Public Enemy

Public Enemy Talks 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' on Its 30th Anniversary

For Keith Shocklee of the legendary hip-hop production crew the Bomb Squad, it was the artistry of Marley Marl that inspired the intensity that defined Public Enemy's classic second LP It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, released 30 years ago today.

“If you really want to know who inspired us to speed it up,” replied Keith in regards to that distinctive blend of quickness and loudness that defined the beats and rhythms of the album’s 16 tracks, “It was Marley Marl. And Marley was the one who changed the tempo of rap with those MC Shan and Roxanne Shante records. The Bomb Squad was always about striving to achieve that level or better. Marley was our drive, from my perspective, to help us move it to the next realm with Nation. Meanwhile, we needed a whole team of us to compete with this one man!”

His brother, Hank Shocklee, also cites pioneers within his own artform as the primary inspiration for the production technique they honed with their partner Eric “Vietnam” Sadler that would first be heard in 1987 with Public Enemy’s debut LP Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Only for the elder Shocklee, it was an inspiration that existed somewhere between the record player at his family home and the parties he rocked in high school growing up in Roosevelt, Long Island.

“I come from a jazz background,” he tells Billboard. “All of my early upbringing came from a jazz influence played in the house, be it Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders or Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Miles. We could go on for days about the jazz influence on me. And one thing about that influence that had the most profound effect on me was how everybody was playing at different time signatures and even different key signatures as well and made it all work together. I was an avid DJ fan as well, and when I was in high school I was following guys like Grandmaster Flowers and DJ Ron Plummer and the Sound Twins, because they built their own sound systems and they played live. And there was times when they would all set up their sound systems at Riis Beach near Coney Island and have all four systems going at the same time. I would find a spot on the beach where I could hear the cacophony of all these elements at the same time. And there would be moments where all the frequencies jelled and became one sound.”

There’s a line on the fourth track of It Takes A Nation of Millions, “Don’t Believe the Hype," where Public Enemy’s powerful frontman Chuck D decries how “writers are treating me like Coltrane, insane.” But what was happening across the soundscapes of such key album tracks as “Louder Than A Bomb,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Rebel Without A Pause” could be construed as jazz-like in its freewheeling abandon.

“Me and Chuck were both modern art fans as well,” Hank admits. “Especially when it’s that Jackson Pollock-ish, Basquiat-esque style. Forget about the discipline or the textures. Don’t try to create a landscape, but rather delve into an area where it’s almost noise. That’s the area, to me, that was most intriguing, and what jazz represented. It represented that true freedom. These guys like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, they created their own tones, their own language, their own vibration. And so this is what inspired me when going into the studio when it was time to do It Takes A Nation of Millions.”

Nevertheless Chuck D had no time for ne’er do well rock critics trying to whitesplain Public Enemy’s music by referencing a bunch of obscure punk bands. “Hype,” for one, went after Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau, despite the fact that his writing about Nation was largely celebratory.

“I wonder if Chuck read what Christgau wrote at length,” mused Bill Adler, the veteran music publicist who ran the PR wing of Def Jam at the time of Nation’s release. “Chuck moved quickly, and he’d get the flavor from a headline and he’d react off it. Christgau was never going to write a blowjob, but he was a heavy advocate of and champion for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back from the very beginning.”

“Christgau was from another time,” Chuck asserts. “He’s open to some things, but closed to others. He holds his ground. He also knows he’s a rock critic god, and when guys know that sometimes you gotta open the door and bring some light in (laughs).”

John Leland, now a veteran Metro reporter for The New York Times, wrote a review of Yo! Bum Rush the Show for Spin and quickly became a target of Chuck’s lyrical ire on Nation’s biggest song, “Bring The Noise,” which originally appeared on Def Jam’s vastly underrated soundtrack to the 1987 film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero.

“The headline on my review was Noise Annoys, the title of a Buzzcocks song, and Chuck D was offended by that,” Leland explains. "I'm always up for the give-and-take, and was especially game for argument back then, so their reaction didn't bother me. 'Bring the Noise' is a brilliant song, and Nation of Millions lived up to the adulation that the first album generated. The group complained a lot about the press, but the rock press at the time loved them. But they planted their flag on being the public enemy, so that was how they presented themselves.” 

There was another call out on “Bring the Noise” as well when the group’s hype man, the indomitable secret genius of Public Enemy Flavor Flav, proclaimed “wax is for Anthrax!” on the song’s epic third verse. The shout-out to the Queens, NY, thrash kings stemmed from a mutual admiration that existed between the two groups, both of whom were regulars at Def Jam’s original location in the Village.

“We had heard from a friend of ours at Rush Management that Chuck D was putting us in one of their songs, and I think he mentioned it was ‘Bring the Noise’ actually,” remembers Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante. “And we were just so excited to hear it, and when we first heard ‘wax is for Anthrax’ we were all like, ‘What does that mean?’” I wasn’t updated on my hip-hop lingo at the time, but I thought it was great. I still don’t know what it means, though (laughs).”

“We were sharing the same area in SoHo,” Chuck remembers. “And Rush Management at the time was also working with groups like Biohazard and Slayer as well. And Bill Adler would always have the inside scoop from England from back when we the Beastie Boys toured Europe. He’d always have the latest copies of NME and Melody Maker on his desk. And one time while thumbing through I saw a photo of Scott Ian wearing a Public Enemy shirt at the Donington Park concert. And when I wrote ‘Bring the Noise,’ I wanted to convey there was no bias between the music forms. It all came from the same seed. So when we say how wax is for Anthrax and the beat is for Sonny Bono and Yoko Ono and Eric B., it’s all the same feel. There’s no difference. And you might call it noise, but it’s all noise and we’re gonna bring it and make you thank God for the music.”

When you couple the Anthrax shout-out with the sheer brute force of the Bomb Squad’s production -- which also included a mash-up of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” and James Brown’s “The Funky Drummer” as the construct for “She Watch Channel Zero?!” -- it was no surprise how much It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back appealed to the punk and metal communities. For a group who was so feared and revered for its black militant stance, a bunch of suburban-dwelling headbangers and skate kids found a kindred outlet for releasing their adolescent hostility in hip-hop that gave them the same rush as their favorite Bad Brains and Black Flag albums. That’s also not to mention the extraordinary work of the group’s original DJ, Terminator X, whose instrumental track “Terminator X On the Edge of Panic” finds the man Chuck calls Norm taking the first few seconds of Queen’s “Flash Gordon” on a collision course towards Planet Rock.

“You had magazines like Kerrang and Thrasher putting PE on their covers,” states Adler. “Both of those publications were fairly white and suburban; their music tastes were punk rock leaning into thrash metal. But they heard something in PE they fully embraced.”

“The energy of the music would have to take a backseat to the simple art of not giving a fuck,” asserts Professor Griff, Public Enemy’s controversial “Minister of Information” and leader of the group’s community outreach faction S1W. “Those punk rock and metal kids always did it their own way; speaking their own truth. And that appealed to a lot of hip-hop cats, because we approached it the same way. In many ways, punk and metal almost mirrored hip-hop in terms of that energy and intensity each genre was giving off at the time.”

“These two cultures that socially seemed like they were separated were actually the same,” adds Hank Shocklee. “Metal and punk never got any radio play. It never was the establishment form of music in the '80s. It was this backdoor, listen-with-your-headphones-so-nobody-would-know force of nature. I was working in a record store at the time Public Enemy had started that would deal primarily in metal and punk, and that energy really inspired me to do something similar in hip-hop.”

Three years after It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was released, Anthrax and Public Enemy would join forces for a remake of “Bring the Noise” that appeared on the metal group’s 1991 rarities compilation Attack of the Killer B’s, followed by a joint tour with opening acts Primus and Bomb Squad protégés Young Black Teenagers.

“It was great when Run-D.M.C. crossed over with that Aerosmith project,” states Flav. “But when we re-did ‘Bring the Noise’ with Anthrax, we took the game to a whole new level. And I think it was the record that broke the racial barrier clean open.”

“Anthrax had done ‘I’m the Man’ and though it was a little parody, they knew what was going on to a tee,” admits Chuck. “And then when they covered ‘Bring the Noise’ it was deadly serious. The way Scott Ian handled that third verse is amazing. I still kid with him to this day about it, how impressed I was that he could take on a speed verse and jam on guitar at the same time.”

Yet despite all the crossover that It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back inspired in the zig-zagging worlds of rap and metal -- one that now finds Chuck D teaming up with B-Real of Cypress Hill and members of Rage Against the Machine in a band named after one of the album’s most incendiary songs in Prophets of Rage -- the true glue which helped shape this LP was the unbridled intensity Public Enemy brought to the masses.

“Chuck, Hank and the rest of the Bomb Squad were really musical geniuses,” reminds Brother Mike of S1W. “And historians, too. They didn’t know just one side of music: They studied, played and understood all different genres. I remember Kool Herc saying what DJs used to do with breakbeats in how they’d find that most exciting part of the record and then loop it by going from turntable to turntable. What the Bomb Squad was able to do was the same thing across varying types of music and find that unique, energetic, strange-at-times portion of any particular record or records, mesh them together, flip them and turn them into hits. Public Enemy created sounds that were unlike anything ever. There was nothing before or after that matched The Bomb Squad beat science.”

“Punks and metalheads related to the crew's aggressive sound and stance – ‘Middle finger for all,’ as Chuck D rhymes on the first album,” proclaims Leland. “But a difference with PE is that they kindled the romance of revolution. They weren't nihilistic, and their noise wasn't the roar of the broken or powerless. They came on as the oppressed fighting back, and in 1988 they made it possible to believe in change. Who knew how far it could go. Not that they had a blueprint. But they had a cause and a romance, and a lot of political music lacks one or both. Some people heard the album and got involved in radical politics. Others just thought revolution was cool. For a brief time, Public Enemy brought them all together and convinced them that there was strength in numbers. Even a nation of millions wouldn't hold them back.”