Beat is the father of your rock and roll: talking with critic Christopher R. Weingarten about Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
“All in, we’re gonna win” says Chuck D on his group Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and it’s the ethos that drives one of the most equally brilliant and controversial records of its era. Robert Christgau called it in the Village Voice, “the bravest and most righteous experimental pop of the decade” and that still holds true; there had not been a hip hop album quite like Nation of Millions before it with its politically overt lyrics, in-your-face production or liberal use of samples. Even listening to it today, some twenty-two years after its release, it still sounds like a high-stakes gamble that paid off big. Whether its the frequent use of squelching noise where someone else might try to find a melody or the overt references to controversial figures like Louis Farrakhan, nothing on Nation of Millions feels like a compromise.
Its history is explored in depth in the illuminating new 33 1/3 book by music critic Christopher R. Weingarten. It is easily one of the most essential-reads in the series. Although it is a history of his favorite album, Weingarten approaches it like a historian, unearthing new details of the album and putting the album in a historical and social context. He’s not trying to make the case for its inclusion in the canon of greatest albums, but telling its story and letting the reader reach that conclusion on their own. There is a wealth of information in this small book that makes it a perfect companion to the album because it explains the reason behind a lot of the samples PE and their production team (known as the Bomb Squad) use, from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” or Slayer’s “Angel of Death” to an on-air dis from the pioneering (and late) hip hop DJ Mr. Magic. At one point, Weingarten explains the evolution in sampling and copyright laws and notes that when PE was working on the soundtrack to the Spike Lee movie He Got Game, their label, Def Jam, hired someone to be in the studio and make sure they didn’t try to sample from unauthorized sources.
Weingarten writes for Spin and the Village Voice, amongst other places. Last year, he reviewed one thousand different albums on Twitter and earlier this year he covered one hundred shows at SXSW for Rolling Stone on Twitter in a weekend and has been the subject of a feature in the Columbia Journalism Review. It doesn’t seem boastful that his Twitter bio says he’s the “Last rock critic standing.” I spoke with Weingarten on the phone about writing his book and about Public Enemy in general while he was working on his second book, Hipster Puppies, a departure from PE, to say the least. He is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I’ve ever talked to, and he did so just a week after his apartment burned down.
I heard you on Jessica Hopper’s “Hit it or Quit It” podcast a few weeks ago saying you thought Nation of Millions was one of the greatest records ever…
It is the greatest record ever, in my opinion.
Why do you think that?
It’s so dense in an effortless way. There’s so much going: there’s a million samples, the drum patterns are put in by hand so they never match up right, there’s all kinds of weird puns and wordplay in Chuck’s lyrics. Every time you listen to it, something else opens up to you. I’ve been listening to that record for two decades at this point and every time I hear it, something else opens itself up to me. It’s this bottomless well of sound. It’s really depressing to me to think that you can’t legally make a record like that any more, you can’t financially make a record like that any more. It’s the strongest case for ending copyright law.
But weren’t there other albums after Nation of Millions that used a lot of samples, like (The Beastie Boys’) Paul’s Boutique?
Yeah, but Paul’s Boutique used samples in a completely different way. I hate to use the word “reverent” to its sample sources, but Paul’s Boutique is definitely more vocal about its sample sources. When the Dust Brothers used a sample, they wanted it out there in its high-definition glory. They wanted you to think about the Steve Miller Band, or whatever. Public Enemy would just take a snare sound or a guitar sound or just a pinprick of music, a sliver or a stab. Paul’s Boutique is like collage art and Nation of Millions is like pointillism, it’s like a mosaic.
And really, the sample laws that really shut this shit down forever came out after Nation of Millions, after Three Feet High and Rising by De La (Soul) and after Paul’s Boutique. The chilling effect that happened came two or three years after all of that. Even then, no one was making it like the Bomb Squad. It’s depressing to me that you can look at what Les Paul did with a guitar sound and see all of these beautiful places that people have taken that over the past forty years and The Bomb Squad were such geniuses and originators that I would have really loved to have imagined if you gave that twenty years and you made it financially possible to explore sampling like that forever, someone who grew up on that, to treat that as their punk rock or their genesis point and grow that in a way that a record company could help fund. There’s all kinds of possibilities for amazing music that we’re losing out on right now.
Right, and right now a lot of people were scared off from using samples to the point where the one exception now seems to be Girl Talk.
The whole thing with Girl Talk is not that I don’t like Girl Talk, I think the Girl Talk records are brilliant and totally fun and really unique, but when you get into mashup art, there’s definitely a wink and every sample comes with a smile and a nod. It’s more about dancing than destruction at that point; it’s a completely different animal.
One sample in particular I wanted to ask about was the one at the beginning of “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.” It was from Mr. Magic’s radio show saying he’d never play PE again. “No more music from these suckers” is what he says specifically and PE turned that around and used it in a song.
They were supposed to be on that show and he smashed the record on air and said they were suckers. Flav was actually the one who tape recorded it and they felt dissed. If I’m getting the timeline right, that was when they made “Rebel with a Pause,” which was the first song (they recorded) for Nation of Millions. It is actually showing what lit their fuse. “Here’s one of the many, many, many, many reasons why we’re so angry right now.”
I also liked the transition into that song because the song preceded it was “Don’t Believe the Hype,” which attacks the media for getting it wrong when talking about what PE is all about.
Totally. Everything about that record is so well thought out. There is not a wasted second on that album. I think about rock critics only think about those things on such a molecular level, but it is like Public Enemy were working with molecules and getting in there on a granular level of their own music. It’s a very meticulous work.
One thing I really liked about your book also was that you drew on a lot of PE’s influences like James Brown and Isaac Hayes and explored what they were thinking when they created the source material PE sampled.
A lot of that stuff was something I had always wondered about but never did the footwork for. I know why Public Enemy sampled Isaac Hayes, but what was Isaac Hayes thinking? I know what it means for Public Enemy to sample Isaac Hayes but what does it mean for Isaac Hayes to be Isaac Hayes? Is that still present in the Public Enemy version of Isaac Hayes? When I started digging into that, I noticed there was a straight line from the artists that Public Enemy samples to the artists that sample Public Enemy, a lot of the same triumphs and tribulations.
This is a band who is very fiery, who drew from a lot of bands who dealt with a lot of personal politics at the time they recorded. The sound of tumult comes from other individuals who had tumultuous existences.
When you were writing this, did you talk to anyone from PE? Were they very cooperative?
It’s funny because I never wrote a book before. I’m so used to doing articles and starting with interviews and working backwards. I just holed up in the Brooklyn Public Library and just did insane amounts of research. By the time all of my research was done, I had to turn the book in. I was pissed that I didn’t get to do any interviews because I ran out of time. I basically did research until the final second because I wanted to make it this heavily-researched thing and then get with those guys on the molecular, granular, nerd stuff and then I had to turn the fucking thing in! If you look at the bibliography, the thing is meticulously researched. The works cited page is huge.
I know! I noticed that it spans several pages. It has to be the largest bibliography I’ve seen amongst the 33 1/3 books.
Be sure to mention that! (laughs)
A lot of the 33 1/3 books are really powered by the author’s preconceived notions and the ideas they have coming into it. I just hit the library. I wanted to just treat it like something I was coming into for the first time. If you look at it, I don’t use the the word “I” once. There’s none of “me” in the book. Except for my sheer, gushing fan-boy love that would cause me to take on such a project, there’s not a lot of Christopher in it.