Monday, July 18, 2022

An Education: Public Enemy, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back"

Having recently watched Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X and with my wife finishing reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X this afternoon, I’ve brought in two recordings for active listening: audio cassettes of Malcolm X’s The End of White World Supremacy: Two Speeches and Public Enemy’s 1988 CD It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I’ve been listening to PE over the weekend less as a rap album and more as an education.

The record, groundbreaking at the time and still relevant—musically as well as thematically—today, offers an education along at least three lines. First of all, listening to the record is an education in music. Public Enemy’s samples dig deep into the dusty grooves of Black and other music of the past, as well as speeches by Malcolm X and other political speakers, drawing on funk, rap, and soul—even sampling themselves in some cases—to build an aural collage that requires further listening to learn more about the music on which Public Enemy built itself. You can listen to some of the music sampled by PE on this playlist.

Secondly, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, Professor Griff, and their Security of the First World, were—and are—situated in a local, regional, and national rap scent and music industry. Lyrics occasionally directly address radio program directors, challenging them to play Public Enemy on the air: “Radio stations I question their blackness / They call themselves black, but we’ll see if they play this.” Also: “Who gives a fuck about a Goddamn Grammy.” And the liner notes explicitly list three groups of other rap acts recommended by PE: The School, the Now School, and the Next School. Similar to the music sampled, as above, those other rap acts, perhaps considered compatriots and comrades, offer additional opportunities to learn more about the state—and potential—of rap at the end of the 1980s.

The liner notes also offer additional recommendations under the headings “Respect is due” and “Respect is due: Organizations and Structures” that give some indication of where Public Enemy was coming from politically. That political point of view and position also comes across in the rap itself, with lyrical mentions of Louis Farrakhan; the FBI and CIA; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; J. Edgar Hoover, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Elijah Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, Vescey, Prosser (I need to better identify those two to understand the references), Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher. The S1W is modeled after the Black Panthers. And the album includes songs about media literacy, drug abuse and how selling drugs affects Black communities, the prison-industrial complex, and activism. Griff’s inspiration from the Nation of Islam proved controversial at the time, but there’s still ample opportunity to learn about some critical aspects of American history.

Finally, the record itself. It’s an amazing rap album, with wonderful work by Terminator X and an excellent pairing of Chuck D and Flavor Flav—the hot and the cool, the dark and the light, the heavy and the fun. Even with all the history, politics, and possible opportunities for progressive and positive change, the album is a hoot. There's a good amount of bravado, braggadocio, and boasting, as well as humor. With lyrics like “We got Magnum Brown, Shoothki-Valoothki / Super-calafraga-hestik-alagoothki” and the phrase “brainknowledgeably wizzy,” the group can make you grin as well as glower. 

Both responses—and intents—are deadly serious.

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