“Armageddon, Been in Effect. Go get a late pass. Step.”
My local newspaper once highlighted a local hair band, quoting the lead singer snottily saying, “Rap has never been popular in Dubuque.” While The Summer of 1988 was a seminal point in the history of Hip Hop, a time when old school rap stars—at that point, the rap artists of only four years ago—were effectively passed over for a new rap hierarchy, Hip-Hop was extremely difficult to find in Dubuque.
Metal was still in its ascendancy, and the dinosaurs of Classic Rock still loomed over the musical landscape. This was a Sundown town where the Sunrise never happened.
Yo! MTV Raps, a new show at the time, was one of my only sources. The first music video I saw was Eric B. and Rakim’s “Follow the Leader.” Rakim dropped rhymes more complicated than anything I ever heard layered on top of a sinister bass line. Gone were the simplistic rhyming schemes, 808 drum patterns, and live instrumentation and in was complicated sampling and rhymes.
I had bought tapes of LL Cool J, Fat Boys, Run DMC, and Beastie Boys before, and it was rare to find anyone who actively liked it or didn’t actively deride it. When I saw “Follow the Leader,” Hip-Hop become my music of choice, damn the derision.
What came next was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. Like everyone else who lived through a historical transformation, I was unaware of all the implications while I was living through it.
“This time around, The Revolution will not be televised. Step.”
I purchased a cassette of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back at Musicland in the Davenport Mall and had a cold the day I finally listened to it. I sat transfixed on my dial television intently playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! while sniffling and then militant, Black Nationalists dropped stutter step rhymes on a cacophony of samples, many of whose sources who ranged from the well known—like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”—to the arcane— like the Soul Children featuring Jesse Jackson “I Don’t Know What This World is Coming To.”
In a working class culture where television was king, Public Enemy effectively beheaded it with their song “She Watch Channel Zero.” In a town of Reagan Democrats where Patriotism was damn well expected, the opening lines of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos:”
I got a letter from the government, the other day
I opened and read it and it said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
picturing me giving a damn I said Never
Here was a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself because they never did
dripped with subversion. This was like listening to a pirate radio station of something I had never experienced.
I was around 12 when Nations first came out. My budding teenage angst was tilting towards rebellion, not only of my parents, but of institutions. Watching respected elders in my community leaving church and then openly complaining about “those people” led me know that something was wrong. There was a world outside that I wanted to experience.
Public Enemy and other hip hop groups helped filter my rebellion. They were my teachers. I was lucky to grow up in a time of explicitly political hip-hop, like KRS One, Paris, X-Clan, PE, Brand Nubian, and many others.
Paris’ “Devil Made Me Do It” (with the most subversive couplet I’ve heard to this day) struck at the heart of Christianity:
Give ‘Em fake Gods at odds with Allah
“Love Thy Enemy” and all that hoopla
Brand Nubian’s “Wake Up” called out fake preachers who were more interested in worldly gain than saving souls:
Preacher got my Old Earth putting money in the pan
For the rest of the week, now I’m eating out a soup can
He has a home, drives a Caddy through town
Has my Old Earth believing that he’s coming from the ground
The histories they gave challenged the dominant narrative pushed in school of glorious conquests by old white men.
There were constant references to figures I had never heard about, such as Farrakhan and Huey Newton. I went to our local dimly lit deindustrialized library and picked up books on the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, which furthered changed my ideas of what the Civil Rights movement was.
Parents hated hip-hop, and especially the kind of hip-hop Public Enemy did. It was a giant “Fuck You” to the hypocrisy of the previous generation, with their Beatles singing “All You Need Love” and their utopian dreams turned into the evisceration of the working and underclass. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was militant and violent, a dark mirror towards institutionalized racism. It was a harbinger that hip-hop was moving from party music on a disco break beat to an all encompassing music form willing to channel aggression into an articulate denunciation of power structures.
When I was at a high school basketball game as a kid, DOC’s “Funky Enough” blasted through the cheap speakers. Younkers-sweater wearing dads were furious, angrily clucking at anyone to turn that trash off.
The trash they had worked to push down was rising.