Friday, April 30, 2010

Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Christopher R. Weingarten | Book Review

Public Enemy's
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
by Christopher R. Weingarten
(Continuum Books; Spring, 2010)

Ideal for readers who are suckers for palm-sized books (like me), the 33⅓ series is written for music addicts, by music addicts. The latest volume in this great series – 71st total, 5th amongst titles covering hip hop LPs – takes an all-encompassing look at Public Enemy’s second (and best) album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Author Christopher R. Weingarten (Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Idolator, Spin …) weaves a web of history-rich anecdotes and music trivia as convoluted as the sample-heavy sonics of the album itself. With flair, Weingarten wraps up all of the “noise” into a thoroughly researched, enthrallingly informative read.

Hip hop in the mid-to-late ‘80s wasn’t the commercialized custerfluck it is today. Rap artists were battling for supremacy in an era when a DJ or music critic’s opinion was the gospel, the end-all be-all to critical acclaim or absolute ostracization. Even after dropping their debut album on the biggest rap label on the planet, Public Enemy still wasn’t turning heads like they’d expected. Critics panned them and DJs – most notably Mr. Magic, which Weingarten touches on – refused to play their records. It was at that point at which PE front man Chuck D, upon hearing Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul”, knew he had to double up for the group’s sophomore effort – or “turn it up”, if you will.

Weingarten portrays the group’s creative efforts and direction, fused by Chuck D’s hard as nails steadfastness and the Shocklee brothers’ unique sonic structuring, accompanied of course by Flavor Flav’s spunk and the militant imagery of the S1Ws and Professor Griff. In describing the Bomb Squad’s chaotic soundscapes – a stark contrast to Marley Marl’s fine-pointed production – Weingarten cleverly compares these varied approaches to the dissimilarities between Stax and Motown (as well as Def Jam co-founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons). With a keen appreciation for the samples that made this album what it was, the author delves deep into the life and music of The Godfather – the late, great James Brown. Weingarten also covers oft-overlooked narratives of Bootsy Collins as a JB, Bobby Byrd as the original hype man, and Clyde Stubblefield, responsible for arguably the most sampled break of all time – “Funky Drummer”.

Providing a great history lesson that branches out into the realms of funk and soul as much as it does to rap, Weingarten offers a commendable balance of both research and unique insight. For instance, he compares the bizarre occurrence of organ transplant recipients adopting the traits of their donors(!) to the art of sampling and the resurrection of old sounds – reanimating the past, taking on a new life. Similarly intriguing, the author dissects Chuck D’s infamous line “bass, how low can you go” and its lyrical significance, being re-flipped nine tracks later on Nation’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”: Turning “bass” to “base”, and giving “how low can you go” a whole new meaning.

Much like the untold number of samples fit tightly into It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Weingarten’s contribution to the 33⅓ series amasses a great wealth of musical history into an item you can fit in your pocket. Articulately and efficiently capturing the frenzied history (and pre-history) of Public Enemy’s second LP into a mini-anthology of sorts, Christopher R. Weingarten has given us a reason once more to believe the hype about one of rap’s greatest and most influential albums.