A few days before I left for SXSW I received the disheartening news that my pitch for Continuum's 33 1/3 series was rejected. To be honest, I didn't have much hope that I would be accepted as a legitimate author of a book, let alone a tiny book. I don't consider myself a prolific writer by any means (this blog is merely a receptacle for getting it off my chest) and tackling the deadline of having an actual deadline, for a book mind you, was already giving me anxiety. Needless to say, many others (hundreds) aspired for the same lofty heights like myself. I'd like to imagine my offer was tossed around for a while; one, because I got my pink slip a few weeks after reading other's woes, and two, because they chose to do the book I proposed, but gave it to the other submitter. So, here's what I gave them:
After much deliberation I settled on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Not only do I consider it the most important album in the hip-hop cannon (for reasons I will further explain), but personally it was my gateway record; the one that introduced me to a world outside of middle-class suburbia and continued to amaze me through different phases of my life. It’s an album that simultaneously demands academic discourse as well as hyperbolic retroactive accolades.
I plan on approaching the album from three angles:
- Personal Memoirs…
I first purchased It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back from the Camelot Records in the Dayton Mall. I was 11 years old and every dollar earned on my paper route went directly towards filling a shoebox full of hip-hop cassettes. This particular pilgrimage was in anticipation of my trip to a multi-cultural summer camp in Germany. I would never call my upbringing strict, but my mother was keen to Tipper Gore and loved to deny me access to anything bearing a Parental Advisory sticker. I would also never refer to my hometown of Troy, Ohio as a sheltered community, but the absence of black culture is glaringly obvious. Troy is the essence of white-bred, middle-class, suburbia.
Through MTV and late-night radio transmissions from Dayton I was instantly fascinated with LL Cool J’s crotch-grabbing braggadocio and Run DMC’s arena-ready rhymes, but it was Chuck D and Flavor Flav starring at me through prison bars that truly reeled me in. I managed to hide the tape in a cover for Peter Gabriel’s So and managed to smuggle my contraband (which included a copy of Slayer’s Reign in Blood) through customs, learning every word by the time I touched down in Hamburg……
Like I said previously, this was my gateway record. Never before had I heard of Marcus Garvey or Louis Farrakhan. I learned more about African American history and the problems faced by the black population in one sitting, than I ever did in the public schools. Needless to say, Public Enemy prompted me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, watch Spike Lee movies, buy Cross Colors clothing, write militant poetry in English class, and scare the shit out of my parents. Most importantly I feel It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was a watershed for the alternative subculture that blossomed through the 90’s; the Lollapalooza age. It was this album that helped me embrace every aspect of that particular renaissance in music and develop an open mind towards anything remotely considered fringe. If I had the space I would elaborate on other personal vignettes I plan to write that were directly and indirectly influenced by Public Enemy, but to be succinct, I’ll move on…
- The Sound and the Fury
In many ways, Public Enemy was hip-hop’s first rock band, with a cast of characters rivaling any group of Anglo-Saxons that had come before. Chuck D as the patriarchal “Messenger of Prophecy,” Flavor Flav as the cartoonish “Cold Lamper,” Terminator X the “Assault Technician,” possessed a presence that was as controversial and dead serious as it was celebratory and outlandish. They were their own secessionist movement, their own political party; an anomaly that intimidated and stunned even those already deeply entrenched in the culture. It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back was their definitive statement wrapped up in an hour of high concept, something completely missing from hip-hop music. From the narrative on “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” a song detailing Chuck’s refusal to be drafted, to “Night of the Living Bassheads,” which confronted the crack crisis of the late 80’s, the album presented the headlines CNN were refusing to broadcast. The only artist remotely close to them at the time was KRS-One, who later coined his style as “edutainment,” but Public Enemy was more than that, they were their own revolution.
Sonically the album adhered seamlessly with this rockist aesthetic. The innovative use of sampling by the Bomb Squad was a guerilla assault on the senses, fusing piecemeal squeals and beats from James Brown and Funkadelic, but also integrating sound bites from radio talk shows, people on the street, and speeches from seminal black leaders. Producer Rick Rubin also had a hand in creating this “pulse of the nation” sound by injecting noise from his other protégés (like the Beastie Boys and Slayer) into the overall fabric. In short, the music was as cathartic as the lyrics.
- The Legacy?
2008 will be the 20th anniversary of It Takes a Nation…, but it’s hard to find traces of its impact in modern music; the current generation of hip-hop lacks ingenuity and is far from being politically attuned. Teaching in inner-city high schools I’ve found that more teens today own copies of the Flavor of Love than a Public Enemy disc.
My third approach to the record would be more fictional, a hypothesis I suppose asking “What if this album were released tomorrow?” In today’s climate of terror levels and pc rhetoric, how would the public respond, how would Public Enemy be regarded or opposed? They are still making albums, which is intriguing, because the group falls well below the radar of most listeners. In my research of this book I would be interviewing all parties involved in the making of the album, probing into what made this such an incendiary achievement when it was released and what has happened since to keep it out of social conscious.
Feel free to let me know why I got rejected, I can take it. Just don't say "Because you're a shitty, self-disposed, writer," I'm already well aware of that fact. Bonus: the coincidental media blitz afforded to Public Enemy's lone performance in Austin, only added to my pain.