It-Takes-a-Nation-of-Millions-to-Hold-Us-Back

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On this day in music history: April 14, 1988 - “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back”, the second album by Public Enemy is released. Produced by The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder (aka “Chuck D.”) and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler), it is recorded at Chung King House Of Metal, Greene Street Studios in New York City, and Sabella Studios in Long Island, NY from Mid - Late 1987. Following up their acclaimed debut “Yo! Bum Rush The Show”, the Long Island, NY based rap group looks to surpass their previous effort, wanting to capture on record the same energy generated by their live performances. Made up of tracks packed densely with samples, and combined with powerful pro-black, politically and socially conscious lyrics delivered by Chuck D. and Flavor Flav (often providing a stream of conscious lyrical counterpoint), the finished album is unlike anything heard before in Hip Hop. It makes a major impact upon its release not only within the rap music community, but also with the mainstream rock press who praise it not only as a watershed release for the genre, but as one of the best and most important albums of the era. It spins off five singles including “Don’t Believe The Hype” (#18 R&B), “Bring The Noise” (#56 R&B), and “Night Of The Living Baseheads” (#62 R&B). The album is reissued as a limited edition release on vinyl for Record Store Day on April 19, 2014, marking the first time the landmark rap album has been available on vinyl in more than a decade. “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” spends one week at number one on the Billboard R&B album chart, peaking at number forty two on the Top 200, and is certified Platinum in the US by the RIAA.

PUBLIC ENEMY

PUBLIC ENEMY, IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988)

An inventive and innovative record that holds up to this day, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, features energetic and visceral beats, vocals, and excerpt political lyrics that communicate a message that shocked Americans. The leader and writer of the group, Chuck D, delves into topics such as self-empowerment for African Americans, critiques of white supremacy, and exploitation of the music industry, all characterized by black nationalist rhetoric. As explained by BBC Music, “the message was that black music could be reclaimed and re-tooled as a semantic crowbar – screaming to the world that rhythm was as eloquent as words when reminding us of the world’s inequalities”, and so it was. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back incorporated speeches from historical figures such as Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X. Taking from Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots speech, Public Enemy sampled the lyrics “too black, too strong/too black, too strong”. These lyrics reference to Malcolm X’s coffee analogy, which describes the results of a white America diluting the interest of black people:

“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep.” - Malcolm X

This single, along with “Don’t Believe the Hype”, conveyed their message so fiercely and with so much flow, that it caused immediate tension in the press and genuine fear. The record as a whole is an explosive masterpiece that delivers its lyrics with an infectious controlled anger. It’s an album that speaks to you and begs for a debate. 

PUBLIC ENEMY, FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET (1990)

Two years later, Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet, an equally sonically and lyrically ambitious project. The song “Fight the Power” from this record would go on to become the theme song for Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, “a chilling morality tale of police brutality, telling the story of a deadly choke hold by police, sparking a race riot” (abc news). The film is now recognized as a masterpiece for its superb production, style, and message to the extent that it’s being taught in schools. Even president Barack Obama recognized and praised the film for “holding a mirror up to society”.

SPIKE LEE, DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) PUBLIC ENEMY, “FIGHT THE POWER” (1989)

“Fight the Power” is a testament to African-American culture with its mentions of civil rights exhortations, black church services and more. The song accurately reflected the tone of Do the Right Thing and became Public Enemy’s most famous song, and considered one of the best songs of all time.