It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is the first album I ever bought. It’s not the first I ever owned or possessed. But it is the first I ever bought with my money. Until then, I dubbed songs off the radio using cassette tapes and grew my collection one raggedy tape at a time. A few albums were purchased for me or given to me as gifts. I’m almost sure I had N.E. Heartbreak, or something rather. I probably had a few in my collection that I found at school. So I had music. Difference is, I had never went to the store with my own money and bought an entire album. Never made an independent, authoritative purchase. Then I did and I had the fortunate timing of all fortunate timings. At that moment, I had no idea of the magnitude of my first purchase. It just happened to be the popular record out. I never knew, however, that I was walking head first into history.
My first purchased album is arguably (and it’s not much of an argument, really) the greatest set of songs ever created in the genre classified as rap music. My initial venture into musical dependence brought me into a lyrical and audio barrage of historic excellence. I’ve been relatively spoiled ever since.
Obviously, the recent news regarding Public Enemy’s induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame reminded me of the path P.E. took me down. It’s a major milestone for any musical act to gain entrance, though I’ve never heard any explanation as to why this is named “Rock and Roll” when all music genre’s are accepted; but I feel especially lucky, chosen even, that my personal musical legacy is fixated to such a highly regarded album.
I’m into lyrics. In conversations with people about the building blocks of a song, especially hip-hop related, lines often break into those two categories: There are casual listeners, people who above all else just “want a song with a nice beat…something to dance to” and then there are those who value high concept production and lyrical ability. Which is essentially the craft of taking words and ideas and combining them to create a specific language, songwriting at its most high-minded point. Replete with a mastery of the vocabulary and an in-depth grasp of current affairs/history/important topics/the human condition and whatever else is bubbling in pop culture. It Takes A Nation Of Millions had both in abundance. Chuck D’s word wouldn’t have had the same punch without the futuristic production of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler. Known collectively as the Bomb Squad, their tracks were somehow mechanical without being soulless. It had a jagged, dangerous sound to it. But it was never forced. It just flowed and stood out like an extra finger in comparison to other production styles of that era.
I don’t consider myself to be a music snob, but those who are tend to value lyrics over production. In rap circles, that battle has raged on for a good 20-plus years now. As someone who writes for a living, it’s easy to imagine which side of the table I’m on. I’ve not been one to drink the Kool-Aid of music influencing the youth. I’ve always felt that that was a lame excuse. You can’t blame everything on the Maybach Music Groups of the world.
I say this knowing full well that listening to Chuck D at an early age had an impact on me. Quantitatively, I couldn’t say how much of an impact, but certainly enough. The thing about A Nation of Millions is that it easily coalesced with everything else I was learning. It was the next obvious step. Like going from baby food to animal crackers. It was serious music for serious people living in serious times.
I ate it up, no utensils were needed. I didn’t even bother chewing, just took it in in large, unmannered, Homer Simpson style gulps. These were pre-shaving days for me and here I am immersed in thoughts about nationalism and American history. It dropped late-spring in 1988 and I played it every single day for months. Memorized the words. Even played it for my older relatives, whom, in these early days of hip-hop, didn’t acknowledge the music as actual music. My mother loved it because it started dialogue between us. Gave her the chance to talk civil rights political thought and 1980’s Reagonomics with her first born child. Some of the lines are still awe-inspiring and it’s 25 years later.
“Reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.” The line works as the group’s entire philosophy on their targeted demographic. Namely everyone included in Black America. To this day, they are still one of the few acts who have that conduit quality to their catalogue. Flava Flav’s entire reason for being in the group was, in my eyes, an attempt to control the visuals of the group. To lessen the initial blow so everyone felt ok giving them a shot.
“Hard/my calling card/recorded and ordered/ supporter of Chesimard.” A reference to activist Assata Shakur (JoAnne Chesimard is her married name). One of the many name-drops in the album that really defined what their political views were at the time. Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, and slave rebellion leaders Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser were just some of the names mentioned. Remember, they were on Def Jam. For a group signed to a major label to bring these names up, that was a big deal in the ‘80s. It would be a big deal now.
“Radio stations I question their blackness/ they call themselves black but we’ll see if they play this.” Arguably my favorite P.E. line ever. It’s basically a call to arms. A disparagement to the many black radio stations that felt their urban contemporary playlist did not fit P.E.’s music. Even though it was representative of precisely the kinds of messages needed for their listeners.
The cast was set. From there I easily transitioned into Cube and Brand Nubian, and later Tupac, Nas, ‘Kast, Wu-Tang, Common, etc. From that point on, the songs had to have topics. I could only stomach so much of a dude on a mic just spittin’ for the recreation of it. Just being lyrical without any real information being shared, any thoughts being expounded on, any jewels being dropped. Partying was cool and I was fine with that life, but I wanted a balance.
As music eras changed and lyricism became something of a relic and relegated to the “conscious” category (sidebar: Never trust anyone who defines themselves by that term) the balance vanished. When It Takes A Nation Of Millions came out, I was a child dedicating myself to listening to adult music. Now as an adult I find myself purposely avoiding children’s music. (I’m not gonna lament the decline of hip-hop here. Sometimes it’s a cop out to label hip-hop as being lifeless and about nothing as if all other genre’s are somehow significantly more noble.)
I’m constantly searching for songs that motivate and discuss life for those of us who have no need to discover new and exotic ways of moving weight.
Public Enemy’s subsequent albums Fear Of A Black Planet and Apocalypse ’91 were also strong, but didn’t have quite the influential impact on me. Still, my residence as a fan has not changed at all. Their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t cement anything, for any of us, who were fortunate enough to experience that movement firsthand. This is more a formality and a chance for the group to receive the level of honor befitting an act that put out the best album in an entire genre. There aren’t that many of those out there. So that in and of itself if a helluva achievement.
What would be even more powerful would be for the next era to turn back to lyricism. Hip-Hop changes all the time, that’s why I never talk about it in a past tense context. I just wait for the tides to change. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. I’m optimistic. And when it does, and the next classic drops, I’ll be right there to celebrate it. And talk about why, regardless of how great it is, it fails in comparison to It Takes A Nation Of Millions.