Public Enemy, 25 Years Later

With 'It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back,' Flavor Flav and his crew set out to change the country. Maybe they succeeded.


An air-raid siren wails and the crowd loses its collective mind. Like, teenage-girls-during-The Beatles-on-Sullivan kind of shrieking.

The siren doesn’t stop.


If the siren were a car engine, it’d be shaking out of the hood.

Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass. Step. This time around, the revolution will not be televised. Step. London, England, consider yourselves …

Dramatic pause.


The track fades, the venue explodes. Cut. Flavor Flav is not messing around, you guys.

For those who don’t recognize this particular gem of musical theater, it’s “Countdown to Armageddon,” the lead track to Public Enemy’s 1988 record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It’s been 25 years since Chuck D, The Bomb Squad and Las Vegan Flavor Flav released this musical equivalent of a pack of wolves with, presumably, the undeniable glee normally reserved for an 8-year-old with a box of bottle rockets and an M-80 cribbed from their older brother.

When you see Flav around town, clowning at UNLV basketball games or popping up at clubs, it can be hard to remember that he was with a band that was downright dangerous. He was the sneering counterpart to Chuck D, making the frontman’s pure, quivering rage barely cool enough to touch for the rest of us humans. Public Enemy was the only band that claimed to have its own paramilitary unit. At least until the Beliebers came along, anyway.

Millions, though, was that dangerous, and that perfect. It was 57 minutes and 51 seconds of great white shark captured on 120 millimeters of polycarbonate.

* * * * *
There’s a common thread in most music criticism that suggests that angry, loud music is the province of dumb young men, and by the time you’re into your 30s, you should be on to more mature, thoughtful fare. Grow up and listen to some Bon Iver, some Of Montreal. If you want to be smart, you have to be oblique and amorphous. You have to be Radiohead, or, God help me, the Mars Volta.

Even comedian Anthony Jeselnik, in a recent interview with The A.V. Club, bantered with a reporter over how bad Soundgarden was. And it was just an accepted fact. Of course Soundgarden is terrible. It was a surreal “We have always been at war with Eastasia” moment at the expense of a band that had been, I thought, routinely considered one of the finest examples of ‘90s grunge. Was I wrong? Did I fall hopelessly out of touch? Did I wake up one day on the wrong side of old? Actually, that last one stings. But that’s cool, because I know the truth. I know that high-volume shit will forever have its rightful place. Because I know It Takes a Nation of Millions.

* * * * *
Jonathan Shecter is the director of programming for Wynn Nightclubs. He’s also the founding editor ofSource magazine, one of the first publications focused solely on hip-hop. He’d just gotten the magazine off the ground a few months after Millions made its bow.

“When the first Public Enemy album came out [Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987], it came out of nowhere. No one knew who they were. It was on Def Jam, so it had credibility, but we didn’t know who it was or what it was. I listened to it, and I remember liking two or three songs on the first album. It wasn’t a huge hit. People didn’t understand it,” he says. “The turning point came in the form of ‘Rebel Without a Pause,’ which is a pivotal 12-inch single in hip-hop history for a lot of reasons. No. 1, it put Public Enemy on the map. It sounded so radically different from everything that had come before it. It was this kind of abrasive sound, but it was so dense and complex and interesting and powerful. Chuck D, that’s the record where he came into his own as an emcee. I remember how important that piece of vinyl was. The whole hip-hop world went insane for that song.”

The year Millions dropped, 1988, wasn’t just good for Public Enemy—it was a good year for the genre in general. Often considered the most pivotal year in hip-hop, it saw Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A.,Follow the Leader from Eric B. & Rakim, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Boogie Down Productions’By All Means Necessary, EPMD’s Strictly Business and, uh, to a much lesser extent, Kid ‘n’ Play’s 2 Hype. (Whatever, like you weren’t jealous of the hair.) But Millions is so far beyond even the nascent gangster rap of Compton it could’ve come from another dimension—one where Malcolm X had led a coup against LBJ—instead of just from another coast.

Those reasons have been covered ad nauseam in the years since: the anarchic Bomb Squad cut-and-paste production that welded funk and soul samples to a Tim Burton-esque mechanical horror; Chuck D’s wall-shaking, throaty bass and politically incisive polemics; and Flavor Flav, the band’s special sauce, acting as a steam valve for all the other military-grade working parts.

No one’s ever tried to duplicate that sound. Not the way The Chronic spawned a legion of G-funk, or the way the Neptunes’ eerie minimalism dominated mid-2000s rap. Hell, even the seemingly inimitable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band found an imitator when the Stones, in their worst moment of desperation, tried to replicate it with Their Satanic Majesties Request.

But all of that ignores another angle: Millions also mattered because it got a whole bunch of suburban white kids—including me—into hip-hop with the second cut on the album, “Bring the Noise,” which in ’91 was re-recorded with thrash-metal pioneers Anthrax.

For me and my metalhead brethren, it went from “Why is Anthrax recording with this rap group?” to “What’s the original sound like?” to “What’s the rest of the album sound like?” to “I need to go out and buy every tape from these guys immediately” (or, more accurately, “Whose tape can we copy?”) in the span of, roughly, an hour and a half.

It was different than those early Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys records we all liked but never adopted as our own. It was another album pointed at kids like us by Def Jam secret weapon Rick Rubin, but this time it stuck. In an era where every other dopey 14-year-old was wearing Africa necklaces and Malcolm Xbaseball hats, Chuck D’s African nationalism sounded like the real deal in a sea of fashionista tourists. Even if we couldn’t relate to the direct message, the implication wasn’t lost on us.

When you’re casting around for your signposts of youthful rebellion, they don’t come much clearer than “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”: I got a letter from the government the other day/I opened and read it, it said they were suckers/They wanted me for the Army or whatever/Picture me giving a damn, I said “never.” That’s Chuck D just doing mild contempt.

* * * * *
Millions, for all of its musical innovation, was straightforward, unforgiving, righteously authentic. And it struck home in an era when many of us were obsessed with the idea of authenticity. (In my crowd, we endlessly fretted over whether Metallica was selling out by putting the “One” video on MTV—if we had any idea what was coming we’d have burned our copies of Ride the Lightning.) But it’s precisely the album’s unapologetic, ambitious stab at authenticity (can you try to be authentic and still be authentic?) that now makes it seem like an artifact from another civilization.

What happened to all that strident social consciousness? Did it just fizzle out, or was it subsumed into the hip-hop landscape? Rage Against the Machine seems like the spiritual heir to everything Millions was about, but they haven’t really been around in 13 years. It’s Kanye who moves records. P.O.S. throws a 99-percenter haymaker on “Fuck Your Stuff,” but Jay-Z is still making his bones on Picassos in his casa.

We’re more cynical now, so bombarded with authenticity ploys that it’s hard to ever see them as anything but bait on the hook. You listen to Millions in 2013, and you have to fight your modern ear. We’re preoccupied with the virtue of authenticity, but we’re too hip to the game to believe anything is ever truly real: The White Stripes brought back dirty blues rock! Oh, but Jack White sold “Ball and a Biscuit” to Captain Morgan. The Roots are a collection of stone-cold geniuses, fusing genres into something entirely their own! Oh, but The Roots signed on as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Meanwhile, Flavor Flav, the craziest guy in a band bursting at the seams with white-hot political lava, does the Comedy Central Roast and an increasingly depressing string of reality shows.

That moment of Millions happened, though. There was art that we experienced as real, without the sidelong stares and second-guessing that have become second nature. Dig it out of those old milk crates where you store your CDs. If there isn’t a tiny part of you that wants to get on board with the (non-televised) revolution, I’ll start wearing a lime green track suit and Viking helmet everywhere.

(Actually, that’s not a terrible idea, regardless.)

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