The message was that black music could be reclaimed and re-tooled as a semantic crowbar.
Chris Jones 2008-03-19
PE: The last great political act of our times? This album certainly seems to back the theory up. A year after the polemic of Chuck D, the sneer of Flavor Flav and the post-modern noise concrete of the Bomb Squad burst onto the public consciousness with Yo, Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy really pulled out the stops with It Takes A Nation... Signed to Rick Rubin's Def Jam label on the basis of the vocalists' freestyling skills, what emerged, when backed by the sample-crazy methodology of Hank Shocklee et al was a furious squall of beats and righteous anger that still assaults the ears.
What makes ITANOMTHUB such a fresh sound to this day is the focus given to Chuck D's ire by the production. Whether he's addressing the issues of disenfranchisement in a racist society (Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos), political obfustication (Don't Believe The Hype), or just the soma-like effects of the modern media (She Watch Channel Zero?!) his lyrics are spat with a controlled rage that is mirrored by the Bomb Squad's beats. It could be argued that these beats are where the real political agenda is adressed. Most people remember PE as the band that liberated James Brown from parodic dotage; reminding the world of how explosive and subversive his (and his proteges such as the JBs and Bobby Byrd's) beats could be. But the samples and beats on offer here also came from labelmates, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC, as well as PE themselves and a fair smattering of free jazz and other early rap acts. The message was that black music could be reclaimed and re-tooled as a semantic crowbar - screaming to the world that rhythm was as eloquent as words when reminding us of the world's inequalities.
Of course, the Nation Of Islam spiel (mainly propagated by Professor Griff, who was soon to leave the band) gave detractors a toehold, by pointing at the band's potentially anti-semitic undertow. But a careful listen to Chuck D's flow shows the man to be asking for Farrakhan to be understood in context, not just espousing his more extreme views. A caucasian-controlled media were genuinely scared by this band.
In the end ITANOMTHUB is possibly the greatest rap album ever made. Balancing political incisiveness with rock dynamics, it crossed the race divide and almost instantly made all other rap acts sound tame. For a brief spell hip hop was about more than guns and bling.