Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album cover

Yeah boy! I devoted this week to Public Enemy‘s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to learn as a songwriting musician. This first first hip hop album for this weekly project. This was also my introduction to Public Enemy, excluding the collaboration with metal band Anthrax in the 90s. My music is definitely not hip hop; so learning from this album works a little differently. Rhythm and tone of voice take precedence over key and melody. While I consider this a valid style, it’s not one that I either have the intention or skill to use. I look to other aspects of the songs for my purposes.

The famous song “Bring the Noise” opens the album after a short intro track. The song starts with the phrase “too black, too strong,” a phrase crafted from a sample of Malcolm X (“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. […] You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. […] It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”). This perfectly introduces an album that frequently takes pride in being “too black” while designed to wake listeners up to sociopolitical issues.

The lyrics are densely packed with meaning. References deal with current events and/or historical context, particularly with racism and corruption within both the media and the government.. The use of phrases and word-choice to convey meaning is particularly interesting to me. Unfortunately, Public Enemy seems to spend more time talking about how controversial and political they are than actually being political. Braggadocio and self-referential lyrics have been a major part of rap music since the beginning. In the mid-80s when Public Enemy were getting started, rap songs usually spoke about partying, dancing, rapping.

The overall message of this album is that racism is still a problem and that minorities, especially the black community, should be proud of who they are and take a stand against social injustices. Public enemy is not here to teach so much as wake people up so they will take themselves to school. Most directly, they point to Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan, saying “a brother like me said, ‘Well What he can say to you, what you wanna do is follow for now.'” Though they generally keep it light, when they hit, they hit hard like in the song “Louder than a Bomb” with lines like “Your CIA, you see I ain’t kiddin’, Both King and X they got rid of both. A story untold, true but unknown.”

Public Enemy assumes a sizable crowd are going to be hearing the songs and they speak to that crowd, and they write for that situation.  In contrast on “Blue“, Joni Mitchell was speaking intimately to a single listener. On “Highway 51 Revisited“, Bob Dylan was usually speaking to the subject of the song.

The music is almost completely built from samples, with turn-table scratching and a Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the beat. What they’ve done is more than looping a sample; the music is a layered collage of music and sound effects to create a rhythmic atmosphere. The drum patterns make you want to dance. The first beat of each bar is usually dedicated to the kick drum with a snare on the second and third beat. Extra work on the snare and/or hat during space between the second and third beat that give the rhythm their groove.

Limitations of samplers caused them to use short samples, so most samples are either only 4 or 8 beats long.  Since they’ve built each song with a limited collection short samples, chord progressions are nearly non-existent. Changes in the music are created through either having or not having a sample playing; for example, they may cut out the bass line for a eight bars and then bring it back. Combining this layering of starting and stopping phrases with dynamic vocal delivery is what keeps the songs interesting despite the repetitive nature of the music. The siren noises get annoying though.