It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Yeahhhh boyyyyyy!

So this is the first rap album on the list, and part of me is glad that Public Enemy is the first group to represent rap here.  Rap music has always been controversial for many reasons, probably the greatest of which is for glorifying violence and misogyny, but PE has always stood for something bigger…human rights.  I can’t say that I’m a hardcore PE fan or that I own all of their albums, but I can say that I’ve always thought they were the torch bearers for what was good about hip-hop.  And admittedly, most of what passes for rap music since about 1993 has been pretty bad, but the Enemy was always good.  Back in college I took an African-American Music History class, and the professor, who I will refer to as Professor McJazzyPants since his main gig was being head of the jazz department, absolutely detested rap music.  As a jazz man, which is certainly one of the most complex forms of music, he hated the simplicity of rap music in as much as it eschewed any and all types of harmonic structure to focus almost entirely on rhythm.  Being somewhat conservative, he also despised the lewd lyrics of what he referred to as the “mumbling rappers” (a similar argument against rap was given several years later in the movie “Crash”, ironically delivered by a rap icon, Ludacris).  But Professor McJazzyPants was not a nice man, and one time when I was working in the OSU recording studio he insisted on taking the master tape to one of his jazz concerts from the archives, even though I insisted that the master was the property of the university and I could easily dub him a copy.  So I will discount his argument simply on that accord…

See I actually have a soft spot for the hippity hoppity music.  Back in the late 80s when I was in junior high, hip hop burst into the mainstream in a major way.  I remember listening to my MC Hammer “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em” cassette in my Sony Walkman while I was helping out with the equipment for the high school marching band (yes, I was that cool even then!).  Other favorites of mine were Young MC’s “Stone Cold Rhymin'” and of course Vanilla Ice’s “To The Extreme” (which I probably would not have been allowed to have if mi madre had realized that pretty much every song other than “Ice Ice Baby” was raunchy as hell).  So yeah, all that stuff was pretty trite, but it was fun dance music, and it brought attention to the genre.  I remember staying up late to watch “Yo! MTV Raps” with Doctor Dre (not the famous one) and Ed Lover, where I was exposed to the less mainstream rap acts.  Later in high school, I developed a fondness for LL Cool J (and his feud with Kool Moe Dee) and some of the Soul Assassins groups like Cypress Hill and House of Pain.

It was in these later days that I discovered Public Enemy, but it wasn’t this album.  It was actually the “Apocalypse  91…the Enemy Strikes Black” album that got me interested in them, especially the version of “Bring Tha Noise” with Anthrax (I once almost ran over Anthrax’s lead singer when I lived behind the Newport Music Hall…I stopped just in time and he gave me the finger…and by stopping I’m sure I saved humanity the tragic loss of at least three bad heavy metal albums).  But I also found other songs on that album such as “Can’t Truss It” and “Shut ‘Em Down” attractive due to their political nature.  And while Public Enemy has always stood mostly for black power, on a larger scale, the universal message of human rights and equality has always been of interest to me.  In a way, John Lennon taught me about power to the people, but it was Public Enemy who taught me that sometimes you have to fight the powers that be.  But then sometime around 1993 rap went gagsta and I started to lose interest…but that’s a story for another blog entry…

Here we go again!

So I picked this album up for $4.99 (minus my 10% edumacator discount) at the Half-Price Books in Westerville.  I had seen it quite a few times at Used Kids for about the same price, but I guess the time was never right.  The original version of “Bring the Noise” (yes, the original is “the” not “tha”) is on this record, and it’s cool although I still like the version with Anthrax more.  And speaking of noise, this album is noisy as hell.  I guess the Enemy intentionally seeded obnoxious noises throughout the songs to avoid mainstream radio airplay (that’s almost a punk rock mentality!)  Chuck D’s rap style is anything but smooth, but he delivers his message with strength and authority.  And then there is Flavor Flav…the ultimate hype man.  And even though he has since embarrassed himself with several VH1 reality shows and a couple of failed restaurent endeavors, Flava is the perfect foil to Chuch D’s hardcore politics, and it is that balance that makes PE work…fun and entertaining, but still meaningful.

Other lists: “Bring the Noise” is #162 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and Public Enemy is also #44 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.  “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is also ranked at #12 on the list of the Best Albums of the 80s.

My favorite track: “Bring the Noise”

Honorable mention: “Don’t Believe the Hype”

Quote: “Whatcha gonna do?  Rap is not afraid of you!  Beat is for Sonny Bono.  Beat is for Yoko Ono.  Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band…stand on its feet, get you out your seet.  Beat is for Eric B and LL as well, hell…wax is for Anthrax, still it can rock bells!  Ever forever, universal, it will sell!”