Today KEXP will breakdown every single sample on every song from Public Enemy’s seminal It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. It Takes A Nation is a mammoth record, fusing the rapturous power of Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad with the galactic stomp of Chuck D’s voice and Flavor Flav’s undeniable ability to hype up an audience. Like interpreting any great art and trying to put it in context, it’s best to consult an expert. So we got one on the phone – Chuck D himself.
The legendary MC was gracious enough to talk through the mindset the group found themselves in while creating this masterwork. From drawing inspiration from his time working in radio and their aspirations to creating the hip-hop equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, the incredible rhyme animal pulls back the veil on this classic album. Don’t believe the hype. Believe the guy who made it.
KEXP: What do you think makes you sound so unique, so great as an artist?
Chuck D:Who sounds great? [laughs] But number one, I have only one advantage over anybody else that was in hip hop or rap music, and I could be louder and have the strongest voice. And I just think that's it. But that's almost like the cute human being that walks in a room and thinks that they don't have to work at anything else. [laughs] You know? It's like, “Hey okay, you got this natural thing going on. Now what? What conversation you havin'? How do you carry yourself? What's your posture? How you treat other people? Do you engage a room? Are you charmin' or are you an asshole?” So being able to go into and to try to hone what I had as a natural gift into something where a lot of work and also be a part of a team. That was something that was just serving to be of my benefit if I put the work in. But I know one thing is I only come to the table with one talent that could blow anybody away and that's that I could break an arena ceiling in half sometimes.
Who were the artists you were listening to that led to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back?
Number one is Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5 was so far ahead of everybody else and second in the running it was Kool Moe Dee and The Treacherous Three who are quite formidable in their own right with Kool Moe Dee being a master executioner of the microphone. But Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Rahiem, Mr. Ness and Cowboy along with Grandmaster Flash. I mean, those abilities that these guys had in 1979/ 1980 still blow my mind today. Yes, they're in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but yet they're unheralded, under acknowledged, in many cases underrated. So, they made singles back then so they aspire to people like that as MCs, and then, later on, arena rockers like Run DMC are the people that bent soul into their, into their recordings and stage. Like people like Whodini with Larry Smith doing the music. You couldn't go wrong following those guys.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five blew my head off the first time I heard “The Message.”
Yeah, it blew my head off too. It blew my head off too because I was expecting another Grandmaster Flash song. I mean, they was making these hit dance records, and they were pretty much the Sugarhill band at that time. They had people like, you know, Doug Wimbish and people like that handing it up. Doug Wimbish, who's also the co-founder of Living Colour. Yeah, so those guys when they got together with Sugarhill Gang they would end up doing covers and you know, I mean, this that they would end up doing covers sort of musically. So they didn't really, you know, have the luxury to do a bunch of original songs and then Run DMC changed all that.
I’ve read that for Nation, you all set out to make what they considered to be the hip hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, which is, to my ears, the greatest album ever realized...what was it about that amazing document that inspired you, challenged you, to top it?
We came from the deejay idiom. We came from wanting to be radio jocks. We came from being able to examine songs, albums, music labels from a different vantage point. A point where we enjoyed doing it and enjoyed what was going to be on the musical entertainment horizon. And also coming up in a time where Marvin Gaye's What's Going On was a part of that and knowing that as a young person was cool to kind of back away. To back away from it a little bit and take the approach of looking at it and seeing if we can emulate the feeling and the vibe and intensity of it that we wanted. We were the final ones, meaning final recording artists, that was in rap music that was tied to a major record company contract that no longer applied to the hip hop singles only space. I mean, hip hop was a singles market medium from 1979 all the way up to 1987/88. So, therefore, when when it came down to making an album it was sort of like, well, can we make our album work like a TV show? Can we make it work like how we program our radio station's time? Also we made our album definitely directed for cassettes, the cassette world. People could play it in their cars, and it would flip automatically to the second side because it was equal in length where we made in mastering, and we paid close attention to that. That's why we had all the particular breaks between the songs and the skits that happened.
And this was about a year before De La instituted it into their music. But, the key is that Prince Paul rides on a bus in 1987 as sort of the beat machine deejay for Stetsasonic and out of that bus ride comes In Full Gear by Stetsasonic, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, and then 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul where Prince Paul was a producer. So, these three albums came out of one summer bus ride as we were opening up for L.L. Cool J and the Def Jam Tour. So how do you like that? That's 13 people that set out on a mission to create incredible, vast works.
What about your father, who passed last year – where do we, hear him, through you, on Nation?
You can definitely hear my family's influence in everything. I can't help but not to hear my father's influence just, you know, when I talk. [laughs] I can't separate myself from that DNA. It's just like, it's just so much a part of me that I have to kind of... I have to kind of blank my mind out to keep from thinking how much of a part of me he is. And so, it's not like I go around listening to my music. I don't, but if I did he's in that, he's in that mix, trust me. And I might not want him to be sometimes [laughs], so that's just what it is. That's one of the things that makes music a little bit different from other people's everyday work is because you can also rehash the documentation of time that you did yourself and a lot of things that come out in the wash.
Is there a lyric on this album that you look back on and think “damn, I wrote that and it’s gooooood.”?
It Takes a Nation? I got a batch of lines, but, you know, "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddlin'." I mean, "don't believe the hype it's a sequel. As an equal, can I get this through to you?" See what I mean? The whole key is not necessarily spitting the verse. I think you've got to be the verse, you know what I'm saying? You've got to be the song. You just can't just, okay, I will give you the rendition of the song. I'm gonna be the song. I am the verse… You got to be the music. I'm going to try to be the verse, which is the lyrics inside the music but a lot of times I'm not. Let's say if I'm not involved in the music making process – and most of the time I am, somewhat – but it's got to have a rhythm of its own and that's why I always work from titles down. I work from titles across. Title is a modern day GPS to your song and that's where I like to work from.
Titles are important. Artists choose them for a reason. What does the title of the album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back mean to you?
I mean, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and this title, number one as an album, was longer than anything else. If What's Going On was short and truncated, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with its double entendre meaning a nation of us holding us back or a nation holding us as a people back. And the titles “Bring the Noise,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Mind Terrorist,” “Countdown to Armageddon,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Prophets of Rage,” “She Watched Channel Zero?!” We wanted to have illustrious titles that would make you say, Well damn, if I'm digging the title I wonder what the hell this music sounds like. And then that became the job of everybody else. It's just like, let's go for it.
I’ve read where, according to Hank Shocklee, you thought “Don’t Believe The Hype” was “garbage.” I’m stunned by this because I remember where I was, and who I was with, and how loud I turned my shitty stereo up to feel it. I wonder if maybe what you were doing as a group was so radical that even you didn’t appreciate. What are your thoughts?
It was too slow. When we just did it, it was supposed to be something that we wanted to deliver to the film soundtrack of Less Than Zero, and we just thought it was too slow, so we put it in the can. And then what I mean by too slow is we had already pitched up the speed of hip hop a little bit with a frenetic BPM. Remember, we're from turntable ideology and background. So things were about beats per minute. Things were about turntables, speeds, mixes, meshing tempos. So, we knew that the tempo of hip hop was at 101, 100. “Rebel Without a Pause” we said we put this little lean on it, brings it up to 104. And then when we did “Bring the Noise” later on in October, November. It was taking a chance. But we said we're going to pitch it up anyway, and I think “Bring the Noise” was 109 beats per minute, and you didn't see beats per minute for rap music like that for awhile.
“Bring the Noise” was also a song, I’ve read, that you didn’t like – it’s, of course, indisputably great, even 30-years later.
And I tackled one part of it. I couldn't tackle the others so it was actually recorded, well, it was actually written on three different types of cadences that, I thought, all failed. And then Hank in the studio said “Well, use all three of them.” [laughs)] You know what I'm sayin'? So there's three different rhyme styles in “Bring the Noise” to handle that 109 beats per minute. And they did. You know, I mean, the first one is “Bass! How low can you go? Death row.” So it's sort of like spaced. And the second was more like, “patter, patter.” Like, “Never badder than badder than badder da da na na na na,” and then the third verse was “Get from in front of me the crowd,” it really takes it on with a fury of going right at it. Hank was like, “Hey man, use all three.” I was perplexed on which one should I use. [laughs].
You’ve called Hank Shocklee the Phil Spector of hip-hop. What is his most interesting moment on Nation to your ears?
Hank, he had things that few could hear especially when you actually take in all these elements of records and sounds and noise. Hank's skill was actually and, is actually, listening through the noise and organizing it. You could lose a record, and we have lost records in the din. But Hank has a unique ability to actually make the noise make sense to make no sense to make sense. [laughs] You know? And, and then we had our tonality myself and Flavor especially, to ride over what doesn't seem to make the most sense and, I mean, that's it. And then look, you can lose it all in the mix, and Hank would make these pristine mixes and then you could lose it all in the mastering. And he made sure that he can coach it all the way through so you have something cohesive at the end of the noise.You can lose that battle very easy. So, Phil Spector was The Wall of Sound and Hank Shocklee was The Wall of Noise.
Track four is “Cold Lampin' with Flavor” – and hip hop has never, ever heard anything, or seen anyone like him...what are your thoughts on this song, and his unique, awesome genius?
You've never seen anybody, anything like [Flavor Flav] either. So the combination of, like, what the hell is this dude? And you can't ignore him because his voice penetrates and cuts. So the combination of, like, “What the hell is this dude?” And you can't ignore him because his voice penetrates and cuts.
He is himself. He's unique. He can't be boxed. He can't be packaged. It's like a tornado that you got to put in the eye of a hurricane. [laughs] You know, you have to direct and hone his talent at the same time so it can work for a situation.
To your ears, what’s the most surprising, ridiculous, totally out of place yet perfect sample on this album? For example, Flash Gordon on “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic?
I like “Caught, Can I Get a Witness” because it actually takes the sound of Stax and in the broad case when you were live as Stax and actually creates a scenario that's, it's like a playlet. It's like Lieber and Stoller's playlet in 1988. You know, when we talk about sampling over a sampled track. Go figure.
Yeah, we plan on playing all of the songs you all sampled on the album.
You're gonna miss quite a few songs 'cause what you think is going to be it, what you think is going to be a song that you got you probably don't know. But, you know, it will be interesting. So I'm all go gung ho to see how that works out. It'll be fun.
What are the songs sampled on Nation that you feel should have been gigantic hits in their time?
It depends on what you want to call a hit. I mean we, we sampled Slayer. Was that record a hit? It was with Def Jam and Rick Rubin had something to do with it, and it was sort of like a underground following on “Angel of Death.” So, I mean, it's all... I mean, what we reached for is a lot of obscure records. We wanted to dig into the crates before crate digging was accepted as being a thing. So, a lot of times we found sounds that were on 45s. They weren't clean. They were on 45s and a lot of the companies in the 60's, in the 50's, and the 70's just kept releasing 45s into the marketplace. But there was, there was even b-sides to those 45s that few actually turned around to listen to.
Public Enemy, in many ways, started out as a radio show. How did radio inspire this album?
We wanted to be like a radio station so we knew, you give us an hour, we give you the world. [laughs] We wanna give you a bunch of references from the past, present, and future. And we're going to see if we can make a perfect mashup and that's what Takes a Nation is. It's an ultimate mashup of sight, sound, story and style.
I’ve read that you’ve patterned your rap after Marv Albert, and when we interviewed you for a radio show I did in the late 90’s, you did an uncanny Marv’ imitation - is there a song on Nation that has a little Marv in it?
Marv is in Nation just in my inflections and the way I'm rappin'. So he's in there through me, I guess. But, and as you know, Marv Albert covered basketball like no other, but a lot of my style and rapid fire actually is Marv Albert the way he covered radio hockey games. It was almost like he was rhyming fast speed when he announced. I mean, Marv Albert sounded like an auctioneer, and [laughs] the hockey play-by-play voice that was losing his mind back in the day on WNBC when they carried Knicks/Rangers radio broadcasts. That's what people fail to realize it's Marv Albert, but not covering basketball. Mr. Marv Albert when he used to cover the Rangers on radio. I mean, incredible. Right, I mean, it's already documented that he's a legend. A lot of the announcers have gone into sports and into basketball and done their thing at a certain level of inflection and soul. So I think Marv, for some reason, is like that's how the universe speaks. What makes this dude, this young kid from a Jewish family in Brooklyn, have that much soul announcing a sports game? [laughs] Go figure. Like, where did this come from? He says he learned from Marty Glickman but when you hear Marty Glickman you hear announcing and you hear certain inflections and all that. But with Marv Albert you heard this, just timbre of soul coming at you, and I don't think he even understood it. All I know is that's how it came out. You know, his kids ain't got the same whatever that timbre is. It's like Tim, Brad, and Tom – Prophets of Rage in the rhythm section. It's like the universe is stamping that. So, I mean, why would I actually talk or rhyme big or whatever? I mean, who am I to say that this is something I plan to do? It was anointed from somewhere else.
30 years later, Chuck D is still using his mic to fight oppression. Watch a video for Prophets of Rage's “Living On The 110."
As we celebrate 6 Degrees of Chuck D, KEXP chats with the legend himself.
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