From a rebel its final on black vinyl
Soul, rock and roll comin’ like a rhino (Rebel Without a Pause)
Because I’m militant
Posing a threat, you bet it’s fuckin’ up the government (Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos)
The hardest hitting and best hip-hop LP I’ve ever heard, Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back* will forever be associated with Dire Straits for me. True story. Now Chuck D never played steel guitar whilst wearing a headband and Mark Knopfler was not well-known for his incendiary raps about black nationalism, but the association is real for me.
The week before the Use Your Illusions albums were released I found myself in my native Carmarthen with some dinero in my pocket and treated myself to two new cassettes, the brand-new In Every Street** and, on a whim, because I was a huge Beasties and Run DMC fan AND because I always loved their logo^*, Public Enemy Nation of Millions. I Got both the suckers home and grooved a little despondently to the sub-par Dire Straits LP and put the Public Enemy on and … got scared.
I had genuinely never heard anything like it in my life. I thought I knew hip-hop; I actually knew the square root of sweet fuck-all. I can’t describe how the sound both attracted and repulsed (magnetic) me – I had never heard such density in music, such a level of stridency, intensity and carefully marshalled chaos. Producers, The Bomb Squad did a hell of a job, I’ll go on record and say that Hank Shocklee is a straight up genius. The sound is as confrontational as the message; we get shards of hectoring dialogue, sirens, stabs of guitar, some rampant tomfoolery, some very unforgiving beats and some diamond hard rapping – it’s angry, barely contained and just spits at any sonic orthodoxy. It bore no resemblance to anything from my world at that point.
I made myself play it over and over a few times, looking for things I could latch onto to make it less disorientating for me. The crowd sequences on ‘Countdown to Armageddon’, the Slayer sampling ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’, the name-dropping on ‘Bring The Noise’ and overall, simply one of the best bits of music I own, the prison-tastic ‘Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos’. I clung to all these hand holds on Nation of Millions and at some point, in the next few weeks I was transformed. The fact that I really had to work at it is, I think, the reason it still has such an effect on me.
Where to start? I’ve just got to the point where I have absorbed this LP to the point where I can barely differentiate between any of the highlights, it’s part of my fabric. Okay, I do have one fave, I may even have mentioned it earlier, ‘Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos’. Right from the Stevie Wonder ‘get in that cell nigger!‘*^ sample and that unnerving Isaac Hayes piano loop you just know this is special. This is easily Chuck D’s mightiest performance too, right from the beginning blast ‘I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers’, it just gets better, cleverer (‘I’m on the tier where no tear should ever fall’), angrier and hits sublimity for me ‘A cell is hell, I’m a rebel so I rebel’ – my favourite line on the whole album^^. It has a brilliant melody, a great narrative drive and even a happy ending, of sorts. Perfection; if ever a track justified the existence of a whole genre of music this is it. Word.
One thing I’ve grown to love about Nation of Millions over the years is the whole irritating court jester presence of Flavor Flav. I could never understand why they gave this clock-totin’ squirt any airtime at all, their videos are full of unfunny skits of his and I could never fathom why Public Enemy pounded and propounded such a serious venomous message and yet allowed his clowning all over it, the intro to ‘Louder Than a Bomb’ or his own track ‘Cold Lampin With Flavor Flav’. Then the ground shifted again a few months later and it all swam into focus for me, it is fucking Shakespearian! Comic relief: you use a truth-speaking fool occasionally to prick the pomposity of those around them to keep everyone at ease and alert for all the higher concept stuff. Which is exactly the same reason Public Enemy include a few calming musical interludes here and there on the album as well.
I still love their ethos, unapologetically militant and political, no disrespecting women, disciplined, focused, no shite sex rhymes to sell more records, rightfully paranoid and using some very minimal, but beautifully targeted, cussing to get the job done. Their LPs were educational for me, the album takes its name from (a slightly altered) Jack Johnson quote and whilst some of their heroes turned out to have some dubious views, it encouraged debate at least. Nation of Millions is why I ended up hating all that Cali laid-back materialistic watered-down shite that hip-hop went on to be in the 90s, it just showed what could be done with the music with enough talent and drive.
- Terminator X to the Edge of Panic – the sample from Queen ‘Flash Gordon’ is pure genius.
- Rebel Without a Pause – that incessant, squealing sample that you just can’t shake loose.
- Show ’em Whatcha Got – it just worms its way into your brain and stays there. I found myself humming it all the way through a meeting today.
- Party For Your Right To Fight – just the title. I mean, come on! Chuck D was always a great friend to and defender of the Beastie Boys.
- She Watch Channel Zero?! – invented Rage Against the Machine, virtually. The track that got me into Slayer too.
But there are too many real highlights to mention on Nation of Millions and I’m not good enough at all the review-y stuff to do it proper justice. Suffice to say that this LP really changed my tastes. I bought it in ’91 and far more than grunge ever did, it killed the concept of rock being a true source of rebellion for me – sure rock could still give me my adrenalin kicks and endless hours of entertainment and mirth, but I could never again take a bunch of guys dressed up in too tight trousers as a real and viable source of rebellion and threat.
More to the point, Nation of Millions is just an incredibly well put together LP, hell you can dance to chunks of it too. It is a line I stole from the documentary below, but Public Enemy used the recording studio as an instrument in a way that nobody had done before in hip-hop and they produced a furious, wise and complete sounding album as a result. Don’t believe the hype? do, this one time.
PS. Wonderful, seldom-seen BBC documentary:
*henceforth known here as Nation of Millions, in order to protect the frayed ends of my sanity.
**the album title was ain fact an anagram of ‘lack-lustre LP that they really shouldn’t have bothered getting back together to make’. True story.
^*yup, I am that deep.
*^imagine my squeal of delight 8 years later when I played ‘Living For The City’ for the first time.
^^my knees just go every time I hear it. I shout that line even louder when I’m rapping along to it too.