"In the daytime, radio's scared of me / 'Cause I'm mad, plus I'm the enemy / They can't come on and play me in primetime / 'Cause I know the time, plus I'm
Released in 1988 on the Def Jam label, this was Public Enemy's second album, and still their most notorious. One writer described it as "the most confrontational record ever made", and though this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that it was a huge influence on what would later become hardcore rap and gangsta rap.
Nation of Millions itself is emphatically not a gangsta record. Although Chuck D's booming voice and the fearsome musical backdrop are totally uncompromising - in contrast to the D.A.I.S.Y. age mellowness of Long Island contemporaries such as De La Soul - the lyrical focus is political; indeed PE were much more closely aligned with the Native Tongues collective than with the the brazenly antisocial, non-political gangsta rap scene emerging at the time.
The album is a mean swipe at what Chuck saw as a "worldwide conspiracy to destroy the black race", a stance that unsurprisingly got him labelled by many as anti-white. PE have always been a positive, socially aware force in hip hop ("Night of the Living Baseheads" is an anti-drug tune, for example, echoing the theme of De La Soul's "My Brother's a Basehead"); however the political message is somewhat distorted by frequent bravado references to that old hip-hop staple, Chuck's "posse", not to mention throwaway rhymes like "I caught you pissin' in your pants / You're scared of dissin' us."
The album was also a revelation musically, brimming with samples, soundbites, and live footage from a PE gig in London. The DJ (in this case Terminator X) is evidently seen as being important as the MC, a view that echoes the feeling prevalent during the birth of hip hop, when the DJ was often billed above the MC, but that was already slipping from fashion by 1988; as Chuck raps: "Run-D.M.C. first said a DJ could be a band." Another record from this time which attempted to do the same thing was Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full, but the battle was already lost.
The album's notoriously dense and confrontational soundscape was largely down to the presence of the Bomb Squad, the production team consisting of Chuck, his friend and co-manager Hank Shocklee, Hank's brother Keith, and Eric "Vietnam" Sadler. This influential section of the PE greater family was all over hip hop in the late '80s and early '90s and produced records for other artists beside PE, such as Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted.
Tracklisting: (total run-time 57:51 min)
- Countdown to Armageddon (1:40)
- Bring the Noise (3:46)
- Don't Believe the Hype (5:19)
- Cold Lampin' with Flavor (4:17)
- Terminator X to the Edge of Panic (4:31)
- Mind Terrorist (1:21)
- Louder Than a Bomb (3:37)
- Caught, Can We Get a Witness? (4:53)
- Show 'em Whatcha Got (1:56)
- She Watch Channel Zero?! (3:49)
- Night of the Living Baseheads (3:14)
- Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (6:23)
- Security of the First World (1:20)
- Rebel without a Pause (5:02)
- Prophets of Rage (3:18)
- Party for Your Right to Fight (3:25)
Notable tracks include:
Bring the Noise: Probably the most accessible track, featuring outstandingly tight rapping. This was later revamped with Anthrax as "Bring tha Noize".
Don't Believe the Hype: Funky as hell, with excellent DJing and loads of cool samples, and lyrical interjections from Flavor Flav.
Cold Lampin' with Flavor: Flav gets his own track to MC on, and provides a less-than-serious break from the politics, with raps like "Ya eatin' death 'cause you like gettin' dirt from the graveyard - ya put gravy on it."
Show 'em Whatcha Got: Intense, hypnotic collage of samples. An endlessly repeated saxophone break is the backdrop for cries of "Show 'em whatcha got" and "Public enemy no.1", and samples of a woman preaching on "the same God that gave strength to Martin Luther King, to Malcolm X..."
She Watch Channel Zero?!: PE steal a Slayer riff and use it as the backing for a tirade against mindless television. "I don't think I can handle, she goes channel to channel / Cold lookin' for that hero - she watch channel zero."
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos: Nothing less than a call to arms against white supremacy. "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 giving a damn, I said "Never" / Here is a land that never gave a damn / About a brother like me and myself, because they never did / I wasn't with it, but just that very minute / It occured to me - the suckers had authority." Later covered by Tricky as "Black Steel".
Rebel Without a Pause: Maybe PE's best-known song, this is a ferocious diss of mainstream radio and of the band's critics, pushed completely over the edge by a howling sample-riff.
The album's numerous samples include:
"Countdown to Armageddon" - British announcer: "Hammersmith Odeon, are you ready for the Def Jam tour? Let me hear you make some noise! In concert for BBC Television tonight, and a fresh start to the week - let me hear you make some noise for Public Enemy!" PE: "Peace! Armageddon has been in effect, go get a late pass... Step! This time around, the revolution will not be televised - step! London, England - consider yourselves... warned! The rapping starts, fade out.
"Bring the Noise" - "Too black, too strong. Too black, too strong!"
"Cold Lampin' with Flavor" - radio DJ(?): "I guarantee you, no more music by the suckers." Flavor Flav: "Yo man, what does he mean by suckers, man?"
"Terminator X to the Edge of Panic" - Chuck D during live show: "At the count of three, I want you all to tell me the name of my DJ. One, two, three!" - Crowd shouts "Terminator X!". Flav: "Yo, I gotta hear that one more time, man! One, two, three!" Crowd shouts it again. Flav: "Yeeeaahh, boy! For all those that didn't understand, Terminator X!"
"Caught, Can We Get a Witness?" - Another live show - "Somebody in the house say 'Yeah!'" Crowd obliges. "If y'all really like to rock the funky beats, somebody in the house say 'Hell yeah!' Crowd says 'Hell yeah.' "I like that for the people up top, check this out!"
"Night of the Living Baseheads" - Martin Luther King Jr.: "Have you forgotten that once we were brought here we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture, our God - and many of us by the way we acted, we even lost our minds."
"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" - Flavor at a live show: "Bass for your face London, everybody in the house make some noise!" Crowd makes some noise. "I want everybody in the house to say "ho-o-o-o-o!" Crowd obliges. "Yo Chuck, kick it to 'em, man!"
"Prophets of Rage" - "You're quite hostile." "I got a right to be hostile, man, my people's being persecuted!"
Although it is PE's best remembered album, it was not their best-selling or highest-charting. In the US in peaked at #42, not a patch on the Top 10 success of the subsequent albums Fear of a Black Planet and Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black. It fared better in the UK, reaching #8, but again this was bettered by Fear, which reached #4.