It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Public Enemy

Def Jam Records, 1988

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


In honor of the birthday of our nation, "The Daily Vault" reviewer Sean McCarthy proudly submits the following review...

Aww, hell, who the hell am I trying to kid? It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back just isn't as dangerous to have in your possession as it did ten years ago. Political rhetoric doesn't raise the hairs of elders who are too busy cowering over Marilyn Manson and 2Pac.

I have very fond memories of Public Enemy's second major album. It was on a list with Ozzy Osbourne, Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue and Slayer for albums that the PTA for our school blacklisted in a newsletter. If your kids had any of those albums, you could confront them for possessing drugs, antisocial behavior, joining the Jesse Jackson for President campaign in 1988.

Though I bought the album soon after getting into Fear Of A Black Planet in 1990, the album still was able to set people off. After a good read of the lyrics, it's hard to believe that this album was considered to be controversial. Sure, the album has shout-outs to Louis Farrakhan ("Don't Believe The Hype"), tales of a violent jailbreak ("Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos") and a dis at housewives ("She Watch Channel Zero"), but it still is pretty tame by today's standards.

Though Public Enemy may have gained much acceptance over the last ten years, there is no dispute that It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Backmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 still sounds revolutionary. The arguments may be a tad dated (the problem with any political album), but how they say it is by no means dated. The rhythm section, the Bomb Squad, produces a dense foray of samples, layered beats and stark percussion. The section's virtuoso style is every bit equal to James Brown's best rhythm section or Prince's much-heralded back-up bands.

The head of this squad, Terminator X, mans the turntables like a missionary. When you hear the sci-fi epic, "Flash Gordon" as the song, "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic", you have no choice but to take notice. In "Night of The Living Baseheads", lead rhymer Chuck D bellows, "And you say/Goddamn, this is a dope jam!", by the time you hear this, you can't help but agree. Samples of James Brown, horror-film shrieks and even the Beastie Boys are packed so tight, there's no room for a lazy g-style funk to dominate.

If the sound of Public Enemy is relentless and on the offensive, it is no surprise that Chuck D's voice fits the mix perfectly. Controlled, baritone and on the edge of anger, his voice is almost as arresting as the music. Luckily for Chuck D, he also has a king jester in his court, that of Flavor Flav. Sadly, by looking at the new video in "He Got Game" as well as Flavor Flav's past history of crack abuse, his line, "Yo! Chuck/ they must be on the pipe, right?" now is slightly funnier listening to it now. His humor comes in at all the right moments of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, adding more depth to an already profound album.

"Prophets Of Rage" and "Party For Your Right To Fight" closes It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back on a high note. With "Prophets Of Rage", Chuck D fires off a testimony that is dizzying. "Brothers causein' me pain/ when a brother a victim/and the sellers a dweller in a cage/yo, run the accapella," makes me wonder how the hell he could deliver such complex lines to a live audience. And "Party For Your Right To Fight" is just a great track to blast in your car over the summer. Like the rest of the album, the louder you listen to it, the better it is.

Like Patti Smith and yes, Nirvana, Public Enemy released an album that broke barriers, shattered previous rules that were thought to be standards in the music business. While Patti Smith could not match the brilliance of her first major album Horses and Nirvana gave up ambition after Nevermind caught fire, Public Enemy at least tried to follow-up the barrier-smashing brilliance of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I'm still debating which Public Enemy album is their best, but with three straight "A" releases, Public Enemy still remains unchallenged as the best rap group that has ever grazed the vinyl. And due to the fact that our nation was founded by radicals, few other albums can be more appropriate for playing on this holiday.

Rating: A

User Rating: C+


I hold Public Enemy in great respect - their influence on rap as a political voice helped transform the public's perception of hip-hop. No longer was the music pigeonholed as party music; PE, among others, helped it earn the status as an art form that it so rightfully deserved.

That being said, It Takes A Nation has not held up as well against the test of time as some of PE's later records. While I would never debate classics like "Bring the Noise" or "Rebel Without A Pause" deserve their storied place in hip-hop history, the minimalistic textures that most of the tracks are based on just seem primitive, and dare I say it, uninteresting by today's standards. Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse 91 hold up much better.

© 1998 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Def Jam Records, and is used for informational purposes only.