It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Studio album by Public Enemy
Released April 14, 1988
Chung King Studios
Greene Street Recording
(Manhattan, New York)
(Long Island, New York)
Genre Hip hop
Label Def Jam/Columbia
Producer Rick Rubin (exec.), Carl Ryder, Hank Shocklee
Public Enemy chronology
Yo! Bum Rush the Show
(1987) It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(1988) Fear of a Black Planet
Singles from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
1. "Bring the Noise"
2. "Don't Believe the Hype"
Released: May 1988
3. "Night of the Living Baseheads"
4. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the second studio album by American hip hop group Public Enemy, released April 14, 1988 on Def Jam Recordings. Recording sessions for the album took place at Chung King Studios, Greene Street Recording, and Sabella Studios in New York City. Noting the enthusiastic response over their live shows, the group intended with Nation of Millions to make the music of a faster tempo than the previous album for performance purposes.
The album peaked at number forty-two on the Billboard 200 chart. By August of 1989, it was certified platinum in sales by the RIAA, after shipments of one million copies in the United States. The album was very well-received by writers and music critics, and appeared on many publications' "best album" lists.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back has been regarded by music writers and publications as one of the most significant albums of the 1980s, as well as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all-time. The work has been hailed for its production techniques as well as the socially and politically-charged lyricism of lead MC Chuck D. In 2003, the album was ranked number 48 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, the highest ranking of all the hip hop albums on the list.
Public Enemy's 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, while acclaimed by hip hop critics and aficionados, had gone ignored for the most part by the rock and R&B mainstream. However, the group continued to tour and record tirelessly. "On the day that Yo! Bum Rush the Show was released [in the spring of 1987], we was already in the trenches recording Nation of Millions," stated lead MC Chuck D. With It Takes a Nation, the group set out to make what they considered to be the hip hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, an album noted for its strong social commentary. As said by Chuck, "our mission was to kill the 'Cold Gettin' Dumb' stuff and really address some situations."
In order to ensure that their live shows would be as exciting as those when they played in London and Philadelphia, the group decided that the music on Nation of Millions would have to be faster than that found on Yo! Bum Rush the Show.
Public Enemy initially recorded the album at Chung King Studios in Manhattan, but began to have conflicts with the engineers who were prejudiced against hip hop acts recording there. The group then began recording at Greene Street Recording where they were much more comfortable. The engineers at Greene Street were also apprehensive about the group at first, but eventually grew to respect their work ethic and seriousness about the recording process. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was completed in six weeks.
The album was recorded under the working title Countdown to Armageddon, with the group eventually deciding instead on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a line from the first album's song "Raise the Roof." The material was recorded in thirty days for an estimated $25,000 in recording costs. This was due to an extensive amount of preproduction by the group at their Long Island studio. Rather than touring with the rest of the group Eric "Vietnam" Sadler and Hank Shocklee would stay in the studio and work on material for the Nation of Millions album, so that Chuck D and Flavor Flav would have the music already done when they returned. When the group began planning the second album, the songs "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype," and "Rebel Without a Pause" had already been completed. The group was dissed by hip hop DJ Mr. Magic when he mistakenly embroiled them in the WBAU-WBLS radio war. The vocal sample of Magic stating that his show would play "no more music by the suckers" was recorded from his radio show by Flavor Flav and used on the song "Cold Lampin' with Flavor."
According to Chuck D, Hank Shocklee made the last call when songs were completed. "Hank would come up with the final mix because he was the sound master... Hank is the Phil Spector of hip-hop. He was way ahead of his time, because he dared to challenge the odds in sound." This was also one of the details which Chuck felt to be unique to the time and recording of the album. "Once hip-hop became corporate, they took the daredevil out of the artistry. But being a daredevil was what Hank brought to the table." It was decided amongst the group that the album should be exactly one hour long, thirty minutes on each side. At the time, cassette tapes were more popular than CD's and the group didn't want listeners having to hear dead air for a long time after one half of the album was finished. The two sides of the album were originally the other way around, the album beginning with "Show Em Whatcha Got" which leads into "She Watch Channel Zero?!" This instead became the start of side two, or the "Black Side." Hank Shocklee decided to flip the sides just before the mastering of the album and start the record with Dave Pearce introducing the group during their first tour of England.
It wasn't that we took records and rapped over them, we actually had an intricate way of developing sound, arranging the sound. We had musicians like Eric Sadler... Hank Shocklee, the Phil Spector of hip hop. You've got to give the credit as it's due, if Phil Spector has the Wall of Sound Hank Shocklee has the Wall of Noise.
â€” Chuck D, The Quietus interview, May 2008
On the album's musical style, music journalist Peter Shapiro wrote "Droning feedback, occasional shards of rock guitar, and James Brown horn samples distorted into discordant shrieks back the political rhetoric of lead rapper Chuck D and the surreality of Flavor Flav". As with the group's live performances, Flavor Flav supported Chuck D's politically-charged lyrics with "hype man" vocals and surrealistic lyrics.
Under Hank Shocklee's direction, the Bomb Squad, the group's production team, began to develop a dense and chaotic production style that relied on found sounds and avant-garde noise as much as it did on old-school funk. Music critic Robert Christgau noted these elements and wrote that the Bomb Squad "juice post-Coleman/Coltrane ear-wrench with the kind of furious momentum harmolodic funk has never dared: the shit never stops abrading and exploding". In an interview with the New York Daily News, Shocklee noted that the album's dynamic sound was inspired by Chuck D's rapping prowess, stating "Chuck's a powerful rapper. We wanted to make something that could Âsonically stand up to him". Of his own contributions to the album's production, Shocklee cited himself as being the arranger and noted that he had "no interest in linear songs". When using records for sampling, Shocklee stated that he'd sometimes put them on the ground and stomp on them if they sounded too "clean." Hank referred to Chuck D as being the person who'd find all the vocal samples, Eric Sadler as "the one with the musical talent," and noted that his brother, Keith Shocklee, "knew a lot of the breakbeats and was the sound-effects master." Shocklee's sentiments were reinforced by Chuck D while explaining the group's working methods during production. "Eric was the musician, Hank was the antimusician. Eric did a lot of the [drum] programming, [Hank's brother] Keith was the guy who would bring in the feel." For his contributions to the production side, Chuck stated that he "would scour for vocal samples all over the Earth. I would name a song, tag it, and get the vocal samples." Chuck D also noted the productiveness of Sadler and Shocklee's differing approaches to the creative process. "The friction between Hank and Eric worked very well. Hank would put a twist on Eric's musicianship and Eric's musicianship would put a twist on Hank."
Sometimes production mistakes would be kept on the album. The breakdown in "Bring the Noise" where the kick-drum sample from James Brown's "Funky Drummer" plays solo was a mistake. Apparently, the wrong sequence came up in the SP1200 sampler and Shocklee decided not only to keep it but to have Chuck rewrite his rhyme to fit the pattern. The album itself was mixed with no automation, instead being recorded on analog tape and later painstakingly mixed by hand. This is a significant fact due to its nature as being one of the more intricate albums of digitally sampled music.
Asked years later if replicating the number of samples used on the album would be possible [due to increased clearance costs for copyrighted material], Hank Shocklee said while possible, it would be far more expensive than at the time to do so.
Some of the song titles made reference to other works from popular culture. The title of the track "Louder Than a Bomb" was influenced by the title of The Smiths' album Louder Than Bombs. The title of the song "Party for Your Right to Fight" is a rerrangement of the Beastie Boys' 1987 hit single "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)." The song title "Rebel Without a Pause" is a play on Rebel Without a Cause, a film from 1955 starring actor James Dean.
In its first month of release, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back sold 500,000 copies without significant promotional efforts by its distributing label Columbia Records. It peaked at number 42 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and at number one on the Top Black Albums chart. On August 22, 1989, the album was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), following shipments in excess of one million copies in the United States.
Allmusic 5/5 stars
BBC Online (favorable)
Robert Christgau (A+)
The New York Times (favorable)
Rolling Stone (favorable) 1988
Rolling Stone 5/5 stars 2004
Slant Magazine 4.5/5 stars
Sputnikmusic 5/5 stars
The Washington Post (mixed)
Despite a divided reaction towards its controversial lyrical content, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back received generally positive reviews from most music critics upon its release, and it was included on several critics' end-of-the-year album lists. It was ranked number one on The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critic' poll of 1988, as well as number three on Voice critic Robert Christgau's list. In an article for the publication, Christgau described It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as "the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade--no matter how the music looks written down (ha ha), Hank Shocklee and Terminator X have translated Blood Ulmer's harmolodic visions into a street fact that's no less edutaining (if different) in the dwellings of monkey spawn and brothers alike (and different)".
In a 1988 article, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn wrote that the album incorporates some of the dynamics of early rap records such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982) and Runâ€“D.M.C.'s "Sucker MC's" (1984) with the "radical, socially conscious tradition of groups like the Last Poets". Hilburn commended Chuck D for his rapping on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, writing that he "isn't afraid of being labeled an extremist, and it's that fearless bite--or game plan--that helps infuse his black-consciousness raps with the anger and assault of punk pioneers like the Sex Pistols and Clash". A columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News gave it a B rating and compared its musical "rage" to that of rapper Schooly D's Smoke Some Kill (1988). Jon Pareles of The New York Times praised the album for its production and compared its symbolic value to hip hop music at the time, stating:
Where most rappers present themselves as funky individualists, beating the odds of the status quo, Public Enemy suggests that rap listeners can become an active community, not just an audience. Although it overreaches, It Takes a Nation jams urban tension and black anger into the foreground; it reveals the potential for demagoguery as well as the need for change. 'Whatcha gonna do/ rappers not afraid of you', Public Enemy demands, and in 1988 it sounds like something more than idle entertainment.
Widely regarded as the group's best work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back regularly ranks as one of the greatest and most influential recordings of all time in various publications. Time Magazine hailed it as one of the 100 greatest albums of all time in 2006. It was listed in The Source's 100 Best Rap Albums. Kurt Cobain, the lead guitarist and singer of the grunge band Nirvana listed 'It Takes A Nation of Millions' as one of his top 50 favorite albums in his Journals. The album is broken down track-by-track by Chuck D in Brian Coleman's book Check the Technique. In 2006, Q magazine placed the album at number seven in its list of "40 Best Albums of the '80s".
The track "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" was covered by Tricky on the album Maxinquaye. It was also covered by thrash metal group Sepultura on their Revolusongs EP. During their 1996 European tour Rage Against the Machine would frequently play alternative versions of this song including one at the Pinkpop Festival where they brought Chuck D out onto the stage to perform with them. This was later included on the Live & Rare album and the People of the Sun 10" single. The West-Coast Hip-Hop group The Pharcyde also referenced the song "Black Steel in the Hour of Choas" in their song "Officer" on their album "Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde", were the paraphrase the lyrics, saying "I got a letter from the DMV the other day/I opened and read it, it said they were suckers." Chuck D recorded a new version of "Bring the Noise" in a 1991 collaboration with the thrash metal band Anthrax.
On April 1, 2008 BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe featured the album in a two-hour 'masterpiece' program. The album was played in its entirety, preceded by interviews with various prominent musicians. On June 6, 2009, at the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, Public Enemy performed the album in its entirety along with Antibalas and The Roots â€“ the first time this album was recreated backed by a live band.
 Influence and legacy
In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked the album number 48 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, making it the highest ranked of the twenty-seven hip hop albums included on the list. As of June 2010, It Takes a Nation of Millions is ranked as the top album of 1988 and the seventeenth greatest album of all time at AcclaimedMusic.net.
In 2005, New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music hosted a two-day retrospective called "The Making of It Takes a Nation of Millions." It featured a producers' panel that reunited Hank Shocklee, captain of the Bomb Squad, with the Chairmen of the Boards from Greene Street Studios.
When asked in 2008 if the album would still be considered as radical if it were released two decades later, Chuck D said he felt it would "simply because it's faster than anything on the radio right now. And yeah, it's radical politically... because it's not really being said a lot. You want it to not be radical, but it is because it's totally different from Soulja Boy."
Public Enemy were asked to perform the album in its entirety as part of the All Tomorrow's Parties-curated Don't Look Back series. The group did perform, however lead rapper Chuck D expressed some reservations about the format of the series, saying, "I can't tell you that I'm thrilled about it, but we'll pull it off."
Music from the album has been sampled by various artists over the years, including (though not limited to) the Beastie Boys ("Egg Man"), Game ("Remedy"), Jay-Z ("Show Me What You Got"), Jurassic 5 ("What's Golden"), Madonna ("Justify My Love"), and My Bloody Valentine ("Instrumental B").
It Takes a Nation of Millions was the sign that hip-hop had exploded like a grenade. A rap record as abrasive, hardcore, and eloquent as a JFK speech, the 1988 disc is one classic track after another: tense, multilayered, harmonically wild music. Chuck D. declaims like a master preacher with foil Flavor Flav's voice darting around his. They've got the desperate energy of people fighting for their lives, and everything from their pumped-up rhetoric ("Prophets of Rage") to the group's quasi-paramilitary organization to the sirens and sax squeals in nearly every track declares how urgent their mission is. It's a hugely influential album, and it still sounds fresh and frightening after all these years. --Douglas Wolk