#48: Public Enemy, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (1988)

48 It Takes a Nation of Millions.jpg

This is the monster that makes me fear to speak. Take a given Wednesday. You’re at work. You got cheated out of your break, your boss throws a new project at you out of nowhere, you get an email that your heating bill is double the month before. You rise from your labor for a moment to wipe your forehead, maybe grab some water and say to a colleague, this system should be improved somewhat, and what might they do?

If you’re lucky, they express some personal solidarity. “Yeah, man, that sucks, I’m sorry it’s rough for you.” Maybe they’ll give you some ideological backup too—if they’re anything like me at 11:00 am at work, they’ll even do it too forcefully, brandishing chips they can’t cash. “Yeah, man! We need to burn it all down—I’m telling you. Shit, a wall of skulls, that’s what we need—rich looking skulls with the perfect teeth or the fancy fillings. See that Starbucks CEO wants to run for president? The only thing billionaires should be running for is their lives.”

Or maybe the beast reveals itself—the one that calls you out as what you fear you are. You complain about the faults in the system and suddenly it roars back—“But you, you there. You participate in that system. You cash checks from it. You show up when it says, yes sir yes ma’am, laugh when it says hump day amirite and when it says eezy peezy I don’t see you gathering any skulls for bricklaying your wall.”

We gotta work, gotta eat. For most of us, surviving depends on us finding things we are willing to do for money, for people willing to pay us. Nothing I can say about artistic or revolutionary integrity has changed that fact, at least not in America. The proles have work in the morning, or another way to meet the challenge of making ends meet. Anyone who doesn’t has work working for them.

*

My first run-in with Public Enemy was when I was a pre-teen at the end of the year 2000, grinding through the airplane hangar level in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. As I bent my knees into the first ramp, I heard the collaborative mix of “Bring Tha Noise” featuring Anthrax. That mix is, as Chuck D describes it, “like shrapnel”. At first it just seemed like a fantastic song to play while fake-skating. Chuck D is a badass, and Flav’s enthusiasm is infectious. Eventually, though, the lyrics started to seep into my mind, before I had the context to understand what they mean when they say, “black is back, all in, we’re gonna win / check it out.” Going to win what, I thought? Who the hell is Farrakhan and why is he a prophet?

That led me to put down my Dreamcast controller (yes, I played this on Dreamcast—continuing my long streak of picking the underdog system, the band that broke up, or the show that got cancelled after two seasons) and led me down the early 2000s version of a Wikihole. That single rap lyric from “Bring Tha Noise” invited me, a husky white kid playing a video game, to learn about pro-black politics and social justice, and to delve into the Nation of Islam and its leaders. While there’s plenty to criticize about that group (and I’m by no means trying to diminish what’s problematic, bigoted, or downright nutty about them), Farrakhan’s group did one thing better than most in that era. They managed to help some black men like Chuck D feel powerful and purposeful while living in a system designed, from the ground up, to do the opposite.

That’s why Public Enemy works on It Takes a Nation of Millions. Chuck D brings the poetry and the politics, and channels the power. Flavor Flav is the hype man’s hype man. At his peak, he could probably get you psyched about endorsing your paychecks and rewinding your watch if he wanted to. Throw in Terminator X’s samples, beats, and scratching, and suddenly revolution has the polemical force of a pipe bomb, the appeal of a night headlined by the coolest guys in town.

It Takes a Nation of Millions is the second of four albums by Public Enemy that kept the party going strong, fierce, and vibrantly during the peak of their career. By building on the foundations laid by artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, Public Enemy brought political hip-hop to a new height in this period. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the drift of Chuck D’s career in recent years from revolutionary prophet of rage to the leader in the ho-hum, stale Prophets of Rage supergroup after the 2016 elections. I discovered Rage Against the Machine from Tony Hawk 2, as well, as “Guerrilla Radio” alternated with “Bring tha Noise” on the soundtrack. I always perceived them as the “real deal” regarding their activism and their political leanings when they were in their prime.

Then the vocalist of Rage, Zach de la Rocha, stood by while the other three members of the group formed a supergroup (a term which I’ve grown to loathe) with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. They called it Audioslave. Why, audiogods, why? Cornell had his own origin myth for the name, but it has the most focus-groupy feel to it, and to me, so did their music. It would seem that the members of Rage didn’t learn that lesson and didn’t communicate it to Chuck D, because after Trump was elected, they all took the opportunity to staple together Prophets of Rage and put out songs that felt like nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the nostalgic desires of people who remembered the artists’ good old days, and were fearful or angered by thoughts of the days to come.

Cashing in. What else can you call what Flavor Flav did after this? He starred in a Real World ripoff, got in a relationship with Brigitte Nielsen, and VH1 spins this yarn into two more reality shows afterward. You can’t get further from bringing the noise, or fighting the power, than this. But maybe I lack empathy when I say that. The music scene moved on from Public Enemy after the early ‘90s. Even politically conscious rap in general become about groups that drifted further and further from Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Meanwhile, you gotta work, gotta eat. People remember you fondly, so you take an offer from your agent to be on a quirky show. You find a wave, you ride it. Did you betray the revolution you believed in? Did you cancel out the brilliance of songs like “Mind Terrorist,” “Rebel Without A Pause,” “Louder than a Bomb”?

*

Maybe It Takes A Nation of Millions is the soundtrack to a revolt that never really broke loose. Maybe Public Enemy lost their moment. I really dove into their catalogue starting in 2005. That summer, a classmate at a program I attended in Pittsburgh—already a hip-hop reviewer himself—handed me a couple of mix CDs that included artists beyond Public Enemy—guys like Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli, Tonedeff, K-OS, Cunninglynguists, Immortal Technique, and KRS-One. It was as if to say, Here. Catch up. So I did, digesting all these artists and their albums, carrying It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet to school with me in my Walkman. It was supplemental coursework. Sure enough, it made me feel ready.

I had a stint in college where I’d join a few people protesting in front of the Sudanese Embassy off Dupont Circle in DC. A few signs about the genocide in Darfur, a megaphone, and a car from the Secret Service Uniformed Division keeping watch on the block, seemingly cool with us. The album I played while traveling to Dupont on the Metro those few weeks was Game Theory by the Roots, which to this day is one of my favorites. It’s dark, layered, and deals head-on with the political and social crises of the mid-Bush era as the Roots saw them. It’s also heavily influenced by It Takes a Nation of Millions, with the track “False Media” repeatedly riffing on lines from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Both songs implore us to take the artists seriously—I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’, they say. They also express the same distrust of prevailing narratives that we see everywhere today: False media. We don’t need it, do we?

And with that, maybe the question of whether anyone has sold out becomes less important. Maybe this is why Rage Against the Machine, for instance, doesn’t see any need to record new music. The old tracks hardly feel old in some ways, and that’s how I read Public Enemy’s work here. This is from the time before the Million Man March, the era of Walkmen and pagers, but it’s still punching its weight and reverberating in an era of black disenfranchisement, police brutality, and bombastic New York real estate morons taking too much of the publi-

Yeah, nevermind, I hear it now.

*

Part of Public Enemy’s trek into the spotlight was opening for Beastie Boys. As I’ve said before, Beastie Boys managed to do juvenile bombast better than just about anyone on their album License to Ill. Part of that cred comes from their single “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” which, they claim, was misinterpreted as a celebration of debauchery and revelry at the expense of other priorities. They’d argue they were playing a joke on listeners who didn’t catch the irony—which I don’t put past them, even if I think artists are susceptible to finding the coolest critical take on their art and then claiming they meant it that way all along. I’m not above it, myself.

What does Public Enemy end this album with? Something more direct, something more earnest—“Party for Your Right to Fight,” a mantra that even might suggest that all this recording, promoting, signing, and merchandising bullshit artists subject their work to can be used toward something greater, something that justifies the apocalypse imagery, the blaring sirens, the thundering beats and cryptic Nation-of-Islam mythology. It’s as if Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and their crew want to reiterate that all this is in furtherance of something—a liberation struggle they deem necessary. So what if they had a VH1 show or a lame supergroup team up since—for better or worse they got you looking up Yakub and Elijah Muhammad, didn’t they?

They put this out into the world, and now you have the courage to say something yourself, don’t you?

—Benjamin Walker