Sometime around spring break of 1989 or 1990 a college friend and I decided to sojourn from Cincinnati to West Palm Beach, Fla., for a week-long reunion with another friend from school. With music providing the soundtrack for our converging cultural and political ideologies, we had little to disagree about when it came to what tunes to play during the long, tedious drive. When we weren't blasting homemade Parliament/Funkadelic mixtapes (yes, these were actual tapes; remember -- this was nearly 15 years ago), Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back served as the score for a significant portion of the ride.
It's not often that a truly genre-bending album surfaces within any category of popular, mass-produced music, and Rap was no exception. Yet, while Dr. Dre's The Chronic, De La's Three Feet High and Rising and Nas' Illmatic are routinely considered such albums, PE's It Takes a Nation ... took us by surprise on so many levels (musically, politically, culturally) that I scarcely believe any album in the foreseeable future can do the same. Not only did the album forever change the direction of Hip Hop, it also helped to resurrect the sleeping giant of cultural and political curiosity in young people of all races and nationalities in the late '80s and early '90s.
Any music critic with an appreciation for classic Hip Hop will agree that It Takes a Million ... was stacked with standout tracks including "Bring The Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype" and "Rebel Without a Pause," but during the trip our hands-down favorite was "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," a looping, percussion-heavy track that chronicled the unjust incarceration of a man who refused to serve in the armed forces. "Black Steel" opens with Chuck's sharp, immediately recognizable response to a draft notice:
I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me givin' a damn, I said never ...
Ultimately, the unlikely protagonist of "Black Steel" breaks free with his infamous "52 brothers, bruised, battered and scarred but hard," achieving freedom after a chaotic melee involving a helicopter and a guard tower. There was an indescribable, emergent energy in the track that conjured images of a late-'60s rebellion, combined with a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer flick. For the first time in my life -- and perhaps the last -- I found what I considered to be my "theme song."
Some 15 years later, I now understand that "Black Steel" is less about protesting the draft and more about our individual right to challenge any edict that conflicts with our core beliefs and values. The song also firmly planted the seed that music could -- and should -- be seen as a conduit for social commentary. Certainly, music greats like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron and others had been doing it for years. But Hip Hop? It wasn't just about the Pee Wee Dance anymore.
Some would argue that Public Enemy has fallen off. While their legendary Bomb Squad-created sound, characterized by a mélange of screeching sirens, unsettling, mind-jarring beats and samples (including drop-in excerpts from speeches by Malcolm X and other black leaders), might fail to resonate with the young and uninitiated, their message is as timely as ever. Most so-called reality shows (and nearly everything else appearing on prime-time television) raise the specter of PE's "She Watch Channel Zero," and scanning the daily paper still feels eerily similar to reading the album's track listing.
I don't envy the young. All they're left with are the incoherent chants of Lil Jon (masterfully parodied by comedian Dave Chappelle recently) and a slew of Midwestern rappers who don't know how to correctly pronounce any word that rhymes with "there" or "scare." Sadly, PE's classic "Night of the Living Baseheads" could now just as accurately point to the bass pouring from an MTV video than the (free)base one might smoke from a pipe. (Only the bass that MTV sells is legal. And free.)
But back to the roadtrip. As Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" poured from the overworked speakers of my cramped two-seater, my friend and I felt inspired to read, challenge and act. We wanted to learn more about the politics of the world and what miniscule impact we could make as we began to carve our paths to the future/present.
In other words, the song awakened something in us like no other song before it had. After all, isn't that what a theme song is supposed to do?
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.