Much earlier this year, I wrote about Public Enemy’s 1990 smash Fear of a Black Planet, which sold over a million copies in a week. Even in the days of Beyoncé surprise albums we’ll rarely see that feat again.
Fear’s predecessor was the 1988 release It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, meaning that I would still be dependent on my parental units to bathe, feed, and clothe me for another… I dunno, couple two three years before I would understand the concept of music, and another 3+ years till I could even begin to understand the concept of racism.
Here’s what I want to say about It Takes a Nation: Music is universal. Of course. We get that. As music fans, it’s something we hear now and again.
But how does that actually translate?
For me, in the simplest sense, it means that 25+ years later, a listener like myself can still have his eyes opened to the pervasiveness of that culture during the time period we know now as the ‘golden age of hip-hop,’ one which will never be recreated. To be so affected by the sounds that were curated then that I set out to learn as much as I could about the stories and climate of the times.
But for as much as a person can read up and watch documentaries and try to imagine what it must have been like to grow up in Queens or Harlem in the ‘80s, or Compton in the early ‘90s, it’s almost useless – even downright offensive. Who am I to try to put myself in the shoes of someone my age who lived there then?
That’s why I have unbound heaps of respect for Chuck D., Terminator X/DJ Lord/Professor Griff, The S1W, and yes, even the cartoonish figure that Flava Flav has become. To try to make a comparison to our current culture would be tone deaf, and borne from a source of entitlement, no matter how innocuous or unintentional.
I’ve stopped trying to rationalize and reconcile with the era, and have just learned to try to respect it as much as possible, and be eternally grateful for the music that it produced, no matter the hardships faced by those who assisted in its creation.
Public Enemy is an alum on the roster of the most important musicians in the last 30 years. Nothing in music will – or, dare I say, even can try – to make as much of an impact as their music had, alongside groups like N.W.A., Tribe, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Gang Starr (and a slew more not mentioned here) and later, the Wu-Tang Clan.
Even if you don’t ‘understand’ this type of music, it’s important to realize why it’s important its influence on later generations of music. Any rapper in the last 15 years that released a record that you recognize or like was impacted by Public Enemy. Period. Learn ya somethin’.
From It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, this is “Night of the Living Baseheads” –
Standout tracks: So much here. “Bring the Noise” was huge – also “Don’t Believe the Hype.” “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” “She Watch Channel Zero?!” and “Night of the Living Baseheads” are all super captivating. “Rebel Without a Pause.” Album closes on “Party For Your Right to Fight,” seriously? Insane.
Weakest track: 6+ minutes of the beat on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” will wear on a man, you know.
RIYL: Hearing all the different influences of this band in a thousand groups since.