Saturday, May 11, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 513: Public Enemy

Happy Saturday!  I’m home from a bunch of random errands, mostly pleasant, and now I’m going to write this review.  I was actually home an hour ago, but I fell down the Youtube well – more on that later.

Disc 513 is…. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Artist: Public Enemy

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover?  The Messenger of Prophecy and the Cold Lamper (aka Chuck D and Flavor Flav) appear to have been arrested for some crime which – if you listen to the record – is either illegal firearm possession or stealing samples.

How I Came To Know It:  After I finally succumbed to the good advice of many decades and bought “Fear of a Black Planet” (reviewed back at Disc 480), it was a simple matter to move on to this album, which chronologically came just prior.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Public Enemy albums.  I like all of them, but “It Takes a Nation of Millions” is easily the best.

Rating:  5 stars

This time around the revolution will not be televised,” Chuck D advises at the beginning of this album, breathing new life and new perspective into the ideas of another man – Gil Scott Heron – a generation earlier.  For an album that came at the height of the debate of how sampling could be considered new music, I can think of no better starting point.

I admit that back in the late eighties I was dubious at the idea of sampling.  I even thought of it as stealing, not realizing at the time that every other form of music ‘samples’ all manner of things:  chord progressions, licks, styles, imagery – you name it.  It is part of art, and listening to “It Takes A Nation of Millions” you would be hard pressed to call it anything other than art, and great art at that.  This album is rife with sampling; beautifully rife with it.  Rife like a garden is rife with flowers, or a rainbow is rife with colour.

When I reviewed “Fear of a Black Planet” I noted that sometimes the sheer number of layered samples made the songs too busy in places.  There are a ton of samples on “It Takes a Nation of Millions” as well, but they serve the music so much better.  The songs never lose their genuine funk, and despite the many samples, remain melodic and connected.

It may be my bias toward Queen, but my favourite sample is the Flash Gordon theme used in “Terminator X To the Edge of Panic.”  This is a seamless blend of rock into rap on a level far more interesting than simply having Anthrax play guitar on a track.  Also, the way Terminator X scratches the sample into the groove takes the original Queen classic to another level.  Later in the song, Chuck D lays down his grade A raps in praise of his DJ as the song grows organically into something even better.

The album has sixteen tracks, which is two more than I usually think reasonable.  However, in this case all sixteen are exceptional.  So hard to pick my favourite on a record with this many classics, but I always return to “Don’t Believe the Hype,” which is a wide-ranging dissing of the band’s detractors, and more generally anyone in society who would prefer they stay silent.  A couple of sections from the song exemplify the band’s thoughts for those critics and reviewers they might offend:

“The book of the new school rap game
Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane
Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind
We’re brothers of the same mind, unblind
Caught in the middle and
Not surrenderin’
I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’”

And later:

“Leader of the new school, uncool
Never played the fool, just made the rules
Remember there’s a need to get alarmed
Again I said I was a time bomb.”

These lyrics show that while they can be funky and fun as all hell, Public Enemy were also very much about taking on serious topics.  When Chuck D says “again I said I was a time bomb” he is reminding both listeners and detractors that if you give him a stage, he might say some things that folks don’t want to hear.

A lot of the undercurrents here are frustration in black communities and racial tension in the U.S. that as a middle class white kid from Canada I will never be able to understand.  That said, listening to “It Takes A Nation of Millions” gives me some insight – however fleeting – into a different experience than my own.  For me that is a big part of what good music is about.

And this is good music, regardless of any other message.  Every song, whether it is sampling Queen, a James Brown horn lick, a speech of some political figure or just some (not so) random dialogue always delivers a beat that loosens your backbone and gets you grooving.  That’s another big part of what music is all about.

To return to Gil Scott Heron, his quote got me thinking and I had to learn more.  I looked it up on the Interwebs and found that it was originally the title of a spoken-word poetry piece which is absolutely awesome.  This led me to a six part documentary on Heron detailing his life, his poetry his music and all the artists he influenced.  I watched the whole thing in one go before returning to write this review.

Heron was sometimes known as the “Godfather of Rap” (a term he both enjoyed and finds a humorous reminder of his age).  In 1993 he released a song called “Message to the Messengers” where he reminded young and upcoming artists that they had a responsibility to speak the truth, and make not just their own communities better, but to make a difference world-wide.  It was inspiring stuff.

Now I want to know more about Heron, particularly his music.  All this because Public Enemy borrowed his phrase and put it onto an album that was so amazing that it helped convert me from a distrustful ‘metal-only’ teenager to a fledgling appreciator of protest rap.

Best tracks:  all tracks

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