, It Takes A Nation made “Rappers Delight” sound like a Gregorian chant.
Future reality TV star and Chuck D foil Flava Flav created the rap hypeman template for all to study, pick apart, follow and copy. Professor Griff added fire to P.E.’s already neck-grabbing message. Terminator X controlled the turntables like weapons of mass destruction. And the SW1’s personified the group’s nod to ‘60s Black Panther radicalism and do-for-self mantra. With the arrival of the 25th anniversary of “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” Chuck D—who will lead Public Enemy into induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18—breaks down the album that changed everything.—As told to Keith Murphy (murphdogg29)
Part 1: Public Enemy Sets Out To Bring The Noise
Chuck D: Yo! Bum Rush the Show was recorded for 1986 during a time when we were being influenced by great people like Schoolly D, Run-D.M.C. and Whodini. It came out in ‘87, but with hip-hop still being a singles’ market, somebody could cut something in the studio and be in the streets two weeks later. We had difficulty with this because in 1986—Eric B & Rakim and Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One changed the game. They fucking changed the world, man. Hip-hop became much more aggressive and much more faster. And Public Enemy had to get with that, so myself and Hank had to develop something in 1988 that was a lot faster, funkier, and also saying something serious that the people could feel. This lead to It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
“Rebel Without a Pause” was like hearing a loud, jarring siren…a call. It was one of those things where when we recorded it we knew it has to be perfect. Because we needed a single that could smack the streets. We had to come up with something that matched what was going on musically, but with our own identity. And ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ matched that intensity. I went into the studio to cut the vocals. I stayed in the crib for a whole two days because I was so mad, yet inspired by Eric B and Rakim’s ‘I Know You Got Soul.’
I had never heard a record that had smacked my face right off like, “What the fuck?!!!” Cats were so good that they made you damn near quit [laughs]. So I stayed in the crib all day and wrote “Rebel Without A Pause” with a combination of what Rakim and KRS were doing.
Part 2: The Bomb Squad Breaks New Production Ground
Chuck D: Hank [Shocklee] has a whole other story on the production of “Rebel Without a Pause,” which we had to make with even more feeling. I really dug into myself and came back next day and started fucking with [my pitch] and I came into the studio and nailed it. But I had to nail it because Public Enemy had to have a real street record. Even with all that noise happening on “Rebel,” we could always trust Hank’s ears to put the music all in perspective. Any producer or engineer can make a song louder. But when it comes down to sonics, no one was better than Hank. So when Hank was making the mix I was like, “Yo, man, don’t touch that…” I just thought this was already a perfect mix. I just hoped we didn’t fuck it up with [the] mastering.
We then got the acetate disc of “Rebel” and went by Kiss-FM (the iconic New York radio station). Hank was outside standing by the car because back then they would tow your shit in a minute. By the time we came back down from the second floor, Chuck Chillout was playing “Rebel Without a Pause” like crazy on Kiss-FM! I have to salute Chuck Chillout, He’s my brother for life.
As far as the [Bomb Squad’s] production [on It Takes A Nation], if it wasn’t for Marley Marl doing MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” I don’t think we could have pulled that noisy sound off. I like noisy shit, but you can’t just like it. You have to have the ability to be heard over it. So the fact that myself and Flava didn’t have ordinary voices and we were totally different in contrast, that allowed us to cut through the noise. A lot of other cats that tried to do that loud sound had problems doing it.
It was difficult putting all those record samples together, but it’s supposed to be hard. You had four people in the room beat digging, evaluating and seeing what sounds worked and didn’t work. But at the end of the day, the music had to make some kind of sense. Songs like “Bring The Noise,” “Don’t Believe The Hype,” and “Nights of the Living Baseheads” had turned all of these crazy noises into actual songs. We never thought about making hit records, but our aim was to make distinctive records. You can make something that everyone else does, but what good is that?
Part 3: A What’s Going On For The Hip-Hop Nation
Chuck D: [Public Enemy] also understood the history of black music. When it came to the 60’s and 70’s those black music artists were like aunts and uncles to us. Although I had yet to meet Isaac Hayes [when we sampled him for “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos”], I felt like Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin were family. They were getting played and cosigned by our people in your house. You couldn’t just play anything in the household like you can now. You had to have a respect for these records and for what they meant and where they came from. So we took that into consideration going into making those records.
When we finished It Takes A Nation a lot of the political messages on the album went over the heads of most people at the label. Contrary to popular belief, nothing we did was contrived. We were old enough to remember the ‘60s and ‘70s. That time was a part of us: the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Nationalism, Do For Self…all of this stuff was instilled in us. But a lot of people at the label were clueless about black folks and our history.
What Public Enemy damn near did was turn over the news station and put it inside hip-hop records. White folks were in their own world, and we were in ours. Our deal with Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons] was, “We deliver the music and everybody just leave us the fuck alone.” Bill Stephney should get more credit. He was an important figure during our 87-89 years. He kept a lot of shit at bay. There were things jumping off at the label, but we were not affected by a lot of those different things.
We set out to make the greatest rap album of all-time. We wanted to make a What’s Going On of hip-hop music. The thing that made that record so unprecedented is that we didn’t just want to deliver an album that was straightforward from cut to cut. We wanted to show something different. We introduced the live feel to record. We were influenced by Earth Wind & Fire when they did Gratitude live back in the day.
We had just finished playing London, England. I get asked the same dumb ass question: 20 years later, what do you think about hip-hop going international?’ And I tell them, ‘Well, if you open up It Takes A Nation… it tells you we were always international when we said live onstage, “Alright London!’ So our point was to say that hip-hop could be a live genre and it could be international. We were coming at you with a higher speed that was going neck and neck with anything that you call rock & roll. And we broke the album up with instrumentals, which was new. We wanted to put together a real album. It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was the next design of the hip-hop album.