It Took A Nation: The Greatest Rap Album Gets Its Due

Chuck D discusses Public Enemy’s masterpiece—the art, the politics and the altered perspective of rap’s young guns

Nas’ Illmatic is not the greatest hip-hop album of all time.

That honor is owed to Public Enemy’s second album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, which was largely regarded as such until Illmatic came along. To be fair, to call any singular piece of art the greatest in its class, for now and forever, really isn’t just or accurate, mainly because none of us will live that long. Ultimately it comes down to how that piece of art resonates with the culture as a whole, and how it reflects on and the time period that it is apart of. That and personal preference, of course.

Chuck D in 2012

“That generation that caught on to Illmatic is a third or fourth generation,” Chuck D tells Cuepoint. “You take a 16-year-old kid in New York, Illmatic is going to speak to them because it’s going to legitimize what they think or the street life that they are trying to live. Or somebody that hears Illmatic that’s in Red Bank, NJ they’re going to be like I got a piece of the streets with me too. So that was a different time and a different generation, and that judgement call is made by that generation when they say it’s the greatest hip-hop record of all time. It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back was six years before, and they were six years old (laughs). Four years before that you had Whodini and you got people who are like Yo man, Escape was the shit. Larry Smith, you can’t get better than that. Then you have Run DMC’s Raising Hell in ‘86, which is my favorite hip-hop album of all time. So generations are going to make their pick. Eminem is going to have the greatest album of all time on one of his albums between 1999 and 2007. The generations make that call.”

It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is re-released this week with a bonus audio disc and DVD

This week, both Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988), and its follow-up, Fear Of A Black Planet (1990), finally receive the multi-disc deluxe edition reissues they have long deserved, yet never received. The ten and twenty year anniversaries of these albums came and went, and in the case of Nation, the quarter-century mark was missed last year. For a while, it almost seemed like Def Jam and Universal Music Group wanted to deny that Public Enemy and these albums ever existed. That is a fair assessment, given frontman Chuck D’s tumultuous relationship with these “corplantations,” as he calls them. He, along with Rob Zombie and the estate of Rick James, sued Universal Music Group in 2011 over digital royalties to the tune of $100m. Prior to that, in 1998 Chuck took Bad Boy Records to task over a sample of his voice on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” before its parent company was acquired by UMG.

There is also a feeling that Public Enemy are largely the antithesis of what major labels want people to listen to, so to celebrate the group would almost be a conflict of interest. Public Enemy was a conscious, outspoken hip-hop act that challenged the status quo, in an era when it was cool for rappers to be smart. The buzz words back then were “positivity” and “knowledge” rather than “swag” and “YOLO.” It was a time when African symbol medallions hung around the necks of MCs, not conflict diamond encrusted chains.

Yet even if P.E.’s massive contribution to hip-hop has been quietly swept under the corporate carpet, it was likely hard to ignore when the skies of Cleveland, Ohio opened up in 2013 with the group’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Retrofit that with Def Jam’s 30th anniversary this year and perhaps they have found a reason to celebrate.

“I don’t know why it took so long, nor do I care,” Chuck D says. “It’s like, they’re out. It’s Universal, so if it took ten years, I support it, but it’s not on my watch. I’ll talk about it, I can’t disown it, it’s mine. I don’t own the masters, so it’s not something I pursued anyway. I just said, Hey when you guys get together, hit me up, so when they got it together, they hit me up.”

For an album that is currently just shy of double-platinum, having sold 1.7 million copies since 1989, just why has it taken so long for it to get its proper due?

Rebels Without A Pause

Public Enemy inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013

Public Enemy is only the fourth hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, alongside previous inductees Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run DMC, and The Beastie Boys, not to mention this year’s hopeful candidates, N.W.A. Yet P.E. is the first of these acts in which the members of the group went beyond the standard roles of just MC or DJ. From the logo down to the lineup, P.E. is the precursor to the Wu-Tang Clan, in the fact that every member of the group had their own distinct personality and played their position to the fullest. Each of the core members would release solo albums as well.

Pictured on the cover of Nation are the yin and yang of the group, two polar opposites that represent the face of Public Enemy. Front and center you have Chuck D, the self-styled rhyme animal, whose booming voice rings louder than a bomb. Alongside him is Flavor Flav, the clock-wearing, cackling court jester (“Flavor wore the clock the first and second tour to show ‘em what time it is,” Chuck notes in his autobiography, Fight The Power) and a boisterous hype man who acts out Chuck’s lyrics with interpretive dances and colorful adlibs.

Open the album up and you’ll meet a long list of additional members as well. On the wheels of steel is Terminator X, an imposing, silent DJ who literally spoke with his hands, remaining mute and staring blankly at the interviewer from beyond his shades when asked a series of questions in the 1991 Tour Of A Black Planet documentary. Next is Professor Griff, the Minister Of Information—a title borrowed from the Black Panther Party’s Eldridge Cleaver. Griff was the leader of the camouflaged, beret-wearing S1W’s, or the Security Of The First World, who doubled as muscle for the group and performed on stage with plastic Uzi-twirling, militant, martial arts influenced style of dancing. Then, as heard on “Don’t Believe The Hype,” you had Harry Allen, a banished Village Voice writer who stood as the group’s “Media Assassin,” which is a more confrontational way of saying “in-house journalist.” Finally, there’s the Bomb Squad, a music production team that was made up of Chuck D, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, and brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee, whose sole responsibility was to bring the noise.

Chuck D designed the Public Enemy logo by hand, using a silhouette of LL Cool J sidekick E Love.

But like the Wu, this greater-than-ten-man team is easily identifiable by the silhouette of one-time LL Cool J sidekick E Love in a b-boy stance, unaware that he stands in rifle crosshairs. The now iconic, intimidating logo was designed by hand by Chuck, who was once a graphic design student at Adelphi University. He envisioned himself and the members of Spectrum City—a mobile DJ crew that was the precursor to Public Enemy—as superheroes, drawing a comic strip for the school paper, which found them battling drug dealers and the president. It was the first true rap band, or even the first rap brand, before “brands” were a thing.

Bring The Noise

Part of what makes Nation the greatest rap album of all time, to me, is the fact that it can never happen again. Look past all of the other factors that contributed to its greatness, such as the time period, the youth of the members, the lack of baggage, and hip-hop being a relatively new form of music. What is inimitable about both Nation and Fear Of A Black Planet is the approach of how these albums were made. Sampling other records had been commonplace during the latter half of hip-hop’s first decade, and it soon became the norm to utilize the catalog of James Brown and his funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield for drum beats, as Marley Marl, Boogie Down Productions, and Ultramagnetic MC’s were doing successfully at the time. However The Bomb Squad took things to a different level entirely, treating the sampler like it was a one-man band. Rather than simply looping a popular sample like MC Hammer did on “U Can’t Touch This,” they were pulling multiple sounds from stacks of vinyl for each track. For instance, on the anti-crack anthem “Night Of The Living Baseheads,” Chuck starts out the second verse by letting samples of the Disco Four, Flavor Flav, Run DMC, and Aretha Franklin speak for him, delivered at breakneck speed.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, kick it. Years ago, I put this together to rock…”

That’s four samples for one lyric, with at least twenty-three records sampled in total for just this one song. Clocking in at a speedy 106 BPM, the result is a chaotic, hostile collage of sounds that somehow work incredibly together, much like that of a jazz band. Take that production approach, and spread it across sixteen songs, and you’d have a very expensive sample clearance bill if you were attempting to record this way in 2014.

“Even if you give it away and you get it out there, it will come back to haunt you when somebody wants to license it,” Chuck says about sampling in the modern era. “I believe that sampling was able to encapsulate the highest form of musicians getting together ever at a particular time. When you grab a second, or three seconds of what was happening in a room in 1966, and you took that strong point and you made it happen, I don’t think that can always be matched. You got all their skills that hit at various points and then you see if you can arrange that in a production? It’s hard to match that. It’s really hard to match that.”

The Bomb Squad’s production was a group effort, in a rare case where having too many cooks in the kitchen was a good thing. With four men offering up ideas for samples, The Bomb Squad went well beyond the usual funk and soul sample palette, as listeners were getting a mélange of musical output with little fear of legal repercussions. Chuck even prophetically addressed sampling lawsuits on Nation on the track, “Caught, Can We Get A Witness.”

“Caught, now in court cause I stole a beat / This is a sampling sport / But I’m giving it a new name / What you hear is mine / P.E. you know the time!”

But Chuck’s position on sampling has changed over the years, as he notes in the documentary Copyright Criminals: “I’ve sued and I’ve been sued. That’s the nature of this business.” Chuck, who takes a staunch stance against drugs, wrote in his 1997 autobiography that he has never even had a sip of alcohol in his entire life. Finding his voice used to peddle St. Ides malt liquor, he sued Mckenzie River Brewing Co in 1994. And as noted earlier, he took action against Bad Boy and the estate of Christopher Wallace in 1998 after lyrics from “Shut ‘Em Down” were used on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “The Ten Crack Commandments,” a song about the unwritten rules among drug dealers.

Chuck has since admitted that the lawsuit was “just stupid,” and has resigned to the fact that the production method used on Nation and other early records simply isn’t possible anymore.

“l don’t make music like I did, so I’m not in the production room. I do more arranging, because we are in the time of the one man producer so much, so I can go to somebody and tell them how to skew, how to arrange, how to chop up,” says Chuck, “But I just think that the epidemic of one-man producers in hip-hop hurts as much as one man vocalists.

“I have always taken on the role of challenging the ugliest sound as much as something that hits me,” Chuck says when speaking on the creation of his new solo album, The Black In Man. “I think that’s probably a different approach than what many artists do. I think some look at a challenge like that and say, Well, I gotta feel it, to do it. I don’t have to feel it. Because I think that anybody can rock something that they can feel. I like the challenge of making something good out of something that might be difficult.”

Public Enemy and Spike Lee in 1989 at the “Fight The Power” video shoot

Prophets Of Rage

Chuck D has never been one to hold back, so his lawsuits against those companies really aren’t surprising when you think about it. This is the man who wrote “Fight The Power,” after all. There wasn’t a wasted breath on Nation, as each song conveyed a well-thought-out message. It wasn’t overly preachy like a Sunday sermon, but more like your dad telling you to man up. We respected the words of Chuck D.

“Don’t Believe The Hype” blasted the media; “She Watch Channel Zero” took aim at soap operas, yet today could easily be applied to reality TV; “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” was a fictional act of civil disobedience that found Chuck arrested for draft dodging, who then ingeniously instigated a prison riot to plot his escape. That last one was a single.

“Radio stations I question their blackness /
they call themselves black, but we’ll see if they’ll play this”
— “Bring The Noise”

Yet where does Public Enemy fit in today’s hip-hop landscape? Rap and the music industry at large have changed since the time period when P.E. was creating platinum-selling albums. Topics like these are too dangerous and too taboo for today’s major label rappers and because of that have no place on cable rap video shows or radio station playlists. Modern hip-hop is more about forgetting your issues than addressing them. It’s escapism, like movies, video games, or any other form of major media entertainment, and it is controlled by the same entities. Music that challenges the status quo does not fit in with the corporate four elements of hip-hop: sex, money, drugs, and death.

“Asking to be signed, you kind of get what you wish for,” says Chuck. “I come from a different dynamic. Rick Rubin called my house for a year, to ask if I would be on Def Jam. I didn’t try to get a major record label deal. When I finally agreed to it, I said, Well this is how it goes.

“I had a Post-It note with his phone number on it next to my phone, so anytime I was at the phone, I would see ‘Chuck D’, and [I’d] call Chuck D,” Rick Rubin said in an interview with Noisey earlier this year. “And then eventually after badgering them, after months, finally, they came in and said OK we’re ready to do this but… it’s not Chuck D, it’s Public Enemy. The hip-hop version of The Clash. Here’s Professer Griff, here’s Flavor Flav, here’s Hank, here’s The Bomb Squad, we’re going to have the SW1’s. They had the whole thing planned out. And I said, Anything you want to do. Fine. Anyway you want to do it.

Chuck refused to sign to Def Jam as a solo artist, bringing Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff, and the S1W’s with him, among others

“My ability to say ‘no’ in that regard was always my strong point,” Chuck remembers. “If I’m going to say yes, the record company dynamic, as far as contracts—one sided and bad, but better than anything else before that, which were all fucked up—I had to figure out how I could parlay a bad contract into a better situation, not just with renegotiation, but making my presence felt in many ways more than just as a recording artist.”

Yet Chuck doesn’t feel that today’s negative, misogynistic brand of rap music is the fault of the inexperienced rappers trying to break in the game, but rather years of corporate brainwashing that has ultimately changed what people expect rap music to be.

“I think one of the biggest death knells to rap and hip-hop is that it has never had an infrastructure that governed itself, so at the end of the day, major labels, major radio stations, and major TV corporations dictate and define what it is. That is more harmful than a bunch of artists that might have taken the wrong path to define themselves,” Chuck laments. “Somebody who is 13 or 14 is going to grow into this redefinition and they’re going to be pretty much programmed or defined by the people who make what they make.

“The other day I was tweeting about the meeting that Bobby Shmurda had with Epic Records. Do I feel bad? Do I blame Bobby Shmurda? No. The kid is trying to figure out how to get put on and get what he thinks he deserves.” he continues. “But I blame each one of those anonymous people sitting in that damn room, watching this kid show his backside in lieu of hoping that he gets put on in a good way and taken care of. My thing is, the people in this room, do they really give a fuck about him or the genre? So that might draw my anger more than the artist that feels they have to do this or that to get put on and stay on.”

Yet the spirit of Public Enemy lives on in today’s rappers, even if only slightly, which is testament to the long-standing influence that those early albums had. Outspoken underground emcee Killer Mike opens the new Run The Jewels 2 album, arguably the hottest rap release of the moment, paying homage to Chuck in the first verse of the first song, “Jeopardy.”

“Mix the mind of Brad Jordan and Chuck D and find me”
— Killer Mike on Run The Jewels’ “Jeopardy”

“Killer Mike is a giant, and he’s a very warm soul. I think he’s one of the very few that has the reach to speak for a lot of people. He has the reach to speak for the genre, from the top to the bottom, so to speak. It’s great to get that respect from a giant like Killer Mike,” Chuck says humbly.

Even Kanye West, who despite his crass behavior draws both admiration and influence from Chuck, at least for his lack of filter and desire to challenge the status quo.

“l don’t play scared and I don’t think rappers should play scared. Even when you say things that you could get away with, I think there’s still fear. I love Yeezus for Kanye’s attitude, his spitting, and the music,” says Chuck. “I like Kanye when he’s ego-trippin’. I just thought that if he spent more time with his point of view, that could have been a perfect record. I actually praise that album, but was just like, Damn man. Dude, if you just actually spit with more detail on your point of view, instead of just like ‘fuck this!’ and ‘nigga this!’

“But people don’t hear music. They see music and lifestyles first,” he adds.

Chuck and Flav still standing strong in 2014

Show ‘Em Whatcha Got

It would be remiss not to mention the few times that Public Enemy’s reputation had been tarnished over the years. Early on, Professor Griff was asked to leave the group after making anti-Semitic remarks. Flavor Flav has had numerous problems with the law and also starred on the embarrassing Flavor Of Love reality TV series, both of which clearly contradict the message of the band. Couple that with mixed or poor reviews on later albums, the group has definitely had its share of tough times. One has to imagine that managing a team of 10 artists and expecting everyone to fall in line is next to impossible. RZA likely agrees.

Yet these reasons are not why it’s taken so long for the reissues to arrive. Sadly, controversial events like these happen with rappers every day, and many times are viewed as a marketing angle. Despite physical goods breathing their last, dying breaths, the reissues are finally here, and they’ve been handled beautifully.

Nation arrives in a three-disc extended edition, with new liner notes written by accomplished music writer (and TV superstar) Questlove, along with Wax Poetics’ editor Andre Torres. The all-new second disc includes all of the remixes, instrumental and acapella versions that were previously only available on 12-inch, cassette, and CD singles. The third disc is a first time DVD release of their VHS documentary Fight The Power Live, which includes all of the videos from the album. Fear Of A Black Planet is reissued as a double CD, one containing the album, the other with all of the alternate versions. Vinyl reissues of both albums have also been released with 3D lenticular covers.

“A 12-inch always had a release of other versions, the instrumental, the acapella, whatever. In the digital realm, they release these albums, but, where’s the instrumental? Where’s the dub version? Where’s the acapella. So it was smart that they understood that all the versions that we spent time making and meticulously titling were included, even down to the Fight The Power Live DVD that I put together,” Chuck says. “Previously they never had a set up to release these kinds of things because they just were trying to figure out how to do it. They always had the archive department. It was just a matter of time before they curated the Public Enemy material, because it was all there, you just had to take time and put it together, it didn’t really take much work anyway.”

Chuck D suggests that perhaps the answer as to why it took so long for proper reissues to arrive was simply due to things getting lost in the corporate shuffle.

“I don’t know anybody at Def Jam. I don’t know anybody. I don’t know who those people are. I know Harry Weinger, that’s it. I know its governed by lawyers and accountants,” laughs Chuck. “When you have the merging of these companies, and the divisions, when they merge, they let so many people go. You got maybe three people to look over a large catalog of everything, so it takes years for them to even realize what they have. They fire some of those people that actually understand what they have and remove that entire department, especially when it comes down to black music. A lot of times black music is treated so shabbily. It’s treated so much as a trick, a hustle, that all the other curation is forsaken, bypassed. Now we are starting to enter a period, where people are starting to look at Illmatic and It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back like they are actually valuable pieces like Miles Davis and Coltrane.”

Chuck also suggests that the watering down of today’s hip-hop has made the music of Public Enemy less accessible for today’s generation, and that the younger employees of these companies simply aren’t aware of what is in the vault.

Fear Of A Black Planet’s expanded, comprehensive 2-disc reissue includes all of the album’s remixes and b-sides

“When it comes down to the conversation at the end of the day, and we start talking about Fear of A Black Planet and It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, you find out that in the black circles it’s like Okay, we didn’t know about this, we’re not working it, and we haven’t heard it. So the achievements that come along with it, whether its the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, happen because of what we have done for the genre worldwide, what we have done for music worldwide, and how we impacted things. But if that impact isn’t felt by the people and they just take what is thrown at them in the same old way, treated like one trick ponies, then you are going to have a side effect of the music that leads to somebody young not knowing where it comes from,” continues Chuck. “This is the trouble. You can’t blame anybody working in the circles, but you could be more vocal. When I look at Bobby Shmurda in the Epic Records office and he’s going around, I’m like, who’s really caring about this kid? When I look at their faces, it’s clear they don’t give a fuck about him or the genre. And that’s generalizing, but it sadly more the case than not.”

There’s a bit of frustration behind Chuck’s voice when he speaks on the major label system, but at the end of the day is happy that the reissues have arrived and were handled correctly. In fact, he’d like to see more.

“Them releasing all those versions, and the DVD—which was one of three that I did there, the others were Tour of A Black Planet and Live At The Apollo—I hope that these see the light of day. But like I said before, you gotta have somebody in the establishment’s department that realizes what they got. There’s other things in that Def Jam catalog that they need somebody who understands. I think if they got a person like you, if they got you to look at what they had, you’ll come up with a pecking order of priorities of what they can release and work with,” he tells me to my amazement. “They need people that know it well. They need skilled people, smart people, and curators that are able to go in and handle it with that care. They gotta know that the department that they are dealing with, if they are going to put these things out in special configurations, they know that they can’t handle it the same way they would handle Rick Ross right now. That’s where the human element comes in. You gotta find someone that really knows. Somebody that really cares. And then it’s all good, I guess.”

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