Label: Def Jam Recordings, Columbia Records
Public Enemy released their jarring sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988—changing the sound of hip-hop for decades to come. The Bomb Squad's multilayered production style departed from the typical one or two looped samples that characterized the work of producers like Marley Marl and Rick Rubin. Hank and Keith Shocklee would mix multiple loops and manipulate a plethora of diverse sounds into a single chaotic groove, the better to capture the raw power of Chuck and Flav's lyrical attack.
The sound was so different that it demanded listeners' attention in the first few seconds, the better to focus attention on Chuck and Flav's lyrical attack. Public Enemy represented an all-in attitude that mirrored the same passion of Run-D.M.C.'s praise of adidas, but applied that passion to far more urgent topics. Chuck D's rhymes on songs like "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" blasted government corruption or explored the tragic depths of the crack epidemic on tracks like "Night of the Living Baseheads." This was a completely different approach than the half-assed "crack-is-wack" messages found on so many other songs at the time—and presented the first credible challenge to the glorification of hustlers going on in other corners of the hip-hop cosmos. It Takes a Nation was a harsh commentary on the same issues that aired on the news—only it was coming from the perspective of the common man instead of political pundits.
At the same time, the United States was going through a period of post–crack era paranoia that played out as racial tension. African-American men like Yusef Hawkins, Willie Turks, and Michael Griffith were profiled as thugs and murdered by white mobs. Police brutality skyrocketed as poor neighborhoods got poorer and the school system continued to fail its students, becoming battlegrounds where youth killed each other for sneakers and coats rather than sanctuaries for self-improvement.
There was no voice speaking for all the people suffering the consequences of these crises, aside from civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson who seemed disconnected from what was going on in real time. This societal chaos proved the perfect fuel for Public Enemy's phenomenal rise to popularity. Chuck's booming voice offered the opposite of the pacifist turn-the-other-cheek message at a time when hip-hop listeners were crying out for exactly that.
It Takes a Nation went as far to address music-sampling lawsuits with venomous intent. On "Caught, Can I Get a Witness" Chuck raps, "You scream I sample, but you can sample this? My pitbull." Such metaphorical crotch-grabbing indirectly turned Public Enemy into rap's own civil rights activists. It wouldn't be long before P.E.'s hardcore delivery would expand beyond the African-American and Latino communities and appeal to white listeners with similar grievances. A larger problem with the social and economic set-up was exposed and soon people of all different races united behind Public Enemy's riotous sound.
It was through It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that hip-hop began to connect the dots and address society's issues in its own way. That's why it still towers over nearly all albums released during one of hip-hop's greatest eras. —Larry Hester