Engineering the Sound: Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’

Chaotic, relentless and utterly abrasive, Public Enemy’s second full-length album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back remains as one of the most influential pieces of work to emerge from hip-hop’s golden age.

Following on from the minor success of their first LP Yo! Bum Rush The Show, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X sought to create hip-hop’s equivalent of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.  What they ended up with were sixteen explosive tracks that took the rap genre into previously uncharted waters.

Backed by the Bomb Squad’s original and explosive production style, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back stands as Public Enemy’s greatest achievement. Here’s what went into its production.

Rooted in Rock

Soon after signing with Rick Rubin-led label Def Jam, Public Enemy released their debut LP in 1987. While Yo! Bum Rush The Show piqued the interest of many critics and hip-hop aficionados, it paled in comparison to the rabid success of fellow Def Jam artists including Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.

With the rest of Public Enemy away touring, Eric Sadler and Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad – Public Enemy’s production crew – began to write and construct backing tracks for a new album. Wholly embracing the crate-digging roots of hip-hop, the pair spent weeks flicking through hundreds of records to find the perfect samples, soundbites and breakbeats for their second LP.

To match the intensity of their live shows, the new songs were written at a much faster tempo than previous efforts, providing the new tunes with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Taking cues from other Def Jam groups’ frat-rock stylings, The Bomb Squad grabbed the hip-hop-centric production of sampling and injected it with hard rock aggression and punk-like sensibilities that were unheard of on a hip-hop album.

In a 2010 interview with Sound On Sound, Bomb Squad member Hank Shocklee elaborated on his rock-centric vision for It Takes A Nation Of Millions:

“One thing I loved about being at Def Jam was the fact that Rick [Rubin] was a rock-head. I could understand his philosophy and his musical direction, but I wanted to prove that rock & roll didn’t have to be made with guitars; I wanted to prove that rock & roll could be made with any instruments, just so long as they’re loud and abrasive. Thus came the musical concept.”

Grimy Production

After extensive pre-production at the group’s Long Island studio, the recording process for It Takes A Nation Of Millions began at New York’s Chunk King Studios. Yet, because the group butted heads several times with the studio’s producers, Public Enemy moved the sessions to Greene St. Recording in lower Manhattan for the remainder of the album.

Completed in just six weeks, it’s estimated that the album cost $25,000 at the time to produce – but due to the sheer number of samples used, it would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to re-create the album under today’s copyright laws.

Production for the album was completed by The Bomb Squad, consisting of Public Enemy’s lead MC Chuck D, Hank and Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler. Utilising an E-mu SP-1200 as their main sampler of choice as well as a Mirage and an Akai S900, the entirety of the album was mixed, edited and recorded with no automation.

For example, instead of programming drum loops and looping them, the samples would be triggered and activated in real-time, providing many of the album’s dense raps with a band-like, organic nature.

Due to the album’s intricately-sampled nature, all four members of The Bomb Squad would be cramped inside the recording studio triggering their samplers and drum machines for many of the album’s songs – in fact, Flavor Flav played the drum break from James Brown’s Funky Drummer on an Akai drum machine for the whole five minute duration of Rebel Without A Pause.

When Hank Shocklee took the reins of the production, he implemented a ‘no reverb’ clause, stating that “Reverb was a symbol of smoothness; I wanted everything edgy and raw”, forcing the group to implement unconventional techniques for recording such as parallel compression (mixing a ‘dry’ track with a heavily-compressed track).

The organic nature of the production process resulted in many fortunate accidents that were left in the final mixes. During the recording of Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos, Hank Shocklee was listening to a piano sample for the track and discovered that the loose wiring at the back of his SP-1200 caused the piano grab – as well many other of the album’s samples – to take of a grainy, lo-fi quality.

Eclectic Soundscapes

Expanding upon the sample-heavy production style used for their debut, The Bomb Squad created a kaleidoscopic wall of soundbites and breakbeats for It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

Chuck D was in charge of sourcing vocal snippets for the album, with Keith Shocklee scouring records for breakbeats and sound effects, with Sadler sampling various melodic elements. Hank Shocklee ended up having the final say on all mixes on the album because, in the words of Chuck D, “Hank is the Phil Spector of hip-hop. He was way ahead of his time, because he dared to challenge the odds in sound.”

Heavily influenced by the soundscapes of avant-garde music and free-form jazz, The Bomb Squad’s intricate, sample-based production took the standard funk breakbeats of James Brown and Parliament that were commonly used in hip-hop at the time and fused them with Isaac Hayes piano chords, shrieks of feedback and chugging guitar chords.

Everything from The Jackson 5 and Aretha Franklin to Queen, David Bowie and Slayer were sampled for the album, with some songs on the album using as many as eighteen different samples.

While heavily varied and diverse in nature, The Bomb Squad’s production style also saw them utilise the same sample multiple times in various musical contexts, the best example of which from Nation of Millions is the sampling of The Grunt by James Brown’s backing band, The J.B’s.

Beginning with a squealing tenor sax glissando by Robert McCullough, The Grunt’s ear-piercing saxophone can be heard on three of the album’s tracks; Terminator X to the Edge of Panic, Night of the Living Baseheads and Rebel Without A Pause.

Powerful Lyricism

Bookended by two Malcolm X soundbites, Chuck D’s socially-conscious lyrics of black nationalism and self-empowerment are scattered all throughout Nation of Millions’ sixteen tracks.

From delving into mass incarceration in Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos to nods to the Black Panthers in the album closer Party For Your Right To Fight, Chuck D also aims critiques at the then-infant hip-hop recording industry in Caught, Can We Get A Witness, while Flavor Flav’s ad-libs added a surrealist style that contrasted beautifully with the stark frankness of Chuck D.

In keeping with Hank Shocklee’s ‘no reverb’ clause, the vocals all throughout the album feature a relatively dry, up-front tone, with Shocklee coming up with unconventional ways of treating the various vocal tracks.

One such way was having Flavor Flav call up the studio’s phone and miking the speakerphone so Flav’s vocals take on a warm, filtered and slightly distorted tone. Another technique used for accentuating the unique characters of Chuck D’s baritone voice and Flavour Flav’s nasal yelps was panning, best demonstrated in the album’s closing track: Chuck D’s vocals hard panned to the right while Flavour Flav is panned to the left.

Like a Molotov cocktail to the eardrums, the explosive sonic landscape of It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back completely revolutionised the hip-hop genre in 1988. Released just two months before NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Chuck D’s insightful eye exposed many casual white listeners to the everyday issues that faced African-Americans.

Simultaneously, The Bomb’s Squad innovative production style paved the way for the plunderphonic stylings of The Dust Brothers, Prince Paul, RZA and DJ Shadow. More than thirty years after its initial release, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back remains not just Public Enemy’s best album, but stands as one of the greatest rap albums of all time.

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