#MoNM Day 10: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Caution: Nerdiness to follow.

I was five years old and living in suburban Winnipeg when It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was released. Suffice to say, the album didn’t make much of an impact on me at the time. My tastes were still largely dictated by my parents, so if I was aware of rap, it was more in the “They should call it crap” sense.

On the other hand, any effort to read up on the history of sampling (which I’ve been doing a lot lately, because Masters students like to over-intellectualize things that might otherwise be interesting) inevitably leads to Yo! Bum Rush the Show and Nation of Millions. In one of the articles I read, the author talks about being so disconnected from the political underpinnings of Chuck D that the only way to appreciate the music was on an eggheaded, pseudo-scholarly level (he was an undergrad at the time), and I’m almost embarrassed to say that my experience was one step removed even from that. When I’ve thought of P.E. at all, its been as an intellectual concept, a launching pad for the rapid re-interpretation of popular culture, rather than as any sort of visceral musical force.

All of which is to say, I’ve probably been over-thinking this entry. Because while, yes, the album did help to redefine the way hip-hop artists made music – at least until the litigious culture around sampling made that method a whole lot less viable – it’s first and foremost a party record. One with an angry political core, yes, but you can’t “party for your right to fight” without some kind of party. And as much as Chuck D comes across in interviews as militant and borderline crazy, there’s as much enthusiasm as anger in his delivery. There’s menace on the album, but it’s also damn fun.

If you’re focusing on the message, D’s lyrics put politics front and centre, and those politics involve black militarism and social upheaval. But on the more visceral level, in the more abstract way that the music hits, it’s a killer block party where the DJs only pick the best bits of the best records, and where D and Flava Flav’s first job is to keep people moving. In all the writing and pontificating about the importance of the album as a cultural artifact, that whole “fun” thing somehow got lost in the noise.

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