These days, the word “classic” is thrown around as loosely as a Nerf ball at a picnic. However, we at TRU consider classics to be something which stand the test of time and have a resounding influence on their respective fields. But how do albums considered classics sound to the ears of TRU’s young blood? Aaron J. McKrell was born in 1990 and we’ve convinced him to turn his scope on a classic from the rich history of hip-hop to view it through a contemporary lens in a weekly series we call…
For the third installment of this series, I chose It Takes a Nation of Millions of Back, Public Enemy’s testimony to Afrocentrism, political corruption, and oppression, among many other themes. I had no idea what I was in for. PE packs so much into this 16-track album it would be impossible for me to fully evaluate the record within a year’s worth of time, let alone a week’s. Much like Illmatic, It Takes a Nation is an album with so much information and intricate detail, I’ll likely learn something new on each listen for years to come. Realizing this, I gave the album multiple spins with intense focus and documented my initial response.
PE’s sophomore album is an intense musical marathon, one where PE sprints rather than jogs from start to finish, daring you to keep up with them. The album’s chaotic feel, glaring production, and earth-shaking lyricism left me dizzy and breathless. Using excerpts from a PE show in London, It Takes a Nation retains a live feel throughout, so much so that I can picture S1W wiling out on stage during “Bring the Noise.” The group leaves no stone unturned and no Oval Office chair unflipped as they expose instituted racism, immoral censorship, and dishonest propaganda in songs such as “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Remember, this album came near the end of the Reagan era. The group lets no one off the hook; they are as scathing toward black drug dealers as they are toward corrupt politicians. PE’s intelligent rage gives the album an edgy, paranoid feel from start to finish, and the brief instrumental interludes only add to the tension.
Of course, it certainly helps that PE meshes together so well. Chuck D’s militant delivery and commanding baritone voice smash home his powerful lyrics. Though Chuck is primarily known for his message, his technical skills as an MC are equally stellar. His impeccable timing and cadence allow for him to smoothly pile rhymes on top of one another at a rapid pace. Peep how he breaks down crack distribution and addiction on the album’s best track, “Night of the Living Baseheads”: “sellin’, smellin’, sniffin’, riffin’, and brothers trying to get swifting on their own!” Heavy stuff.
For those who only know Flavor Flav from Flavor of Love, allow yourself to be reintroduced to the quintessential hype-man. Flav is the perfect complement to Chuck, jumping in to finish his statements with gusto. Flav also is a solid MC in his own right, performing solo on “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.” While the song doesn’t have much to say, it is lively and enjoyable nonetheless. Flav is also more captivating while talking on record than many MCs are rhyming, and even though he is generally perceived as the light-hearted alternative to Chuck’s intelligent rhymes, Flav would still be the smartest dude in Dem Franchise Boyz by a mile.
What’s a killer rhyme without a dope beat? The Bomb Squad gets its atomic energy on (pardon the cheesy pun) throughout It Takes a Nation, providing eerie, chilling basslines, thumping drums, and flaring horns. They take James Brown samples to the next level, infusing his sensual cries into songs such as “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Party for Your Right to Fight.” Other samples are abundant throughout the album, each one precisely placed to enhance the record. As a plus, the Malcolm X soundbites here serve as powerful introductions to multiple tracks. Terminator X, the group’s DJ, provides stellar turntable tricks that mesh wonderfully with the Bomb Squad’s heart-pounding production. Word to Hank Shocklee.
Public Enemy comes off as authoritative but not preachy. Compassion for black folk and a true Afrocentric spirit are the driving forces behind their call to action. They are not simply venting on record; they are inciting revolution. PE is raw and real all the way through, providing a great album with no weak links.
This is all well and good, but the question remains, is this album still relevant? Created in the late 1980s, is It Takes a Nation now outdated? The answer to the latter is a resounding NO. If someone wants to tell me racism is over because we have a black president, I’ll respond by telling them how my black friend had a banana thrown at him from out of a moving car in a small town in Western Pennsylvania- this year. Racism is still prevalent, as are government corruption and oppression. The difference between today and 1988? We don’t have a Public Enemy speaking out on record against the government. But make no mistake, this album is as relevant as ever. It’s an undeniable classic. Cold Medina.