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How Public Enemy Made 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Inside the making of PE's loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, uncompromising, hilarious masterpiece

March 26, 2013 5:37 PM ET
Public Enemy, 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'
Public Enemy, 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'
Columbia

"I hated that record," said Public Enemy's Chuck D. Believe it or not, he's referring to "Bring the Noise," the frenetic first track of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group's 1988 agit-rap masterpiece and breakthrough album. Public Enemy had recorded the song in October 1987 for the soundtrack of the forgettable Less Than Zero. When Chuck (a.k.a. Carlton Ridenhour) first heard the final version, he said, "I practically threw it out the window."

He changed his mind later that year when Public Enemy were on tour in England. "I kept hearing people ask, 'What's this record you've got out? People are going crazy over it,' " he remembered. "I was like 'OK, pull that acetate out, and let's play it [in concert].' People went berserk."

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"Bring the Noise," along with "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Don't Believe the Hype" – all conceived in 1987 at the group's Hempstead, Long Island, studio, Spectrum City – would become the foundation of It Takes a Nation of Millions, an album that's loud, obnoxious, funky, avant-garde, political, uncompromising and hilarious all at once. Chuck may have been disgruntled over "Bring the Noise," but he always liked "Rebel Without a Pause," the track that introduced Public Enemy's trademark sirenlike horn squeals. Hank Shocklee of PE's production team, the Bomb Squad, says that "Rebel" started out as a response to Eric B. and Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul." "We were going for something that had the same feel but with more aggression," Shocklee said. "Because we were angry."

For "Rebel," PE coupled piercing squeals (a snippet from the J.B.'s' "The Grunt" played backward) with James Brown's "Funky Drummer" ("Because that song was my milk," said Shocklee). Then it fell on Chuck to write the lyrics. "I remember locking myself in the house for 24 hours," Chuck said. He emerged with verses that emulated Rakim's off-the-rhythm flow but stayed true to his own booming-baritone persona ("Soul, rock & roll, comin' like a rhino"); Chuck also dropped the name of black activist Joanne Chesimard, hinting at the political direction that his rhymes would soon take.

"Don't Believe the Hype," recorded just before "Bring the Noise," was Chuck's first foray into full-fledged polemics, in this case against the media. The lyrics were inspired by a slight against Chuck by New York-area radio DJ Mr. Magic. PE had serious doubts about that song, too. "We thought 'Hype' was just garbage," said Shocklee. Again, they saw the response the song got when DMC (of the group Run-DMC) blasted the track out of his Bronco in Harlem on a Saturday night. "The whole block was grooving to it," says Shocklee.

In January 1988, it all fit together. "You had the combination of the noise from 'Rebel,' " says Chuck, "the tempo of 'Bring the Noise' and the subject matter of 'Don't Believe the Hype.' It set off Takes a Nation pretty nice."

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