Thursday, July 5, 2007

No. 48: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Band: Public Enemy
Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: At the cusp of hip hop's huge surge in popularity, Public Enemy made socially conscious rap music. It was angry, smart and catchy and has been copied by many "backpack" hip hop artists.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: You could make an argument that it shouldn't be the highest-ranking hip hop record on the list.
Best song: "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" and "Bring The Noise" are the standout tracks.
Worst song: "She Watch Channel Zero?!" isn't very good.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

Let me say this first: "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" is a wonderful album. It's a frenzied time capsule of mid-80s hip hop and is incredibly influential. Taking the musical influence of Run-DMC (the concept of "rap group as rock band" is huge here) and the sociopolitical/style influence from the Black Panthers, PE made a record that doubled as a phenomenon.

"Bring The Noise" is a look into this. The rapid-fire production and the give/take of Chuck D and Flavor Flav works the revolutionary lyrics ("Follow for now, power of the people, say/Make a miracle, d, pump the lyrical/Black is back, all in, were gonna win/Check it out, yeah yall, here we go again") nearly perfectly.


Public Enemy is the most-represented hip hop group or artist on the list. They have three records on here and are the highest-ranked hip hop group on the list. This, of course, speaks to the tyranny of the boomer ideals.

Hip hop is underrepresented on the list. Three of the high-ranking artists with more than one record on the list are Run-DMC, Eminem and Public Enemy. Each makes sense to the boomer as being important in their little boomer minds.

Run-DMC were the first superstar hip hop group, taking the mantle from Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang. As well, their biggest success is probably their recording "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith, a white rock and roll band.

Eminem is pretty self-explanatory, in that he's been the great white hope for hip hop since his first record. It helps that he's hugely talented (he is) and that he's more introspective than your average rapper. He's certainly one of the more talented rappers around, but he's also not the most talented (Tupac, B.I.G., Nas, etc.).

Public Enemy fits the boomer ideal in a different way. Unlike Run-DMC (inoffensive because they did records about shoes) or Enimem (inoffensive because of his skin tone). The last thing PE did was be inoffensive (backing Farrakhan is hardly inoffensive), but they also were the most "black power" of any really popular rap groups. Again, because they took a lot of their styles (specifically, the SW1s) from the Black Panthers, I think the boomers wo made the list liken PE to what they think black artists should be. PE fits the profile of a modern musical Black Panther group and that's very attractive to the boomers, at least fifteen years later.

Whereas a lot of hip hop artists are more interested in (what the boomers see as) violence for violence's sake, bling and partying, PE was a serious, scary group of young black men. This is what boomers think rap music should be.


It's still a great record. I'm not sure that it's the best hip hop record of all time, or the most influential.


Jessikitio Fretschesky the 1rst said...

I agree with a lot of what you're saying but I disagree with you that this album is overrated. To be perfectly fair, I'm not as knowledgeable about hip-hop as I am about rock but I actually think this album should be slightly higher on the list.

P.S. You mention that hip-hop is underrepresented on Rolling Stones list. What hip-hop albums do you think should have made it that didn't?

Mike Hart said...

Given how old this post (and comment) is, I'm not sure anyone is going to see this response, but I'll throw it out there anyways. I'm also much more familiar with rock than rap, so mine isn't the most informed opinion, but I'd definitely add something by the Roots to the list (Things Fall Apart, Phrenology, or perhaps both). I'd also add DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, though I guess it's arguable whether that's rap given it's an instrumental album.