Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Public Enemy "It Takes A Nation of Millions" - 25 Years as the Greatest Rap Album

25 years ago Sunday, the greatest rap album of all time was released. Public Enemy's sophomore album changed hip hop forever and it's still a remarkable album every time I hear it.

The first time I heard it was in college. I had bought a PE greatest hits CD in high school so the next step was to hear this album. I downloaded "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos", "Rebel Without a Pause" and "Party For Your Right to Fight", the last one simply because it flipped the Beastie Boys' biggest hits.

I ended up DLing the whole album and to say that it was powerful is an understatement. It's music for a revolution but it didn't lose its cool or fun in the process. It was hip hop growing up to be a force of change on the heels of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys making hip-hop popular.

Here's my case why it's the greatest album in rap history (and one of the best albums period of the last 30 years).

Keith and Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad, the Public Enemy production team
1. It's one of the Holy Trinity of sampling, the others being De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising" and The Beastie Boys "Paul's Boutique". What the Bomb Squad (the Shocklees, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler and Carl Ryder - aka Chuck D) did on that album was create a wall of sound Phil Spector could appreciate. It puts you in the mood for revolution and controlled chaos with the sounds of James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Slayer among the samples.

They made the hip hop album not just a collection of songs but a cohesive unit that rivaled any rock or pop album.

That album's production influenced so many MC's. Ice Cube's solo career kicked off with the Bomb Squad producing Amerikkka's Most Wanted and not only did it shaped that album's classic feel, Cube and Sir Jinx replicated it on Death Certificate. OutKast and Organized Noise made classic albums that sounded like experiences due in part to the Bomb Squad.

Not to mention Madonna had one of her best songs thanks to Lenny Kravitz sampling "Security of the 1st World"

2. Hip-hop had several conscious songs before 1988 ( Grandmaster Flash "The Message", Run-DMC "Proud to Be Black", Toddy Tee's "Batter Ram") but Nation of Millions wasn't just one of the first albums talking Black pride and consciousness. It furthered what the 1960's and 1970's created.

Nation of Millions was a call to arms without being overly preachy. It taught a new generation about Malcolm and the Black Panthers and opened their eyes to be/stay aware of what was around them.

After Nation of Millions, you had groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian and other Muslim/5% affiliated rappers have hits. They influenced rappers to kick some knowledge instead of just party all the time. They elevated an entire genre to start growing up and speak out against poverty/injustice. NWA wouldn't have made Straight Outta Compton without being influenced by it.

The sad thing we may not see an album like this on a major label. Dead Prez remains one of the last politically conscious groups to have major label backing since 9/11 and when I hear Let's Get Free, I hear Public Enemy's mix of great production and hard-hitting lyrics.

3. Chuck D's lyrical performance. Chuck's booming voice was a megaphone and I feel he doesn't respect as a great lyricist as he does as an MC/live performer. His opening lines on "Black Steel", "Rebel Without a Pause", "Bring the Noise" command your attention and let you know he means business.

When he says on "Don't Believe the Hype" - "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin", you know you're in the presence of MC who won't waste words. He spoke out against the media, drug abuse, the prison-industrial complex and just being aware. The music was his backdrop and he was throwing darts like a master.

4. Public Enemy kicked off that album from live audio at a London concert. Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys took hip-hop global but Nation of Millions showed that the international audience was crucial not just for their development but hip-hop.

Just so you're curious, my 5 favorite records on Nation of Millions.

1. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
2. Rebel Without a Pause
3. She Watch Channel Zero?!!
4. Don't Believe The Hype
5. Louder than a Bomb

I get chills hearing "Black Steel" and even though Tricky did a great cover of it, the original is an impressive monologue dealing with breaking out of jail as well as analyzing the circumstances around the protagonist. 

There's a reason why I had a Public Enemy poster in college. This album created an experience that hip-hop and others has been following for the last quarter century. The fact it was a crossover smash and was uncompromising in its message speaks how people of all races/ages/nationalities related to what Chuck D and Co. were saying just like they did for Malcolm X.

You can make an argument for other albums being the greatest but for me, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the one album the rest are judged against. There are better lyrical albums, masterfully produced albums and equally brilliant concept albums but for the total package, this is it.

I look forward to see them inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

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