What was the most significant release of hip hop's most significant year? Whilst it might seem like a tough question, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back stands tall over 1988. Though the year featured classic releases from acts such as Eric B. & Rakim, N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick, many of which were influential in shaping the trajectory of the then-exploding genre, no album left as strong a mark as It Takes A Nation.
Public Enemy, then little more than a controversial outfit with an acclaimed debut and a support slot alongside Beastie Boys, were Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X. They were supported by an up-and-coming production team, The Bomb Squad, and a six man b-boy outfit, Security of the First World. The Bomb Squad - a posse comprised of Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler - were the architects of the record's chaotic soundscape. The palette, punctuated by squealing horns and electric guitars, was later described by Chuck D as a "wall of noise." This "wall of sound" - defined by intricate arrangements, complex musical interplay and a mix of samples and original instrumentation - helped revolutionise production in hip hop, a firm refutation of new school minimalism that presaged the rise of sampling throughout the '90s. The sampling remains wild, even by todays standards: "Night of the Living Baseheads" incorporates 22 different samples into a brisk three minutes and fifteen seconds, a testament to both artistic vision and the then-lax copyright law surrounding such use.
Public Enemy championed both sonic and thematic innovations, confronting the status quo with unflinchingly political content and impassioned Afrocentricity. The runaway success of It Takes A Nation would contribute to popular culture's wholehearted embrace of the art form, an acceptance which - for better or for worse - helped create modern hip hop culture. It championed political hip hop, pushed the boundaries of production and achieved a newfound level of mainstream success. The first hip hop album to top the noted Pazz & Jop Critic's Poll. A genre-defining effort for audiences and critics alike. Thirty years on, Public Enemy's blockbuster sophomore album still packs a powerful punch.
"Countdown to Armageddon"
In 1987, the same year as Public Enemy released their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, the group embarked on a UK tour alongside peers Eric B. & Rakim and LL Cool J. Their performance at London venue Hammersmith Odeon, recorded and released as a full concert film in 2005, would double as the opening to the group's second LP, complete with a spoken introduction from a British MC.
The group's sophomore album opens with a sample of their debut title track, "Yo! Bum Rush The Show." Released just one year prior, the record was a smash hit that earned the group critical adoration and a commercial audience. The group soon begun recording their sophomore album at Spectrum City in Long Island, utilising faster tempos and finishing the record in six weeks.
The opening dialogue - "too black, too strong" - is taken from "Message to the Grass Roots," a famous 1963 address by civil rights leader Malcolm X. The sample is in keeping with PE's afrocentric political ideals.
The original quote is as follows: "It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak."
Whitney was a respected funk singer and associate of James Brown, who produced her 1969 debut. The very same sample was famously used in N.W.A.'s "Fuck The Police," released just nine months after "Bring The Noise."
The wailing sound effect that underpins Chuck's first verse is courtesy of Funkadelic. The sample is lifted from the intro to "Get Off Your Ass And Jam," a track included on their 1975 LP, Let's Take it To The Stage.
"Get Off Your Ass And Jam" has been frequently sampled in hip hop - it was involved in a significant court case regarding N.W.A.'s "1000 Miles And Runnin'," which set a precedent for sampling.
A sample of Fantastic Freaks' "Fantastic Freaks at the Amphitheatre." The track was included on Wild Style Original Soundtrack, a compilation album released alongside the pioneering hip hop film. Shot in 1983, Wild Style was the first film about hip hop culture. The soundtrack has been called "arguably the first great hip hop album."
James Brown makes an appearance on "Bring The Noise," as he so often does in hip hop. The most sampled artist of all time, Brown's "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose (Remix)" is just one of the samples that appears at 0:50.
PE would go on to sample the track on "Burn Hollywood Burn" and "Welcome To The Terrordome," both from their 1990 record, Fear of a Black Planet.
The crisp drumkit that underpins Chuck D's verse at 1:07 is courtesy of Clyde Stubblefield, drummer for James Brown and originator of many of hip hop's most used breakbeats.
Brown's "Funky Drummer" boasts one of hip hop's most sampled breaks. It also appears in tracks by N.W.A. and LL Cool J, as well as PE's ITANOMTHUB cut, "Rebel Without A Pause," and their 1989 hit, "Fight The Power."
The "brothers and sisters" vocal sample that appears at 1:20 is lifted from The Soul Children's "I Don't Know What This World Is Coming To." The recording comes from Wattstax, a 1972 live show marking the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots.
The concert was hosted in Watts, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles, and filmed for a feature documentary, also titled Wattstax.
The scratched electric guitar at 2:42 is taken from James Brown's "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved," a single eventually included his 1986 compilation album, In The Jungle Mood. That record was released in order to capitalise on Brown's popularity with hip hop DJs, and includes much-sampled tracks such as "Hot Pants" and "Funky Drummer."
Another sample comes from The Commodores' "The Assembly Line," a track off their 1974 debut. At 2:35, The Bomb Squad sample the vocal ad-lib immediately preceding the track's much-sampled drum break.
"Don't Believe The Hype"
The second single from It Takes A Nation, "Don't Believe The Hype" was released in April '88, two and a half months before the rest of the record. Inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky, the track finds PE tackling their contentious and controversial place in American culture, deriding the coverage that surrounds their messages. The track also features a brief spoken word contribution from PE affiliate Harry Allen, publicist and self-professed "media assassin."
The drums are lifted from Melvin Bliss' "Synthetic Substitution," a track famous for its much-sampled drum break. Bliss, a one-hit wonder sabotaged by a bankrupt label, died aged 65 in 2010. A documentary, Synthetic Substitution: The Life Story of Melvin Bliss, premiered one year after his death and featured Public Enemy's Chuck D. The track was included on Ultimate Breaks and Beats SBR 505, and has since been sampled by acts such as Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West.
"Don't Believe The Hype," like "Bring The Noise" before it, features a sample from Wattstax, the Stax Records festival and subsequent live album. This track borrows vocal elements from Rufus Thomas' performance of "Do The Funky Penguin," in which he tells the audience: "now here's what I want y'all to do for me." The sample appears at 0:07.
The looping guitar riff quietly underpinning Chuck D's first verse is taken from James Brown's "I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance)." Released in 1972 as a stand-alone single, the track eventually got an album release on 1988's Motherlode.
The shrieking horn that dominates much of "Don't Believe The Hype" is lifted from another James Brown track: 1971's "Escape-Ism." That track, the first released on Brown's People Records, was included on Hot Pants, Brown's 36th studio album.
The distinctive and jarring vocal ad-lib that punctuates the hook is lifted from the opening to Whodini's "Fugitive," a track included on their 1986 album, Back in Black. The same song was sampled months later by N.W.A., who used the same vocalisation on their track "If It Ain't Ruff."
Their preceding LP, 1984's Escape, was one of the hip hop's first charting albums.
Perennial hypeman Flavor Flav interpolates an old Trix Cereal commercial at 3:31.
Trix's famed advertising campaign has long revolved around a hungry, Trix-obsessed rabbit. The idea, illustration and tagline - "silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!" - were all conceived by John Harris, a copywriter and illustrator. The commercial was so pervasive that fellow East Coast luminaries Eric B. & Rakim also referenced it just a few months later.
"Cold Lampin' With Flavor"
On "Cold Lampin'," Flavor Flav exercises his right of reply. An early press release for the then-upcoming album noted that "there's a tune given over to the amusing ravings of Flavor Flav, which is destined to generate a lot of new slang." Indeed, Flavor Flav's catchphrase - "yeah, boi!" - became a hugely viral meme, proving the longevity of Flav's surreal eccentricity.
The track opens with a tongue-in-cheek sample of radio DJ Mr. Magic, who's dissing Public Enemy by branding them as "the suckers." The sampled show was originally broadcast on February 21st, 1987, just over a week after the release of PE's debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show.
Not only was Mr. Magic the first DJ to play hip hop on the radio, he had a long time association with legendary golden age producer Marley Marl.
The drums that kickstart the music are taken from the intro to The Chakachas' "Jungle Fever."
The Chakachas was a Belgium-based Latin soul group, comprised of seven session musicians. The group released a number of singles, though they remain best known for "Jungle Fever." The track was a hit in the US, though the BBC refused to play the sexually explicit song. It was later featured in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.
The energetic instrumental loop that explodes at 0:08 is sampled from The Sweet's "Funk It Up." That track was included on the British group's fifth album, 1977's Off The Record, which offered a continuation of their trademark glam rock sound. The group split in 1981, though Polydor released their final LP one year later.
The Bomb Squad make use of a sample from underground hip hop legends Double Dee and Steinski. A mid-'80s hip hop production duo, the pair were forebears to the work of acts such as The Avalanches and DJ Shadow.
The sample, which appears at 0:15, is taken from "Lesson 1 (The Payoff Mix)." The group's first record, "Lesson 1" was a sample-laden, sonic collage of a remix to "Play That Beat, Mr. D.J."
The first sample introduced in the packed 1:10 breakdown belongs to Bobby Byrd, a longtime associate of James Brown. The vocal - "kickin' with the beat!" - first appears at 1:09 on PE's "Cold Lampin' With Flavor."
The Bomb Squad take a tiny sample - a speaking voice saying "yeah" - and insert it at 1:10, another small ingredient in the greater wall of sound. It's lifted from a 1985 Run-DMC track.
Run-DMC released their live version of "Here We Go" as a standalone single. The track was released the year following the group's revolutionary debut, which helped set hip hop's trajectory and paved the way for acts such as Public Enemy.
The next element in the cavalcade of samples at 1:10 comes from Edwin Starr's "War." Undoubtedly Starr's biggest success, "War" was a potent and impassioned anti-Vietnam song that endures today as an example of the era's disillusionment with the conflict.
The sample comes from the famous opening of the track, with Starr delivering a "yeah!" in his strong singing voice.
The long, unison "yeah" that appears at 1:12 is taken from the J.B.'s "Gimme Some More," a track included on their 1972 LP, Food For Thought. The J.B.'s served as James Brown's backing band throughout the '70s, appearing on classic tracks such as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" and "Super Bad." Members of the oft-rotating group included Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker.
The loud, aggressive "yeah!" that bursts forth at 1:13 is taken from the close of "Girls," a track from The Beastie Boys' debut record, Licensed To Ill.
The final single from the album, "Girls" was one of the album's less rap-oriented tracks. Lyrically simple and vocally eccentric, it's a taste of the Beastie Boys' oft-juvenile humour. The track was also sampled on N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta," released later in 1988.
The last new sample is an incredibly subtle grab from Lyn Collins' 1972 funk hit, "Think (About It)." It appears at 1:27 on "Cold Lampin' With Flavor," though it's easy to miss, obscured by both Flav's cartoonish delivery and the ongoing drums from Chakachas' "Jungle Fever."
"Think (About It)" was written and produced by James Brown, and remains one of his most sampled tracks, appearing on over 2000 tracks.
"Terminator X to the Edge of Panic"
The same draft of the label press release that teased Flavor Flav's "amusing ravings" signposted Terminator X's own moment of "virtuosic scratching." That moment arrives on "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic," a theme song of sorts for the man behind the decks. Featuring grand, self-mythologising samples and lyrical endorsements from Chuck D, "Edge of Panic" is Terminator X's moment in the spotlight.
The Bomb Squad open Terminator X's shining moment with a sample of a live show. Chuck D asks an eager audience the name of his DJ, to which they all reply: "Terminator X!" The sample is sourced from Public Enemy's November '87 run in London - their first ever UK shows. The concert was released in 2005 as It Takes a Nation: The First London Invasion Tour 1987.
Perhaps the most obvious sample is lifted from Queen's "Flash," the title track from their 1980 Flash Gordon OST. That record is the groups only official OST, though 1986's A Kind Of Magic acted as an informal soundtrack to Highlander.
"Flash" is famed for both its bombastic chorus and distinctive bassline, the latter of which was sampled again on Public Enemy's 2005 track, "Check What You're Listening To."
Whilst Queen's "Flash" celebrates the legend of Flash Gordon, "saviour of the universe," "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic" celebrates the titular DJ.
In order to show this, the group samples a Chuck D shoutout from "Rebel Without A Pause," the first single from ITANOMTHUB. Replacing "Flash" with Chuck D shouting "Terminator X!" casts the DJ as the hero in his own space opera, flanked by campy vocals and overblown pomp.
There's another fleeting self-sample at 0:36, this time borrowing from "Bring The Noise."
The vocal grab - "Terminator exit!" - bridges the transition from Queen's "Flash" sample to Chuck D's upbeat verse. The sample is originally sourced from the close of Chuck's third verse, in which he focuses on Terminator X's DJ prowess.
The sounds effect that bursts forth at 0:38 - a squealing horn - has become something of a Public Enemy motif. It's a sample of The J.B.'s "The Grunt," a track from their 1972 debut, Food For Thought. The same sound effect is sampled on "Rebel Without A Pause," and elements of the track also appear on "Night Of The Living Baseheads."
Acting as James Brown's band through the '70s, The J.B.'s played on many oft-sampled tracks.
The Bomb Squad sample two elements of Spoonie Gee's "Love Rap." The first appears at 0:38, where they sample the kinetic drum fill from the opening, whilst the second appears at 1:29, where one can faintly hear Spoonie Gee rap "go off!"
Spoonie Gee was a founding member of the Treacherous Three, an important old school outfit.
At 1:31, the quiet chatter over which Terminator X scratches is taken from the opening of Big Audio Dynamite's "BAD." It appeared as the closing track on their debut, 1985's This Is Big Audio Dynamite.
A group known for their versatility in both sound and lineup, Big Audio Dynamite was started in '84 by The Clash cofounder Mick Jones. Amongst the initial lineup was Don Letts, former Clash videographer-turned-sampler.
The sixth track on the LP, "Mind Terrorist" is a sonic collage assembled from instrumental loops and vocal samples. The track makes use of Flavor Flav's nigh-comical delivery by sampling two of his more notable lyrical moments, one from It Takes A Nation single "Bring the Noise" and the other from Yo! Bum Rush The Show cut, "Terminator X Speaks With His Hands."
The Bomb Squad juxtapose two seperate samples: "get that!" from the very start of the track, and "bass for your face!" from 1:00.
The 1987 track was sampled on later Public Enemy cuts such as "Can't Do Nuttin For Ya, Man!," "Most Of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamps," "Check What You're Listening To" and "The Enemy Assault Vehicle Mixx."
"Mind Terrorist" makes extensive use of the self-sample, going as far as to sample Flavor Flav's catchphrase, "yeah boy!" This particular "yeah boy!" originally appeared on "Bring The Noise."
"Bring The Noise" was originally released in November '87, as a track included on the Less Than Zero OST. It doubled as the second single from ITANOMTHUS, releasing four months after lead single "Rebel Without A Pause."
"Louder Than a Bomb"
A track about "the destruction of black leaders," "Louder Than a Bomb" finds Chuck D cursing the real-life predicament of having his phone tapped by the FBI. It's not surprising that Public Enemy's incendiary lyrics attracted the attention of the government: NWA's Straight Outta Compton, released months later, would put hip hop on a collision course with law enforcement. The track is also notable for featuring a brief vocal appearance from Professor Griff.
The ethereal, uplifting intro is taken from Kool & The Gang's live rendition of "Who's Gonna Take The Weight." The track was included on the group's first live album, 1971's Live at the Sex Machine, and was prolifically sampled throughout hip hop's golden era.
At 0:25, The Bomb Squad sample Juice's "Catch A Groove," the same breakbeat used in "Don't Believe The Hype." The break was featured on Ultimate Breaks and Beats' SBR 502. Despite their popularity amongst producers, little is known of Juice, a disco outfit that released just two singles throughout their career.
The "louder" sound grab is a sample of Mountain's live rendition of Leslie West's 1969 solo track, "Long Red." The famous live version was included on the group's 1972 live album, Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On.
The Bomb Squad again borrow from Beastie Boys' "Girls," taking the exact same vocal sample from the close. The enthusiastic "yeah!" previously appeared on "Cold Lampin' With Flavor."
The track was sampled on other key 1988 releases such as Eazy-E's "We Want Eazy," and N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta" and "8 Ball (Remix)." Anthrax, a rock band who would go on to collaborate with PE, sampled the track on 1987's "I'm The Man."
PE take two samples from T La Rock and Jazzy Jay's "It's Yours," a 1984 hip hop single produced by a young Rick Rubin. The vinyl release was the first record to feature the Def Jam insignia. The first sample appears at 2:12, culminating with the vocals "it's yours," and the second comes at 3:27, where the instrumental appears without vocals. A much sampled track, the titular phrase is most famous for featuring prominently on Nas' 1993 classic, "The World Is Yours."
The Bomb Squad recruit another fleeting vocal sample to up the hype, borrowing from Run DMC's "Here We Go," a 1985 live single. This sample, like The Beastie Boys' "Girls," was previously sampled on "Cold Lampin' With Flavor."
The "one" in "one for the treble" is lifted from Kurtis Blow's "AJ Scratch." The 1985 track is taken from Ego Trip, Blow's fifth studio album. It presages the next sample, which contributes "for the treble" to the cut-and-past phrase.
The next brief vocal sample is taken from Davy DMX's "One For The Treble." An early hip hop producer, Davy DMX was most active throughout the '80s, collaborating with acts such as The Fat Boys and Run DMC. He would go on to play bass for Public Enemy on 1992's "Hazy Shade of Criminal." A sample of the titular phrase, "one for the treble," appears at 3:24.
Chuck D incorporates a less common interpolation of his own work, this time referencing lyrics from ITANOMTHUB single, "Rebel Without A Pause."
Whilst The Bomb Squad frequent specific samples in order to create sonic cohesion, Chuck and Flav often revisit their lyrics, creating a unique, motif-heavy project. At 3:35, Chuck raps that "the rhythm is the rebel," an interpolation of the opening lyrics from the fittingly-titled "Rebel Without a Pause."
"Caught, Can We Get a Witness?"
On "Caught, Can We Get A Witness?," Public Enemy find themselves in court, though it's not a regular showing - this is "sampling court," where matters of musical sampling are arbitrated. Chuck and Flavor take to the stand to deride those who fail to understand the art of sampling, which is in itself a creative pursuit.
The drums that kickstart the song at 0:26 are taken from Bobby Byrd's cover of "Hot Pants." A longtime member of Brown's band, Byrd is credited with both discovering Brown and writing many of his tracks. Byrd covered "Hot Pants" in August '71, despite having played organ on Brown's original rendition, released just one month prior.
Byrd's role as a member of Brown's posse has helped him accrue a swathe of hip hop samples.
Another sample that appears at 0:26 is the vaguely recognisable "Son of Shaft," a track by Memphis soul group The Bar-Kays.
The group released "Son Of Shaft" as a response to Hayes' original composition, the now-classic "Shaft Theme." Despite the response, there wasn't any bad blood between the two acts - The Bar-Kays served as Hayes' band on his 1969 sophomore album, Hot Buttered Soul, now considered a classic soul record.
Like album opener "Countdown to Armageddon," "Caught, Can We Get A Witness?" samples a track from PE's 1987 debut. This time, The Bomb Squad borrow from the album closer, "Terminator X Speaks with his Hands."
Flavor Flav's sampled dialogue - "yeah, that's right, kick it!" - is lifted from the final three seconds of the LP. The same '87 track was also sampled on four other ITANOMTHUB cuts.
Samples a live rendition of James Brown's "Soul Power," featured on his 1971 live album, Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III. As the title suggests, the LP was the third live album Brown recorded at the Apollo Theatre in NYC.
The song was later sampled on Public Enemy's 1990 track, "Power To The People."
"Show 'Em Whatcha Got"
Much like the album itself, "Show 'Em Whatcha Got" is named for another Public Enemy lyric. Though it originally appeared in "Louder Than A Bomb," the Flavor Flav lyric is sampled as a refrain, one of The Bomb Squad's signature production techniques.
The distinctive Flavor Flav sample is lifted from PE's "Louder Than A Bomb," a preceding track on It Takes A Nation. The sample, "show 'em whatcha got," doubles as this track's title.
Despite their tendency to frequently sample their own work, "Louder Than A Bomb" was only sampled again on 1990's "The Enemy Assault Vehicle Mixx."
"She Watch Channel Zero?!"
Even in 1988, there was a lot of trash on TV. Public Enemy hone in on the negatives of mass media once again, berating the anti-intellectual soap operas that lull viewers into an easygoing fantasy world. "She Watch Channel Zero?!" is the only track on the album with writing credited to Professor Griff.
The relentless rock guitar that underpins "She Watch Channel Zero" is taken from Slayer's "Angel of Death." It's of the album's more unusual samples, seeing as many of the sampled tracks are soul, funk or R&B influenced. Slayer's Reign Of Blood - on which "Angel of Death" appears - is often considered to be one of the most essential thrash metal records. The track itself proved to be controversial, with Slayer facing accusations of Nazism over the Josef Mengele-inspired lyrics.
Another sample of the much-utilised breakbeat from James Brown's "Funky Drummer." The sample previously appeared in "Bring The Noise," and Brown's track has featured in over 1400 songs.
Popular throughout the Golden Era, "Funky Drummer" saw service during The Bridge Wars, one of hip hop's formative feuds. Chuck D shouts out the piece by name on '89s "Fight The Power," rapping about the "sound of the Funky Drummer...".