Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - Review
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critics' view

PE: The last great political act of our times? This album certainly seems to back the theory up. A year after the polemic of Chuck D, the sneer of Flavor Flav and the post-modern noise concrete of the Bomb Squad burst onto the public consciousness with Yo, Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy really pulled out the stops with It Takes A Nation… Signed to Rick Rubin's Def Jam label on the basis of the vocalists' freestyling skills, what emerged, when backed by the sample-crazy methodology of Hank Shocklee et al was a furious squall of beats and righteous anger that still assaults the ears.

What makes ITANOMTHUB such a fresh sound to this day is the focus given to Chuck D's ire by the production. Whether he's addressing the issues of disenfranchisement in a racist society (Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos), political obfustication (Don't Believe The Hype), or just the soma-like effects of the modern media (She Watch Channel Zero?!) his lyrics are spat with a controlled rage that is mirrored by the Bomb Squad's beats. It could be argued that these beats are where the real political agenda is adressed. Most people remember PE as the band that liberated James Brown from parodic dotage; reminding the world of how explosive and subversive his (and his proteges such as the JBs and Bobby Byrd's) beats could be. But the samples and beats on offer here also came from labelmates, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC, as well as PE themselves and a fair smattering of free jazz and other early rap acts. The message was that black music could be reclaimed and re-tooled as a semantic crowbar - screaming to the world that rhythm was as eloquent as words when reminding us of the world's inequalities.

Of course, the Nation Of Islam spiel (mainly propagated by Professor Griff, who was soon to leave the band) gave detractors a toehold, by pointing at the band's potentially anti-semitic undertow. But a careful listen to Chuck D's flow shows the man to be asking for Farrakhan to be understood in context, not just espousing his more extreme views. A caucasian-controlled media were genuinely scared by this band.

In the end ITANOMTHUB is possibly the greatest rap album ever made. Balancing political incisiveness with rock dynamics, it crossed the race divide and almost instantly made all other rap acts sound tame. For a brief spell hip hop was about more than guns and bling.

Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child’s play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could do. That’s not to say the album is without precedent, since what’s particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D’s writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It’s not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries — certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow — but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav’s frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What’s amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn’t dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.

Chris Jones
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading.
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