Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy – ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Public Enemy
Def Jam / Columbia
28 June 1988

Mendelsohn: I know this album has serious subject matter—it’s politicized, it’s raw. I know that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back also marks the point where hip-hop decided to grow up. I know all of this, and yet listening to Flavor Flav rap about not selling out makes my brain spin. And not the good kind of spinning. The other kind of spinning—where you get dizzy and reach out to catch your balance but instead steadying yourself, your hand misses, and you smack your forehead on whatever it is you were reaching for. Like the table, or your dog, or that flabbergasted older woman on the bus.

Klinger: Wait a minute, Flavor Flav sold out?! That’s highly debatable, Mendelsohn. VH-1’s Flavor of Love is a puckish satire on contemporary mores, raising crucial questions about the nature of celebrity and, yes, even love itself.

I haven’t really listened to Nation of Millions in years, but I played the bejabbers out of it when I was in college. Returning to it now, I still tend to look past its flaws and find it to be a pretty solid listening experience.

Mendelsohn: See, I have a skewed view of hip-hop. I started in the 1990s with the smooth, alternative variety of hip-hop—the Pharcydes, the De La Souls, the Digable Planets, and some gangster rap. But making the transition from that kind of flow to hearing Chuck D shouting me down was a bit jarring. So aside from repeated spins of “Bring the Noise” as part of the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 video game, which I minored in at college, I never got down with Public Enemy.

Going at it for this assignment, I just don’t believe the hype.

Klinger: Well, one of us had to drop that expression in here, and I’m glad it was you. But I’m surprised you didn’t find more to like in this record. There’s indeed a lot of filler in here, from the lengthy interludes to a few relatively redundant tracks. Plus having to sit through the live intro with the sirens and the chap who it turns out is not Eric Idle is enough to deter a person from ever pressing play. But I’d say that there’s a through-line of really solid tracks on here (“Bring the Noise”, “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “Night of the Living Baseheads”, “Prophets of Rage”, among others) to justify its place on The Big List.

It is a little surprising just how high it is on the Big List, though, given how controversial this album was at the time—and how uncontroversial a lot of it sounds today. I mean, in “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” Chuck appears to be on trial for sampling, which, in reality, has led to very few criminal convictions. It turns out they had a lot of beefs with journalists, too, who aren’t exactly known to come strapped. I’ve heard that if you so much as look at Greil Marcus sternly, he’ll give you his lunch money.

Mendelsohn: Chuck D is angry, I knew that going in—but he’s angry with copyright law and journalists? That’s not something I expected to hear when I dropped the needle on this one. My real issue with this record is the fact that hasn’t aged well. Time has not been kind to the Casio beats and rather uninventive samples (which may have been inventive at the time, but if you want inventive sampling, I’d point you to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, a record that hit a year later).

img-173Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

Lyrically, I can’t fault Chuck and his flow is distinctive, even iconic, but after 20 years, I just… I just don’t… believe the hype. I’m sorry, I can’t stop saying that.

Klinger: Are those beats and samples really uninventive, or do they just sound that way because they’ve been so widely appropriated? And do the samples on Paul’s Boutique (a record that I dearly love, by the way) seem more inventive because they’re more recognizable to a more mainstream audience? And is Ad-Rock’s voice that much less annoying that Flavor Flav’s?

And as your attorney, I’ll advise you to answer without expressing your position vis-à-vis the relative credibility of “the hype”.

Mendelsohn: Ouch. Those are some hard-hitting questions. Would you mind shouting them at me whilst Terminator X spins a dope beat?

Is Public Enemy influential? Yes. Widely-appropriated? Of course—but what in hip-hop hasn’t been widely appropriated? Is Ad-Rock’s voice just slightly less annoying than Flav’s? Probably. Is PE’s It Takes a Nation worthy of a top 20 spot? No.

I would even argue that Paul’s Boutique might be a more fitting entrant to this position if that poor album hadn’t bombed upon release. Paul’s Boutique, though not as immediately commercially successful as It Takes a Nation, has climbed well beyond cult status and suffered simply for being ahead of its time. And that’s where I find the flaw. It’s with the list. Hip-hop, one of the biggest, most successful music genres, has gotten the short stick from music critics.

Look, I’m not saying that Public Enemy isn’t deserving of ballyhoo, I just can’t get behind it. Do you know what I’m saying? I won’t give credence to such promotion—especially when hip-hop, in general, is so poorly represented on this list.

Klinger: Yes, it isn’t well-represented on the list, which by extension, means it hasn’t gotten its due from the critics. The fact of the matter is that critics like their albums to make the Big Statement. Everything about Nation of Millions screams “Manifesto”. It was also released at a time when mainstream pop critics realized that hip-hop wasn’t going anywhere, so they’d better start looking for someone to get behind. Nothing against the Fat Boys, mind you, but gravitas was not their strong suit.

Meanwhile, Public Enemy had gravitas coming out their ying-yangs, but they also had the exact kind of rebellious attitude that dovetailed so neatly with the kind critics’ dig. Their paramilitary shtick made them tough, but their political-ish nature and active condemnation of the drug dealing aspects of street life meant that they were also custom made for the New York Times Op-Ed page.

Mendelsohn: I do not necessarily disagree with you, and I don’t want to put you on the other side of what I’m about to say, but there are only two—TWO—hip hop albums in the top 100.

So if you’re dropping the Rock Critics are Sad Little Nerds Who Like Big Statements Card, I’m going to drop the Race Card because there is something seriously wrong when Biggie, Tupac, OutKast, A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, Eric B and Rakim aren’t in the top 100. If the critics want to ignore the first decade of hip-hop, I’m OK with that on a purely aesthetic level. But once you get to the mid-’80s, I don’t think there’s any excuse.

Klinger: In all fairness, the Sad Little Nerds and the Like Big Statements Cards are two separate cards. I might have accidentally played them both because my hands are sweaty. For the first, say, 15 years of popular music criticism, there was no hip-hop, at least not in LP form, so the list is going to be heavily rock-oriented up top. As long as people still revere the albums of the past (and make lists to quantify that reverence), changing the canon is going to be like turning a battleship around.

Unlike, say, the U.S. Constitution or the Bible, this list is a living document that’s allowed to evolve to suit the realities of the present day. I expect we’ll see many of the artists you mention start to rise as the list develops. In addition, new generations of critics are going to make their lists without feeling the need to say, “OK, we should probably include some hip-hop in there—how about Nation of Millions?” In the future, they’re more likely to judge albums like these on their own merits. At least that’s my hope, and I hope that they do other genres as well, from hip-hop to jazz to country to pre-rock vocalists.

Also, I do once again humbly submit that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is on the list because it’s a pretty good record.

Mendelsohn: I see what you are trying to do. And it’s not going to work. I’m not going to talk about It Takes a Nation, until you A.) agree with me that rock critics are racist or B.) agree to help me reanimate the corpse of Lester Bangs so that we can use his zombified body to lead a proper revolution in rock criticism. And if you think the Constitution and the Bible can’t be bent to suit the needs of the present day, maybe you should turn on Fox News for a couple of minutes.

Damn it! Now you’ve got me all worked up. I don’t know which way to go. Oddly enough, this is probably what Chuck D was going on about too, wasn’t it?

Klinger: Pretty much. Except that Chuck D was curiously silent about the need for any critic’s zombified remains. But fear not my funky friend; the critical revolution will come—and that’s hype you can believe in.

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This article was originally published on 21 January 2011.