When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988, it was as if it had landed from another planet. The album came frontloaded with sirens, squeals, and squawks that augmented the chaotic, collage backing tracks over which PE frontman Chuck D laid his politically and poetically radical rhymes. He rapped about white supremacy, Black Nationalism, Sonny Bono, Yoko Ono, and everything else in between. Public Enemy’s music was both agitprop and pop, mixing politics with the live wire thrill of the popular music experience.
For those of us who heard the album the first time around, it’s hard to believe that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of its release. The album will be honored this July; Public Enemy performs the album in its entirety at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, which will be preceded by a public panel on the making of the album (see details at the end of this column).
Even though Public Enemy was working with equipment that by today’s standards would be considered antiquated and primitive, they made the most of the existing technologies, often inventing techniques and workarounds the manufacturers likely never imagined.
“I remember when ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ came out,” says Matt Black, of the British electronic duo Coldcut—which emerged around the same time as Public Enemy. “Rebel Without a Pause” was one of the many tracks on the record that featured repetitious, abrasive noises, something that simply just wasn’t done in popular music at the time, though today the practice is common. Black tells me, “That noise—what some people call it the ‘kettle noise’—it’s actually a sample of the JB’s ‘The Grunt.’ It was just so sort of avant-garde and exciting, and heavy.”
De La Soul’s Posdonus says, “They really put sound and noises together and made it into incredible music.”
Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad—comprising Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, and Chuck D—took sampling to the level of high art while still keeping intact hip-hop’s populist heart. This seminal hip-hop group collaged together dozens of fragmentary samples to create each song.
“Public Enemy reminded me a lot of what we were doing,” says De La Soul’s Posdonus, a contemporary of Public Enemy who also hailed from Long Island. “Obviously in a different way, but you can listen to their music and hear something else for the first time.”
Both Public Enemy and De La Soul took a wide range of sounds and blended them together in ways that reflected how a new generation heard popular culture. Records like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising were two important seeds that gave rise to today’s remix culture.
“My vision of this group,” says Hank Shocklee, “was to almost have a production assembly line where each person had their own particular specialty.” He elaborates, “I’m coming from a DJ’s perspective. Eric [Sadler] is coming from a musician’s perspective. So together, you know, we started working out different ideas. For instance, our song ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ was one of the strangest ways we made a record. We were looking for blends in particular records; so I might be on one turntable, Keith on another and Chuck on another turntable at the same time.”
Chuck D tells me, “The Bomb Squad’s live rehearsals—we would get into a recording session and just play records with three or four turntables set up. We would go through a session of just playing records, and beats, and getting snatches, and what Hank would do is record that whole session. You know, 95 percent of the time it sounded like mess. But there was five percent of magic that would happen in the spur. That’s how records like Don’t Believe The Hype were made. You would listen to 60 minutes of this mess on a tape, and then out of that you would be like, “Whoa! What happened right here?” … So that was the closest thing to a jazz band with a whole bunch of different instruments, just going at it. Maybe not a conventional jazz band, maybe somebody like Sun Ra [laughs], or Cecil Taylor, ya know.”
“If you were to come into our studio,” says Shocklee, “you’d think it’s the worst noise.” He demonstrates with his hands and mouth. “There would be a time when we have a nice little groove where Keith Shocklee is going [turntable scratching sound effects with mouth] and Chuck is going [sound effects with mouth]. We’re all together and there’s one little moment when it all meshes together in a nice little vibration. That little moment is what we snatched and sampled, and that became the music to Don’t Believe the Hype.”
One example of how Public Enemy mixed sound with history can be found in their classic song “Fight the Power,” written the following year for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. “‘Fight the Power’ has so many different layers of sound,” Chuck D tells me, explaining that the song is embedded with sampled loops of melodies, vocals, speeches, and other noises—all going backwards and forwards. He characterizes “Fight the Power” as an assemblage of a quarter-century of sounds that represent the Black experience.
“That song contains a great deal of black music history from a 25-year period,” Chuck D observes. “You listen to it, and it’s like [mock announcer’s voice], “This 25-year period black music is brought to you by Public Enemy.”
From the beginning to the end, it’s filled with musical and political history—a history lived through sound, a phrase that nicely sums up Public Enemy’s revolutionary aesthetic.
The panel on the making of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, moderated by Kembrew McLeod, will feature Public Enemy. This free event will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theatre on Thursday, July 17, 2008, 3 pm. To RSVP, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. It is sponsored by Pitchfork Media, the Future of Music Coalition, the Chicago Cultural Center, and The University of Iowa.