Public Enemy is, hands down, the most influential and important group in the history of hip hop. By roughly stitching together contrapuntal noise and prophetic rabble-rousing, the avant-garde group quickly became rap's conscience. The contrasting personalities of PE's duo-- straight man and heavy-duty lyricist Chuck D and trickster sidekick Flavor Flav-- play off of one another to great effect. PE's work in toto has confronted, and at times embodied, most of the conflicts faced by young blacks over the last two decades. Racist white media and sellout black bourgeoisie. Black-Jewish relations and the woes of interracial relationships. The narrowness of black radio and the betrayal of blacks by dope dealers. Through it all, PE has maintained its integrity and vision. This even as the group's themes-- and popularity-- have had to take a back seat to the mass appeal of gangsta rap in the '90s.
From its first words-- a British voice introducing the group as if to indicate the essential foreignness of what's to come-- to its final beats, the revolutionary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back lunges far beyond anything in rap's past to help secure its future. Just one year after Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell cemented rap's commercial appeal, It Takes a Nation gave the genre ideological vitality. Bombastic beats and clashing polyrhythms ferociously leap off the sound-scape, a tribute to production crew the Bomb Squad's orchestrated cacophony. On "Bring the Noise," Chuck's startling, irrepressible flow, punctuated by snippets of Flav's off-kilter commentary, strikes close to home. "Radio stations I question their blackness/ They call themselves black, but we'll see if they play this/ Turn it up! Bring the noise!" And on "Don't Believe the Hype," Chuck and Flavor rap over a repetitive shrieking noise, intermittent scratching, a ghoulish moan down the vocal scale, and a breezy bass. Chuck proclaims himself the "follower of Farrakhan/ Don't tell me that you understand/ Until you hear the man." As the song boomed out of car stereos across the US in the summer of 1988, it was clear the group's leader had truly accomplished his stated goal: "Teach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard."


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