“You’re quite hostile.”
“I got a right to be hostile, man, my people been persecuted.”</em>
I said in my initial list that this is the most influential album in my life. Before we get to that, first a quick review of how this album fit into the history of rap. When it was released in 1988, rap had already entered the mainstream and was beginning to become a cultural force. That said, most rap was tame, slightly silly, and reminiscent of early rock & roll: fun to listen to but not terribly thought provoking (To be fair, there were many important early songs in rap that had a social context). Then, this hit the world like a punch in the gut. Chuck D’s huge voice, which was to hip-hop what Eddie Vedder has been to rock over the last decade. Amazing production by the Bomb Squad, with layers upon layers of beats, samples, and strange noises designed to assault the listener. The hardest of hard hitting lyrics, all demanding social change. It was Revolver and What’s Going On and Exile on Main Street combined into one album. The music world was never the same. Unfortunately, as hip-hop became the dominant force in music, this social consciousness got left behind.
Now, for the personal side. Music is always personal for me. Songs attach to events and become part of my memories. Music compliments my moods, reinforcing good times and comforting me in the rough periods. But no album has ever affected me like this one. I came from a house where it was demanded that all people be treated fairly, regardless of what they looked like, how much money they had, or where they lived. That was my core belief, but I never thought about it much until I popped this tape into my stereo for the first time. As Chuck D rapped about Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, I felt an urge to learn more about them and their beliefs. Within a few weeks, I was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Let me tell you, that was a BIG hit when I took it with me on my visit to my grandparents and family in central Kansas.). As I’ve listened to Nation over the past couple weeks, I realized if the Wikipedia had existed in 1988, I would have burned that thing up learning about Huey P. Newton, H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, and Marcus Garvey.
Soon, I was questioning the life I lived, my environment, and the beliefs of people I knew and loved. Veiled racism became more apparent and I wondered why people were so willing to tell black jokes or default to stereotypes when discussing people who weren’t white, middle class, and suburban like us. Being 17, I was probably far more judgmental that I had any right to be (after all, it’s not like I was without fault or inconsistency in belief), but for a few weeks I imagined myself as a fist pumping, slogan shouting rabble rouser who was going to shake things up in my community. Naturally, I ended up taking a far more subtle route, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 50% of my political and social beliefs have roots in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. OK, it is an exaggeration, since PE was talking about matters of social and economic equality and race relations and not predicting where political discourse would be 20 years later. But that summer was a turning point in my life. I looked at the world differently, had new ideas for what a just and fair world would be like, and sought out like-minded people who were far more eloquent about their beliefs that I was capable of being. When people looked at me strangely when I rolled around in my parents’ cars, windows down, stereo turned up to black men shouting “I rebel with a raised fist, can I get a witness,” I smiled to myself, thinking that I was, in my own passive-aggressive way, advancing the platform of the Prophets of Rage.
There are better albums (although this is a great, great album), albums I’ve listened to more, but none has changed my life the way It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back did.
One final point. In my Revolver review I said I liked to imagine people listening to classic albums for the first time. This was that album for my life. A new genre, a group like no other before them, and an album that shook the foundations of popular music. When kids in the future imagine someone listening to Nation for the first time, they’re imagining me at 17, staring at my stereo with a look of awe and disbelief, my world turning upside-down.
“I got a letter from the government the other day.
I opened and read it.
It said they were suckers.”