It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Public Enemy

album cover

Believe the Hype

Public Enemy showed it was possible to wring revolution from two turntables and a microphone. And, oh yeah, a boatload of samples, too. The New York collective, built around rapper Chuck D and his idiot-savant comic foil Flavor Flav, brought social commentary to street rhyming, which had been mostly apolitical. That was one revolution. Then, the rappers and the producers who called themselves the Bomb Squad developed a completely original means of conveying those ideas. Starting with a massive menu of siren squalls and stray audio artifacts, they pumped up basic beats into a terrifying and unprecedented noise assault. While Chuck D, who once described hip-hop as "black America's CNN," was dispensing blunt and incisive attacks on hypocrisy, the Bomb Squad did whatever it took to make his words nuclear—often surrounding him with dense, nearly indecipherable torrents of sound.

Hank Shocklee, the founder of the Bomb Squad, told Musician magazine that creating this accompaniment was, in the pre–computer music age, incredibly time-consuming: He and his cohorts would put together short rhythm loops from various sources, and then juxtapose them. "You'll hear three different kick drums, three snares, three high hats, and each has its own time frequency." Atop those beat constructions the Bomb Squad added layers of staticky noise. More than once during the making of this album, the group's equipment crashed, sending the entire production, which could involve sixty or seventy tiny slivers of audio, back to the drawing board.

It Takes a Nation features Chuck D fulminating (in the stentorian baritone he patterned after sportscaster Marv Albert) about conditions in urban America, and what he sees as veiled racist double-talk. And then it flips the script, on tracks that catch him and Flavor Flav riffing like a comedy team, softening the bitter missives with irreverent playground taunts. The blend of tactics—on this and the equally intense Fear of a Black Planet—is the miracle of Public Enemy. Though they see themselves as messengers, they love hip-hop too much to reduce everything to a lecture.

Genre: Hip-Hop
Released: 1988, Def Jam
Key Tracks: "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."
Catalog Choice: Fear of a Black Planet.
Next Stop: Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine
After That: The Last Poets: This Is Madness
Book Pages: 618–619

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