ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: Antonio "DoctorBenwayOperates" Vergara

If you’re reading this, it is with almost 99.9% certainty that I can assume you’re as familiar with this tape as I.  Enough has probably already been said about it, as it appears on almost every possible music publication top 100 to 500 list of the greatest albums of all time (not just hip-hop), as well as those of renowned musicians.

To me, though, it was both much greater and lesser: greater in that it has meant more to me than any release prior or since, and lesser because I was never aware of (nor concerned with) its impact on anyone but me.  Its popularity and importance I sensed, due to its sample-able nature, but I had no idea anyone liked it much at all - until I talked about it with a friend of a friend more than 10 years after its release.  That nostalgic conversation in the late 90’s, and the ensuing reintroduction of the tape, led me to the conclusion that this tape was as fundamental to my music tastes as it was to my global and national self awareness.

With that, I take you back near the close of the 1980’s.  Hip-hop/rap as we then knew it was about as old as I was, and becoming more mature with each subsequent effort.
Tommy B was a grade school friend of mine, who lived a couple of blocks away from me in the summer of 1988, in a Northwest suburb just outside of Chicago.  We shared a lot of the same interests:  skateboarding, spiking our hair, playing GI Joe, wearing Airwalks and listening to rap music (you see, that’s what it was called then, kids).  The latter came as a surprise to me, not because rap music wasn’t the most exciting thing vying with the NES for omnipotence, but because Tommy’s father was a police officer and his mother was Suzy Homemaker.  It just didn’t seem to fit.


Many of my mid-to-late 1980’s hip-hop sensory memories are directly linked to the dirty tape player in the corner of Tommy’s garage… the first time I heard LL Cool J say, “’cause I ain’t met a muthafucka who could do that yet,” was in there, the first time I listened to Ice-T “Power,” is also immediately associated with that tape player.  Why wouldn’t a suburban cop want his white 10 year-old son to listen to the “Power” tape, let alone have the artwork to gaze at?  I’m just sayin’.

There is no way I can recall the precise timing, but it was sometime during that summer that I went to Tommy’s house and he extended to me an outstretched hand clutching a brand new tape, with two vaguely familiar characters on the cover, behind bars.

“Do you want this?” he asked.

“Why?” was my response, as it didn’t make sense to give away a newly purchased tape.

“I don’t like it,” was his response, and all the explanation I needed.  And with those four fateful words, I was granted the key to Pandora’s box (or perhaps J. Edgar Hoover’s box).
Its title was the longest I’d come across to that point, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” but what it contained within I had only a slightly distressed notion.  The only prior knowledge I had of Public Enemy had been an MTV in-studio performance of, “Rebel Without a Pause,” I had seen at home earlier in the year.  The performance was one that stuck with me:  one guy took the helm, while his jester echoed and punctuated his sentiments.  It was an unrelenting attack on the tympanic membrane, with a siren warning of the approaching invasion.  I remember that I was alone, or at least I felt that way, and that when the noise had stopped I felt unsure about what I’d just witnessed.  Did he say, “I caught ya’ pissin’ in your pants!”?  He did, and that was the thing that most stayed with me – the idea that someone is so intimidated by these guys that they may just wet themselves.

Now, what happened when I got the tape home was tantamount to a religious experience, and I haven’t been the same since.  Homework became Public Enemy, after school activity became Public Enemy.  Because Def Jam was kind enough to print the lyrics, I studied, recited and mastered them, and quickly began to grow uneasy with the world.  My mom only had a problem with the bass, “can you just turn the bass down a little?” and the rapidly slipping grades, which, in all fairness to the Bomb Squad, was more due to my boredom with school – that tape just has the dubious distinction of having met me at the top of my educational high water mark.  Public Enemy gave me something to focus on, something I could do instead of school.

I was learning, though, about Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey and black nationalism, racism (which, at that age, I thought was something done away with in the 1960’s), the police state, government conspiracy, FBI, CIA, Newton, Seale and the Black Panther Party, Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko, and many many other things that do not demand the consideration of a 10 year-old (or do they?).  My moms had to answer some heavy questions, I bet.

This tape was serious, and serious in a year that had seen, “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper,” which I owned.  (My friends and I used to play “Pump Up the Bass,” and each take turns standing behind my mom’s belt-drive turntable and pretending to do all of Jazzy Jeff’s transformer scratches... “My turn, rewind it!”) That’s not to say that there were no serious releases that year: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Eazy Duz It,” “Great Adventures of Slick Rick,” “Strictly Business (my second personal favorite),” “In Control Vol. 1,” “Follow the Leader,” and the “Colors” soundtrack, et al.  Those were serious, but not even Rakim was sayin’ the shit that Chuck D was.  There are moments on “It Takes a Nation…” where they’re having fun, but not the way most releases have a slot for that lady/radio/party-friendly jam, not this one.  Yeeeeeah, Ha-ha! Cooold Medina!  The Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J beef was going on then, and I was obsessed with the viciousness of “Jack the Ripper,” but with PE, it wasn’t for sport.  For sport, you don’t just go after Uncle Sam like that: 
“…picture us coolin’ out on the 4th of July, and if you heard we were celebrating that’s a world wide lie!”


I stuck with PE.  I went back and got “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” which is a classic, but I think I had already been spoiled by their sophomore release.  Rather, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” versus “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” is like M.O.P. versus Audio Two – like hardened war veterans fighting newly signed virgin recruits, or like BDK said that year, “that’s like a pit-bull against a Chihuahua.”  Their subsequent releases, though, continued on that path, but were palpably stifled by the oppressive gag of (post-Biz Markie “I Need a Haircut” litigation) copyright infringement laws.  The Bomb Squad assaulted their listeners with a hail storm of samples; I still put on old soul and funk records and hear a noise from a 1/10 sec. sample from “Night of the Living Baseheads,” – I’m still trying to reconstruct those soundscapes.

In the documentary, “Copyright Criminals,” Harry Allen described “It Takes a Nation…” and other records of its day as, “kind of like artifacts of an earlier time – records that couldn’t exist today. They’re just legally, financially untenable.”  Can you imagine if it never existed?!  Or worse, if there is a magnetic reel out there (of any artist) that never saw the light of day because it was tangled in copyright mire?!


I can’t imagine having lived without its influence, or even envisage losing my favorite tape, Public Enemy’s immortal, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
The TAPE - Here it is, BAM!


Silver Side:

“Countdown to Armageddon” – Captured during their English Def Jam tour, this intro makes you feel like an air raid is approaching (because it is).

“Bring the Noise” – The OG version, “too black, too strong…,” this is a haymaker, AND it’s just the opening punch.  We’re talkin’ 5-0, Farrakhan and the saliency of Rap as a genre, nothing too heavy, he said sarcastically.

“Don’t Believe the Hype” – Brings the tempo down, without compromising the protest.  Chuck and PE go after the critics, as they end up doing every tape after that, while Terminator X just kills it.

“Cold Lampin’ with Flavor”Now we come to the pay-off… Flav goin’ off!  This is Flav’s  BEST EFFORT, ‘nuff said.

“Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” – This was my jam, as a 10 year-old, I almost wore out the tape, trying to master the rhymes on this.  On the rare occasion that I hear, “Flash,” by Queen, I get disappointed, expecting Terminator to cut it apart.

“Mind Terrorist” – Bass for your Face!  The first of the tape’s three slammin’, mind-controlin’ instrumentals.

“Louder Than a Bomb” – Badass paranoid, government is watchin’ me stuff on this one.  Chuck lets us know what the CIA is really up to… CIA, you see-I-ain’t kiddin’…

“Caught Can We Get a Witness?” – PE knows the Copyright Police are coming!  Classic samples on this one, samples no one else dared use before or after.


Black Side:

“Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” – Can the Bomb Squad get some credit for jumpin’ on “Darkest Light” before anyone else? If I played this after 1992, someone would inevitably make a “Rump Shaker” reference – actually, that still stands true.

“She Watch Channel Zero?!” – When the Industrial genre emerged, I thought those groups sounded like this track, sans Chuck and Flav, especially groups like KMFDM.  (Are those Richard J. Daley samples on a CB?! What the fuck is going on here?)

“Night of the Living Baseheads” – As a kid with ADD, this was a song tailor made for the condition.  It constantly changes tempo, yet stays consistently aggressive - with more samples than your local grocery store on the weekend!  They also manage to use “The Grunt,” yet again, to brilliant effect – a song used so many times on this tape, that it was inevitable that I would end up regarding it as one of my favorite songs in the JB’s/James Brown catalogue.

“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” – Well, what can I say about this?  Incredible story-tellin’ rap, with an Isaac Hayes sample so buried within “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic,” that it has to be the deepest mining ever achieved in hip-hop.  The Bomb Squad must’ve put on their oxygen tanks, mining caps and headed deep into the nearly 10 minute song to cull what amounts to one of the most eerie loops ever put on wax, magnetic tape or otherwise.  Also, scratching a track that appears on the LP itself (“Now they got me in a cell,” “Death row, what a brutha know”) was a total mind fuck for my rapidly aging 10 year-old brain.  Wait! That’s from “Bring the Noise,” that song’s on THIS TAPE!  How’d they do that?!

“Security of the First World” – Simple, effective, introspective – this track gives the listener another moment to think on the previous lessons and grab some air before diving back into the war zone.

“Rebel Without a Pause” – My introduction to PE, as described above, and, I guess, Maseo Parker.  Unrelenting.  “My favorite song on this album” is a constantly changing notion; this one was my first favorite and it demanded that I give the rest my attention.

“Prophets of Rage” You’re quite hostile.  Chuck’s classic late-80’s wet vocal is telling you about PE here: how they perform, how you react to it, more of their influences and those to whom you should and shouldn’t be pay attention.

“Party for Your Right to Fight” – Best enjoyed in headphones, this is the perfect way to end it, tracking Flav on the left and Chuck on the right!  They’re ganging up on you!  Nowhere to run, you have to listen.  And it contains one of my favorite lyrical slices of a song in the first verse: It was your so called government/ that made this occur/ like the grafted devils they were!

Chuck, Flav, X, the Bomb Squad, and Griff & the S1Ws lay down unparalleled slaughter on this tape, they just rip it up.  (Black) Planets aligned to create this masterpiece, and I for one am glad they did.  And I know you know what I’m talking about… if you don’t, ACT LIKE YOU DO. 


  1. Turned out super-slick, BP, thanks again!

    1. No Doubt! Thanx again for sharing!

  2. jjohnson25.6.12

    DoctorBenwayOperates.. Articulate with math on this my friend. This was proper! Curious, why did Tommy not like this? (And did he ever change his mind on the band/album?) I recall hearing about other rap groups not liking PE when they were first on the scene (ie. Stetsasonic), but from what I remember, they were well received by most at the time… especially (white) rock audiences. PE seemed to be universally loved from the jump. In any case, incredible write up. Looking forward to more from your point of view. Tangent.. I once read an article with Hank talking about the album actually starting on the Black side (with Show 'Em Whatcha Got), but he decided to flip it at the last minute before production. I've been listening to it in this manner ever since. Kinda fun. Ya try this variation?

    1. "My man Daddy-O once said to me, he knew a brotha that stayed all day in his jeep, and at night he went to sleep, and in the morning all he had was sneakers on his feet."

      I never heard that Stet had a problem with them, Jay, it must've predated this tape! I HAVE heard Hank Shocklee discuss that, and was thinking just today (and this is why this venue was great, I forced myself to keep it relatively short), that I should've mentioned that, because he also mentions that the length and layout of this album was designed with tapes SPECIFICALLY in mind and that some of the instrumentals (like the one you mention) were constructed and cut to length to fill a side so that fans wouldn't have to FFWD>> too much to start the next side, which is pertinent here. And no, sorry man, I've never listened to it "Black Side first," reason being that fourteen years later, "Countdown to Armageddon" STILL gives me the chills. Hearing that dude from the BBC, who's name escapes me, yell "Let me hear you make some noise for - PUBLIC ENEMY!" is pretty crucial to my (personal) listening experience.

      Ok, real quick, cause i know I'm writing too much - Tommy B (whose name I cut short because I have no idea what happened to him after 5th grade, when I moved away) not liking the tape... this fact was never of any concern to after it took hold of me. Nowadays I'd say, "Jay, how come you didn't like this, dude? It's... it's... CANONICAL!" but then I didn't look a gift-horse in the mouth, I guess.


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