In 2018, Public Enemy’s classic Hip-Hop album, ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (pictured right), will celebrate its 30th anniversary. And this fact not only made me reminisce over this album’s individual tracks, but in light of the societal strife that Black americans continue to face in 2016, it took me right back to the decade that gave birth to this masterwork.
When this record was released in 1988, Black americans were still suffering the ravages of ‘Reganomics’, crack and AIDS. And white fascists had one goal in mind with these initiatives, and that was to destroy ANY cohesion that might still exist between Black men and women, so the final nail could be put in the coffin of the Black ‘nuclear’ family.
Now, at the time, there were other ‘conscious’ rap groups/artists like X-Clan and KRS-ONE who spoke truth to powers that be regarding the catastrophic effects of white fascism on the Black family, but in the 80’s, no group spoke this truth quite as effectively as Public Enemy.
So I’d like to tell y’all about the individual components that made this Hip-Hop cadre so necessary to the times.
James Henry Boxley III, better known as Hank Shocklee, was born on May 15th, 1967 in Long Island, New York. He and his brother Keith (pictured left), started their musical careers as the DJ group, ‘Spectrum City’. As Spectrum City DJ’s, the brothers threw parties and hosted radio shows at Long Island’s Adelphi University campus. Eventually, the brothers sought out to create music that incorporated their ‘DJing’ sound into actual rap songs. This endeavor turned them into the Hip-Hop production team known as the ‘Bomb Squad’. And after they polished their sound with multi-instrumentalist Eric Sandler, Hank sought out an emcee that could complement their sonic bombast.
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, better known as Chuck D., was born on August 1st, 1960 in Queens, New York. After Chuck graduated from Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School, he attended Adelphi University where he earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in graphic design. It was also at Adelphi that Chuck became a fan of the Spectrum City parties. And at those parties, one of Chuck’s more irksome memories were third rate rappers who would emcee over Spectrum City’s music. According to Chuck, none of them rhymed well enough with the music and it always destroyed the party’s flow. So, Chuck set out to rhyme over Spectrum City’s beats so well, that he’d intimidate any wack emcees who dared challenge him. Needless to say, Hank and his brother took notice.
Hank said of Chuck’s emceeing: “He sounded clearer, more succinct and better than any of the 30 other rappers that were there. And he (and his rhymes) had some wit and intelligence too. So I said…I need that kind of emcee to take my situation to another level.”
After Hank and Keith pitched their idea for a Hip-Hop ‘band’ to Chuck, and after he agreed to join them, the Shocklee brothers devoted more and more time to producing tracks instead of DJing. So they looked for another member who could commandeer the ‘wheels of steel’ in their quest to create a Hip-Hop group rather than a partying sound system.
Norman Rogers, better known as ‘Terminator X’, was born on August 25th, 1966 in New York. Being a friend of the Shocklee brothers, Terminator was well acquainted with their newly formed sound and knew how to mix and scratch their brand of Hip-Hop beats to make them flow seamlessly at shows. And added bonus, was his taking on the moniker of ‘Terminator X’ which made his assimilation with the militant stance of the evolving Spectrum City line-up complete. On top of all this, his ominous presence with the dark shades and the huge, glowing ‘X’ in front of his DJing table, added to the band’s mythological militancy.
So with the newly formed Spectrum City ‘band’ members in place, they began playing larger venues. And soon, the brothers realized they needed some security to handle the larger crowds their parties were attracting.
Richard Griffin, better known as Professor Griff, was born on August 1st, 1960 in Roosevelt, New York. After returning from the Army, Griff started a security company that worked Long Island’s local party circuit called ‘Unity Force’. Griff’s security force and Spectrum City would constantly run into each other at shows, and eventually the Shocklee brothers asked him if he and his team would want to become part of their group. Also, Griff being well versed in several styles of martial arts and his belonging to the Nation of Islam, fit well within Spectrum City’s political views. Additionally, Griff would infuse Spectrum City with an even more militaristic sense of urgency and discipline that they’d lacked previously. After Griff and his team agreed to join Spectrum City, his cohorts changed their names to the ‘Security of the First World’, or the ‘S1W’s’.
James Bomb, Roger Chillous and John ‘Pop’ Oliver (pictured right) were the three brothas who made up the newly-formed S1W’s. Now, many articles I’ve read on Public Enemy called the S1W’s ‘back-up dancers’, but they were anything but. Not only did they combine choreographed military drills with Black fraternity style ‘stepping’ routines on stage, but they were also an ever-present security force that would literally pull audience members off the group when they’d jump on stage, and they'd also pull members of Spectrum City out of large capacity crowds if the audience happened to pull them in and got a bit too rough. Additionally, the S1W’s represented the ‘muscle’ needed to back up Chuck D.’s shouting down of white fascism. With their Black Panther-like regalia and rugged demeanor, it made the band’s message even harder to dismiss.
One afternoon while DMC and Jam Master Jay of the iconic group ‘RUN-DMC’ were interviewing at Adelphi University, they listened to the Shocklee brothers DJing records on the school’s radio show. One of the tracks Hank played was his single, ‘Public Enemy#1’. DMC and Jay were so impressed by Chuck’s emceeing that they went to Rick Rubin, who at that time was the co-creator of ‘Def Jam’ records, and they told Rick about Chuck's emceeing: “God has come down to earth to rock the mic.”
Shortly thereafter, the Spectrum City crew were signing a contract with Def Jam records. There was only one catch. Chuck D. had a friend who he insisted was so musically talented, that Def Jam had to include him in the band’s signing, or he would not sign the contract himself.
William Johnathan Drayton Jr., better known as ‘Flavor Flav’, was born on March 16th, 1959 in Roosevelt, New York. Considered a musical prodigy, Flav sang in his church’s choir as a pre-teen and was proficient in playing piano, drums and guitar at an early age. Chuck says Flav can actually play 15 instruments. Flav graduated from culinary school in 1978 and then attended Adelphi University where he met Chuck. Flav took his stage name after his ‘bombing’ or graffiti tag, and he called himself ‘Flavor Flav’ because of his love for the culinary arts. Unbeknownst to his band mates, Flav would not only go on to define the job of a Hip-Hop ‘hype man’, but he would revolutionize the title and take it to whole new levels.
So Def Jam relented and signed Chuck and Flav.
After the Spectrum City crew finalized their contracts with Def Jam, they picked the title of their first single, Public Enemy#1, as the band’s new name. And from that day forward, they were officially Public Enemy.
Fast forward to June 28th, 1988, and the release of the band’s magnum opus, ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back’.
Now, Bill Adler, a white ‘Hip-Hopper’ who was Public Enemy’s publicist for Def Jam, said of Flav’s being in the group: “…it made no sense. It’s never made sense.”
For every Black man and woman reading this post, I want you to take notice of Bill’s statement. This is basically the opinion of someone who’s in the Hip-Hop culture, but not of it. Which constitutes about 99.9% of white people in our culture…Eminem included. No matter how ‘down’ a white boy seems to be with any of our culture(s), he’s still gonna’ think he’s biologically superior to us. So let me fill you in on why Bill’s statement was completely anglophilic and stupidly wrong-headed.
A wise brotha once said: “Flav is the spoonful of sugar that made Public Enemy’s bitter medicine go down a little easier.” Meaning, Public Enemy’s (P.E.'s) message, especially when it came to ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ was so steroidal and revolutionary, that it needed an element to make it more accessibly palatable…and that’s what Flav did, masterfully.
This album took on the white fascist imposed societal ills of Reganomics, crack and AIDS, head on. Straight, with Flav as the chaser.
In regards to the CIA’s importation of crack cocaine into Black communities, P.E.’s song, ‘Night of the Living Baseheads’ speaks to the effects of this plaque directly.
But the most effectively socio-political of all this album’s songs, in my opinion, is ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. This song not only speaks to Black men being unjustly incarcerated, but it tells the story of a brotha in the Vietnam War era, who's drafted and sees how absurd it is to fight for a country that’s constantly trying to destroy his community. Additionally, it takes us on a journey of the nascent, organizing and execution phases of a jail break.
Chuck D. starts out this track by saying: “I gotta’ letter from the government the other day, I opened and read it, it said they were suckas. They wanted me for their army or whatever, picture me givin’ a damn I said never.” This speaks directly to what happened to millions of Black men who received draft notices from 1965-1972, and how many flat-out refused to fight for a country that was hell-bent on seeing them dead or in jail.
After this we see the same brotha locked up for not complying with the draft, when Chuck says: “Cold sweatin’ as I dwell in my cell, how long has it been? They got me sittin’ in the State Pen. I gotta’ get out but that thought’s been thought before, I contemplated the plan on the cell floor.”
Then comes the rationalizing refrain that gets him to go ahead with his plan: “…nevertheless they could not understand that I’m a Black man, and I could never be a veteran. On the strength the situation’s unreal, I got a raw deal…So I’m lookin’ for the steel.”
Then the start of the revolt: “You know I caught a C.O. (Corrections Officer) fallin’ asleep on Death Row, I grabbed his gun, and he did what I said so. An everyman got served, along with the time they served, decency was deserved…”
Then two ingenious lines: “This is what it takes for peace, so I just took a piece (gun)…” And: “A cell is hell, I’m a rebel, so I re-bel. Behind bars got me thinkin’ like an animal.”
And then we go further into the jail break: “...but I’m still a captive, I gotta’ rap this. Time to break as time grows intense, I got my steel in my right hand, now I’m lookin’ for the fence…”
And finally, the jail breaks conclusion: “…they saw it was rougher than the average bluffer, ‘cause the steel was Black, the attitude exact. Now the chase is on, tellin’ you to c’mon, 53 brothas on the run…and we are gone.”
Now, beyond the brilliance of these tracks and P.E.’s legacy, let me tell you the real, real reason that P.E. is and was so legendary. And I’ll have to reiterate the sentiment of Ossie Davis at the end of Spike Lee’s movie 'Malcolm X' and say, in an era where there was a complete dearth of visible leadership in the Black community, P.E. represented our living Black manhood. It proved to Black men young and old, and to the world, that our internal and testicular fortitude was still intact, regardless of the myriad travails we faced in the 80’s.
And what it tells us now is, no matter how insurmountable the odds are for the Black Diaspora, and for Black men especially, we will prevail, no matter what white fascists set about doing to destroy and get rid of us.
So to Chuck, Flav, Griff, Terminator X, the S1W’s, and the Shocklee brothas, I give you all the ‘props’ and respect that you as BLACK MEN so rightfully deserve. You guys were not only right on time, but you are literally living legends. AND EVERY BLACK MAN IS BETTER OFF FOR HAVING KNOWN YOU OR KNOWN ABOUT YOU.
And if Flav were reading this, I’m sure he’d break out and say: “Yeahhhh Boyyyy!!”
The video below is a taping of Public Enemy’s 1987 appearance on ‘Soul Train’. The song they’re performing is ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ off ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back’.
Now, what’s so stellar about this track is it's sampling of a teapot's high whistle. And this sound not only complements the track, but it invokes the societal pressures of the 80’s boiling over to the point where Public Enemy's saying to white fascists who created these problems that, if you don’t help solve these problems you started, you’re in for a karmic-asskicking, post-haste. And you could also see that teapot whistle’s sentiment in the revolts of Ferguson, Missouri. Those ingenious young Black men and women said, enough is enough, consequences be damned.
Also, in this P.E. performance, you’ll see that the audience is entirely with Flav. Mind you, they’re getting Chuck D.’s message, but it’s almost being delivered to them in a subliminal way, as the crowd is totally rockin’ out with Flavor. Now, this vid was recorded on a 'VCR' so it's clarity isn't the best, but P.E.'s energy definitely comes through clearly. Classic stuff. Enjoy.