From the Archives

Bring the Artful Noise: Looking Back 30 Years at Public Enemy

Greg Tate’s 1988 review of “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” swallows ‘the bitter with the sweet.’

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Public Enemy’s 1988 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back opens with roiling crowd buzz from a live snippet recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Then an air raid siren cuts through the din, a keening wail that still meant something in a town where the Blitz was well within living memory.

In his review from that summer thirty years ago, Greg Tate’s prose rivals the sonic intensity of the album under discussion and informs us up front that PE’s disk “demands kitchen-sink treatment.” And we get it — every other sentence is pullquote-worthy:

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: ‘Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.’”

“Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor.”

“PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found.”

Tate’s review agitates as much as the music: “PE wants to reconvene the black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a ‘grafted devil.’

“To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over they whack retarded philosophy they espouse.”

Below are the original pages as well as the full text of the article. And just for the fun of it, we’ve included the full-page ads between the Tate opener and the jump page to capture the musical flavor of the moment: Kiss at the Ritz and Stevie Wonder doing eight shows at Radio City Music Hall.

The Devil Made ’Em Do It

by Greg Tate
July 19, 1988

Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chickenwing perched over 1950s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation beboppers to rattle over the heads of the hiphop nation like a rusty sabre. But when Harry Allen comes picking fights with suckers adducing hiphop the new jazz, like hiphop needs a jazz crutch to stand erect, I’m reminded of Pithecanthropus erectus, and not the Charles Mingus version. B-boys devolved to the missing link between jazzmen and a lower order species out of Joseph Conrad. “Perhaps you will think it passing strange, this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back — a help — an instrument. It was a kind of partnership.” Page 87.

Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor. Given the near absence of interdisciplinary scholarship on the music, the conceptual straits of jazz journalism, and hiphop’s cross-referential complexity, the hiphop historian must cast a wider net for critical models. Certainly Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam) demands kitchen-sink treatment. More than a hiphop record it’s an ill worldview.

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: “Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.” In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese offers that the failure of mainland blacks to sustain a revolutionary tradition during slavery was due to a lack of faith in prophets of the apocalypse. This lack, he says, derived from Africa’s stolen children having no memories of a paradise lost that revolution might regain. Machiavellian thinking might have found its way into the quarters: “All armed prophets have conquered while all unarmed prophets have failed.” But the observation that blacks were unable to envision a world beyond the plantation, or of a justice beyond massa’s dispensation, still resonates through our politics. Four decades after Garvey, the cultural nationalists of the ’60s sought to remedy our Motherland amnesia and nationhood aversions through dithyrambs, demagoguery, and a counter-supremacist doctrine that pressed for utopia over reform pragmatism. Its noblest aim was total self-determination for the black community. For PE, that, not King’s, is the dream that died.

The lofty but lolling saxophone sample that lures us into the LP’s “Black Side” could be a wake up call, a call to prayer, or an imitation Coltrane cocktease. Since we’re not only dealing with regenerated sound here but regenerated meaning, what was heard 20 years ago as expression has now become a rhetorical device, a trope. Making old records talk via scratching or sampling is fundamental to hiphop. But where we’ve heard rare grooves recycled for parodic effect or shock value ad nauseam, on “Show Em Whatcha Got” PE manages something more sublime, enfolding, and subsuming the Coltrane mystique, among others, within their own. The martial thump that kicks in after the obligatto owes its bones to Funkadelic’s baby years and Miles Davis’s urban bush music. But the war chants from Chuck D and Flavor Flav that blurt through the mix like station identification also say, What was hip yesterday we save from becoming passé. Since three avant-gardes overlap here — free jazz, funk, hip hop — the desired effect might seem a salvage mission. Not until Sister Ava Muhammad’s tribute-to-the-martyrs speech fragments begin their cycle do you realize Public Enemy are offering themselves up as next in line for major black prophet, missionary, or martyrdom status. Give them this much: PE paragon Farrakhan excepted, nobody gives you more for your entertainment dollar while cold playing that colored man’s messiah role.

PE wants to reconvene that black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a “grafted devil.”

To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over the whack retarded philosophy they espouse. Like: “The black woman has always been kept up by the white male because the white male has always wanted the black woman.” Like “Gays aren’t doing what’s needed to build the black nation.” Like: “White people are actually monkey’s uncles because that’s who they made it with in the Caucasian hills.” Like : “If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel, and killed all the Jews it’d be alright.” From this idiot blather, PE are obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn’t going to set black people free. As their prophet Mr. Farrakhan hasn’t overcome one or another of these moral lapses, PE might not either. For now swallowing the PE pill means taking the bitter with the sweet, and if they don’t grow up, later for they asses.

Nation of Millions is a declaration of war on the federal government, and on that unholy trinity — black radio programmers, crack dealers, and rock critics. (“Suckers! Liars! Get me a shovel. Some writers I know are damn devils. From them I say I don’t believe the hype. Yo Chuck, they must be on the pipe, right?”) For sheer audacity and specificity Chuck D’s enemies list rivals anything produced by the Black Liberation Army or punk — rallying retribution against the Feds for the Panthers’ fall (“Party For Your Right To Fight”), slapping murder charges on the FBI and CIA for the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X (“Louder Than a Bomb”), condoning cop-killing in the name of liberation (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”), assailing copyright law and the court system (“Caught, Can We Get a Witness?”). As America’s black teen population are the core audience for these APBs to terrorize the state, PE are bucking for first rap act to get taken out by Washington, by any means necessary.

Were it not for the fact that Nation is the most hellacious and hilarious dance record of the decade, nobody but the converted would give two hoots about PE’s millenary desires. Of the many differences between Nation and their first, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, is that Nation is funkier. As George Clinton learned, you got to free Negroes’ asses if you want their minds to bug. Having seen Yo! Bum Rush move the crowd off the floor, it’s a pleasure to say only zealot wallflowers will fade into the blackground when Nation cues up. Premiered at a Sugar Hill gala, several Nation cuts received applause from the down but bupwardly mobile — fulfilling Chuck D’s prediction on “Don’t Believe The Hype” that by treating the hard jams like a seminar Nation would “reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.” But PE’s shotgun wedding of black militancy and musical pleasure ensures that Nation is going to move music junkies of all genotypes. “They claim we’re products from the bottom of hell because the blackest record is bound to sell.”

PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found. Every particle of sound on Nation has got a working mojo, a compelling something other-ness and that swing thang to boot. Shocklee’s reconstructive composition of new works from archival bites advances sampling to the level of microsurgery. Ditto for cyborg DJ Terminator X, who cuts incisively enough to turn a decaying kazoo into a dopebeat on “Bring the Noise.” Putting into effect Borges’s rule that “The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible design and can crown or inaugurate, a secret form,” PE have evolved a songcraft from chipped flecks of near-forgotten soul gold. On Nation a guitar vamp from Funkadelic, a moan from Sly, a growl abducted from Bobby Byrd aren’t just rhythmically spliced-in but melodically sequenced into colorful narratives. Think of Romare Bearden.

One cut-up who understands the collage-form is PE’s Flavor Flav. Misconstrued as mere aide-de-camp to rap’s angriest man after Yo! Bum Rush he emerges here as a duck-soup stirrer in his own right. Flav’s solo tip, “Cold Lampin With Flavor,” is incantatory shamanism on a par with any of the greats: Beefheart, Koch, Khomeini. “You pick your teeth with tombstone chips, candy-colored flips, dead women hips you do the bump with. Bones. Nuthin’ but love bones.”

Those who dismiss Chuck D as a bullshit artist because he’s loud, pro-black, and proud, will likely miss out on gifts for blues pathos and black comedy. When he’s on, his rhymes can stun-gun your heart and militarize your funnybone. As a people’s poet and pedagogue of the oppressed, Chuck hits his peak on the jail-house toast/prison break movie, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The scenario finds Chuck unjustly under the justice (“Innocent/ Because I’m militant/Posing a threat/ You bet it’s fucking up the government”). Chuck and “52 Brothers bruised, battered, and scarred but hard” bust out the joint with the aid of PE’s plastic Uzi protection, “the S1Ws” (Security for the First World). Inside the fantasy, Chuck crafts verse of poignant sympathy for all doing hard time. (“I’m on a tier where no tear should ever fall/Cell blocked and locked I never clock it y’all.”) His allusion to the Middle Passage as the first penal colony for blacks is cold chillin’ for real. Chuck’s idea of a lifer, or career soldier, is also at odds with convention: “Nevertheless they could not understand that I’m a black man and I could never be a veteran.”

As much as I love this kind of talk, I got to wonder about PE’s thing against black women. And my dogass ain’t the only one wondering — several sisters I know who otherwise like the mugs wonder whassup with that too. Last album PE dissed half the race as “Sophisticated Bitches.” This time around, “She Watch Channel Zero!?” a headbanger about how brainless the bitch is for watching the soaps, keeping the race down. “I know she don’t know/Her brain be trained by 24-inch remote/Revolution a solution for all of our children/But her children don’t mean as much as the show.” Whoa! S.T.F.O.!* Would you say that to your mother, motherfucker? Got to say, though, the thrash is deadly. One of those riffs makes you want to stomp somebody into an early grave, as Flav goes on and on insinuating that women are garbage for watching garbage. In light of Chuck’s plea for crack dealers to be good to the neighborhood on “Night of the Living Baseheads,” it appears PE believe the dealers more capable of penance than the sistuhs. Remember The Mack? Where the pimp figures it cool to make crazy dollar off his skeezes but uncool for the white man for sell scag to the little brothers? This is from that same mentality. And dig that in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” the one time on the album Chuck talks about firing a piece, it’s to a pop a female corrections officer. By my homegirl’s reckoning all the misogyny is the result of PE suffering from LOP: lack of pussy. She might have a point.
* Step the Fuck Off!

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