"I wanted to try to make a Hip-Hop version of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin On," says the leader of Public Enemy, Chuck D. "Something that was there, something that was a staple, something that no matter how many times you played it, you had to go back to it again and again." Only time will tell if It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a potent rap discourse on drugs, poverty and black self-determination, will compare with Gaye's eloquent classic of social realism.
After their first album, the members of Public Enemy gained a new social perspective, and these self-proclaimed prophets of rage articulated the anger implicit in the hard beats and bottomless bravado of ghetto-born rap. "Bring the Noise" and "Rebel Without a Pause" blasted out of beat boxes, Jeeps and BMWs all summer; the phrase "Don't believe the hype" became the "Where's the beef?" of 1988; and despite being aimed at urban blacks, the album also won a large white audience.
Virtually every track contains repeated shrill noises that are both irritating and riveting; its agit-rap sound communicates as much rebellion as the lyrics. "Most people were saying that rap music was noise," says producer Hank Shocklee, "and we decided, 'If they think it's noise, then let's show them noise! But we're also gonna give them something to think about.'"
Like many sounds on the album, the distinctive dive-bombing squeal of "Rebel Without a Pause" is actually an inspired bit of digital alchemy — a mixture of the JBs and Miles Davis. "We use samples like an artist would use paint," says Shocklee. The album packs literally hundreds of collaged sounds drawn from more than 150 different recordings. Snippets of speeches by Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson were also employed.
But the biggest noise came courtesy of Public Enemy's lyrics. "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin'," says Chuck D. in "Don't Believe the Hype," as he castigates the media for painting the members of the band as criminals and declares, "I'm not a racist." The chilling "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" portrays a convicted draft dodger who leads a violent jailbreak, and "Party for Your Right to Fight" ladles out Black Muslim rhetoric about "grafted devils." For some badly needed comic relief, there's a solo turn by Chuck D.'s foil Flavor Flav, "Cold Lampin' With Flavor," a relentless cascade of hip-hop argot (lampin' means "hanging around on the corner by the street lamp").
Some critics complained that Chuck D. spent more time barking than biting on It Takes a Nation of Millions. But in the end, Chuck D. attributes the bravado to the exigencies of making a good rap record. "If I'm working on an album, I've got to drop some smackin' rap jams," he says. "I mean, this is music, too. If I was a preacher, I would be in a church. I'm trying to do something that hasn't been done before in popular music."