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Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ Deconstructed
01.13.2014
05:49 am

Topics:
Hip-hop
Music

Tags:
Public Enemy


 
Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in 1988. Few albums have made a bigger impression on me or meant as much.

Today, Flavor Flav is a former reality TV star and Chuck D is a former Air America Radio personality and an elder statesman more generally. It’s difficult to reconstruct just how weird and scary Public Enemy once was to White Amerikkka. In 1989, when I first heard Nation of Millions, I was a college freshman who listened exclusively to radio-ready pop music and classic rock, with the exception of the speed metal I had recently gravitated towards—in fact, the inclusion of a snippet of “Angel of Death” by Def Jam labelmates Slayer on “She Watch Channel Zero” was one of the first facets of the album that attracted me to it.
 
Public Enemy
 
We didn’t know it then, but 1988 was the heyday of intensely sample-heavy rap LPs before the lawyers ruined everything—other masterpieces using that approximate technique include the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. For a dopey white kid from the suburbs, the texture of Nation of Millions was heady, intoxicating. I could obscurely categorize all the talk of “white devils” for which Professor Griff would soon be jettisoned from the band as “wrong,” but most of the other stances, even the incoherent ones, were far more difficult to rebut. The sound of the album was insistently “hard” and justifiably angry, funky and brainy, an album to drive you to bone up on James Brown and Malcolm X. The purpose of the approach was to change minds, but I often wonder if Chuck D and the Bomb Squad had any notion of the appeal the album might possess for impressionable white kids. I suspect it wasn’t much on their minds.

The densely multilayered nature of Nation of Millions cries out for a deconstruction—preferably one that can be imbibed via the ears. Fortunately, on the Solid Steel Radio Show a few months ago, DJ Moneyshot released a remarkably enjoyable hour-long episode that does precisely that. For anyone who loves the album, the show is a singular treat, nothing less than an aural essay on its sources, of which there are many. Civil rights speeches, immortal soul classics, contemporaneous rap gems, and interviews with the likes of Hank Shocklee are all mixed together, Bomb Squad style, into a delightful stew.

Oddly, I’d learned only days earlier that one of the key opening samples from “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” stems from Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions; I also had no idea that David Bowie’s “Fame” was used as the bed for one of Griff’s mottos in “Night of the Living Baseheads.” I’m going to assume that many DM readers, being less ignorant than myself, will still derive considerable enjoyment from this head-scrambling mix.
 

 
Thanks to Lawrence Daniel Caswell!

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Duran Duran’s curious cover Public Enemy’s ‘911 Is a Joke’
11.12.2013
05:50 am

Topics:
Music

Tags:
Public Enemy
Duran Duran


 
Duran Duran has had more ups and downs than your typical 1980s teen sensation. They’re still as active as they ever were—they were touring as recently as 2012 and reportedly are working on their 14th album, this time with the help of Mark Ronson, who has produced albums by talents as notable as Q-Tip, Amy Winehouse, Black Lips, and Paul McCartney. Being Duran Duran, there’s more than a faint whiff of “1980s has-been” connected to them, but it would be preposterous to claim that they’re anything remotely close to one-hit wonders—their first four albums went platinum in the U.S., and eleven of their singles cracked the top 10 in the U.S., a list that for some unfathomable reason doesn’t even include “Rio.”

Still, Kurt Cobain and N.W.A. more or less smashed to pieces any pretension of relevance to which Duran Duran may have laid claim to in the 1990s. Even after that point, however, their journey was not altogether embarrassing. Allmusic.com gives high marks to their 1993 self-titled effort (many refer to it as The Wedding Album), even as it disparages their “wretched” cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Femme Fatale.” Jumping ahead to our own era, Allmusic.com similarly has positive feelings for their last two studio efforts, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre and 2011’s All You Need Is Now.

It will be clear that my purpose here is not to heap derision on Duran Duran. I was in middle school in 1983, and I recall full well how thoroughly they dominated the 13-year-old demographic, particularly the girls. I respect the supreme popcraft of Duran Duran at their best. But it would be foolish to pretend that there haven’t been some low points.

Foremost among them may be their cover of Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” off of their 1995 covers album Thank You (even reflexively generous Allmusic.com gives that album a single solitary star).

Here’s the album cut:

 
Duran Duran’s version of the Flavor Flav classic off of Fear of a Black Planet takes the unimpeachable Hank Shocklee beats into a more rootsy direction—many have commented that it sounds a lot like early Beck, in fact (Beck, of course, was probably at peak visibility around then). In the video below, it’s hard to feature to what extent Simon Le Bon and the boys (former Zappa player Warren Cuccurullo without a shirt seems like a version of Glenn Danzig) are taking themselves seriously or not. After all, the song is a pointed critique of the deeply embedded racism that may or may not be peculiar to the United States, where your address will determine the level of social services that you receive. It’s difficult to imagine that Duran Duran ever had any such problems with the emergency services in the UK, or if they did, it’s pretty certain that race wasn’t a factor. (Also, 911 doesn’t even mean anything in England, where they use 999 for that purpose.) Point being, surely none of this was lost on them, right?

In the end, the key miscalculation may have been to underestimate the skills of Flavor Flav. As PE’s court jester and figure of fun, Flav doesn’t conform to anyone’s idea of an artistic master. But “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” off of Nation of Millions is a work of sheer, unbridled genius; as far as I know, there’s nothing in the rap canon that can touch it (hey, refresh your memory if you disagree). And “911 Is a Joke” ain’t far behind.
 
Here’s that live rendition of the track, taped at Musique Plus in Montreal:

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Corky from ‘Life Goes On’ shows his punk/hip-hop side and ‘Fights the Power!’
04.18.2013
09:57 am

Topics:
Hip-hop
Punk
Television

Tags:
Public Enemy
Life Goes On
Corky


  
In honor of Public Enemy’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight, here’s a clip from the Life Goes On TV series where “Corky” shows his more rebellious side and “fights the power.”

And, yes, I’m probably going to Hell for posting this.

  
With thanks to Leopold Stotch!

 

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
More excellent cassette tape art from Sami Havia


Alice Cooper
 
Here is some more of that excellent “cassette art” (as used on the Aphex Twin post just below) by the Finnish artist Sami Havia. Sami’s website is here, but these are the only other examples I could find of this style, and they’re taken from the Today And Tomorrow blog. Maybe if we ask nicely he will start making more?
 

DJ Shadow
 

2 Unlimited
 

Public Enemy
 

 

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment
Public Enemy keeps sayin’ it in a brand new video

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Public Enemy’s explosion onto the American music scene in the mid-to-late-‘80s transformed the musical views of a lot of people, myself included. These guys were the full package. Sonically they fused hardcore New York rap style with militant black power lyrics and a dense, bombastic sample-heavy rhythm attack. Visually, they had a solidly political graphic style and tough, utilitarian fashion sense that accentuated their revolutionary attitude. PE were a dream come true for dorky college students like me who were in love with both serious anarcho-punk bands like the then-recently defunct Crass and black music in general—especially hip-hop. Their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a landmark in American pop music.

PE marks their entrance into collectors’ posterity via a 3-CD/3-DVD-photo-book-and-t-shirt box set with a new video for their summer single, “Say It Like It Really Is,” shot in the surprisingly peaceful surroundings of Niagra Falls. Older, but still dangerous minds.
 

 
After the jump: a 2007 video re-contextualizing of P.E.’s 1999 tune “I”, with Chuck D. surveying New Orleans’ Ninth Ward…
 

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment
Melvin Bliss, Singer of One Of The Most Sampled Songs Of All Time Has Died

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Melvin Bliss, singer of one the most sampled songs of all time, 1973’s “Synthetic Substitution,” has died. The list of artists who’ve borrowed from the track is long and overwhelming: Ultramagnetic MC’s, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Naughty By Nature, Gang Starr, Wu-Tang Clan; it goes on, pretty much forever.

Zach Baron of the Village Voice has put together a sweet video tribute to Melvin. Check it out at Village Voice

 

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Glen E. Friedman Interview at the opening of FUCK YOU ALL

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Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
 
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Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
 
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Photo Credit: Glen E. Friedman
 
Here’s a really wonderful interview with one of my favorite photographers and artists, Glen E. Friedman. Do yourself a favor and watch the video. From State Magazine:

It was then that I found that the most beautiful, gripping color photographs were taken by just a single photographer, a very young teenager, by the name of Glen E. Friedman. Glen would go on to take these skills he learnt as a kid and apply them to his other great love in life, music. What you’re about to hear is an interview I did with Glen, who describes for you, some of his favourite shots from the last four decades. It’s a journey which has taken Glen from the mosh-pits of American punk-rock with bands like Black Flag and Fugazi to the suburban streets with hip-hop where Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest and Ice-T all became subjects in front of Glen’s lens. So, less talk, more action; press play. After all, they say a picture is worth a thousand…well, you know…

 
Interview with Glen E. Friedman in pictures & audio

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
It Takes A Nation Of Thousands To Finance The Next Public Enemy Record
10.06.2009
02:57 pm

Topics:
Music

Tags:
Public Enemy
Sellaband

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In a move reminiscent of the Thin White Duke‘s mid-‘90s issuing of Bowie bonds:

Hip hop pioneers Public Enemy will partner with fan-funding site Sellaband to finance their next album.  Public Enemy is one of the first established acts to sign up to Sellaband?

Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment