Retrospective Review: Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back

Music can do a lot of things, and you only need to go to a football game to realise that. Tens of thousands of fans sing their favourite chants as one, a cascade of sound that rains down onto the pitch in order to drive their team on to victory - or to put off their opponent. Music has a way of resonating with people and unifying them, even with the simplest of lyrics.

In the late 1970s, the UK punk scene used their platform to air their disdain for the political climate of the time, which in turn led to legions of fans doing the same. In this sense, music is a form of communication, a way to send a message out for millions to hear. And about 10 years later, that's exactly what a Hip-Hop group from Long Island, New York would do.

Public Enemy, led by the powerful force of nature that is Chuck D, made waves with their first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, but it was the second album, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that truly showed what they were about. Not only does it highlight the issues surrounding race at the time (many of which still, unfortunately, exist today), it does so by taking Hip-Hop to places it had never been before. The group's decision to increase the tempo of their tracks paid dividends, resulting in a record that is exciting, compelling and important.

The second track (and first proper song) sees them instruct themselves to 'Bring The Noise', and boy do they. For the best part of an hour, Chuck D, backed up by his hype man Flavor Flav as well as Professor Griff and Terminator X, educate the listener about the oppression of black people in the USA, whether that be via white supremacist attitudes or even just the refusal to play black music on the radio. It's a record charged with frustration and anger, making it a sonic shark bite in the faces of racists. D is brave and fearless, not afraid of any backlash he may receive. In fact, he's almost beckoning it; "watcha gonna do, rap is not afraid of you" are not the words of a man afraid of confrontation.

It's also worth mentioning the sheer number of samples on this album. Musically, it's almost entirely samples, and it's a diverse cast too, ranging from artists such as Funkadelic and Bobby Byrd all the way to Queen and even Slayer. (Indeed, it should be noted that Public Enemy looked further than the likes of Run-DMC and Eric B. and Rakim for influence, with Chuck D saying that “we looked at bands like Iron Maiden, the Clash and Led Zeppelin”.) Bringing together a multitude of samples to fit together and create a cohesive song is tough to do, yet Public Enemy mastered the art and made it sound ridiculously easy in the process. Though sampling had a long been a part of Hip-Hop, this record truly showed off the possibilities of what could be done with this art form.

What was particularly troubling, as I listened to this in 2020, is how relevant it still is. This was released in 1988 as a message of self-empowerment to the black community, and was described by a reviewer at the time as "an unimaginably urgent album seething with vengeful rage". One can only imagine how Public Enemy must feel now, 32 years later, as racism is still rampant to this day. That makes this record perhaps more relevant now than it was then and it explains the group's continued fight for justice. Their most listened-to track on Spotify, by far, is 'Harder Than You Think'. Released in 2007, this proves that their fight continues to this day.

Public Enemy have had their fair share of controversies over the years, but there's no denying that their message of justice for the black community is one that needs to be heard, even now. With this record, they spat out their grievances with an aggression and urgency matched only by the power of the production and genuinely insightful - and furious - lyrics. It's an audacious and defiant record made by a group who refused to conform to the norm, and it stands the test of time in a way that few other records can claim to. This is more than music; it's a statement, a letter - and a call-to-arms.