1988 was a pivotal year for rap music.
Those who witnessed revere it as the most pivotal. As far as production it was the culmination of affordable sampling technology, the rise of the bedroom producer, and breakbeat compilations which made diggin’ in the crates a lot easier and in some cases unnecessary.
Lyrically it was a time that brought us some of the most diverse subject matter, from some of the most creative groups and solo artists of the genre. EPMD, Stetsasonic, The Jungle Brothers, M.C. Lyte, M.C. Shan, The Audio 2, Too Short, Doug. E Fresh, Biz Markie, Eric B & Rakim, NWA, Ultramagnetic M.C.s and Slick Rick all dropped some of their best work in ’88.
On June 28, 1988 lightning struck twice with the release of both Long Live The Kane by Big Daddy Kane and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy. It would be Kane’s debut full length release and Public Enemy’s sophomore offering. Both would prove to be defining albums for the artists and become standards in the genre.
Long Live The Kane – Big Daddy Kane
The world first witnessed King Asiatic on 1987’s “Get Into It” and its B side “Just Rhymin’ With Biz”/”Somethin’ Funky.” Listeners were immediately open to Kane’s vocal tone, cadence, and use of metaphor.
“I give ya’ girl the kiss of death just like a vampire, stomp out M.C.’s just like a campfire/I go Rambo gigolo Romeo – Friday night spend money on a ho-tel to get a good night’s sleep.”
it was obvious that Kane was one to look out for. Kane’s follow up “Raw”/ “Word To The Motherland” was released in ’87 as well and solidified Kane while creating anticipation for a full release.
“Raw” was the song that inserted Kane’s name into the conversation with the other lyrical giants that were emerging in the mid to late '80s period affectionately known as the first Golden Era. “Word To The Motherland” was the piece that showed that Kane was not only a superior wordsmith, but that he also possessed knowledge of self – fitting nicely among his counterparts like Public Enemy, Rakim and the emerging Afrocentricity that was surrounding the music and the culture. A radio promo freestyle of “Raw” featuring Kool G. Rap was circulated furthering the anticipation for an album even more.
Ain’t No Half Steppin’ – "That was a sample by the Emotions called “Blind Alley” that I got from Biz Markie,” says Kane. “It was the same day that Biz found the “Get Out My Life Woman” record. He had been lookin’ for it for two years and he called his D.J. Cutmaster Cool V because he was so excited. I said that means that you don’t care about this Emotions record and he told me that I could have it. I grabbed it, and I always wanted to use that 'Ain’t No Half Steppin’ hook because that was street slang that we used. I took it all to Marley’s crib and he hooked it up and I laid vocals. It became a masterpiece/”
Kane says further that he suggested the horn riff and UFO samples, but Marley felt that the song was becoming cluttered. “I had in my head how I wanted the song, and at first we were going to throw the UFO break in only during the hook, but Marley threw it in throughout the verses, and the final product pretty much matched what was in my head”.
Set It Off – “I was hangin’ with Biz at 45 King’s house and he played a beat that he tailor made for Biz that was really slow, but Biz didn’t like it. I said that I would take it, but I wanted it faster. He knocked it up a few beats per minute, but I asked for it to be much faster. 45 found that interesting because that was the original tempo of the beat, it was only slowed down to match Biz’s flow. He took that disk out and put another one in with the same beat at the faster tempo with a sample on it, but he said that I couldn’t have it because it was for a Public Enemy remix and he was waiting on confirmation. A few weeks later he called and told Biz that I could have it. During that time I was listening to a James Brown compilation and there’s a horn break down on “Get Up, Get Into It,Get Involved” and I knew I wanted that for the beat, so I got Marley to add it. I was also inspired by “Sex Machine” from that same compilation, and I wanted something to match the energy from the intro when James is talking and then the beat drops. I said the let it roll, get bold intro and then the beat came in after. That structure came from “Sex Machine””.
Raw - Kane says of “Raw,” “That was my breakout. Before “Raw” I had only done “Just Rhymin’ With Biz” and no one was booking me because they didn’t know who I was. I had a record out, but I was sittin’ home broke. I really wanted a record by myself, and 'Raw' was it.”.
Originally Marley gave Kane a different beat for “Raw” that was more in the vein of “Make The Music” and Kane wrote his lyrics to that. Kane says “the original beat was much slower – maybe 94 beats per minute. The night before we recorded, I went to this girls house that I was dating and I was looking through her records. She had a copy of the 'Black Caesar' soundtrack by James Brown and 'Paid The Cost To Be The Boss' caught my ear, but Marley had already made a beat so I blew through it. When I heard the horns from 'Mama Feel Good' I knew that I had to make them fit on Marley’s beat, but I did what Biz always did before going to Marley’s house to record. I went to Downstairs Records to see if there were any other elements. There was a brother who worked there named J.C. and he played a few new James Brown records that had just come in. One of them was the horns that Kid N’ Play used on 'Do This My Way' and I can’t remember the other. The last one was 'I'm Comin' by Bobby Byrd and I knew that I wanted that one. I took it to Marley the next day and he still wanted to use his beat, but after I played 'Im Comin' he agreed that we needed to use it. Marley looped the beat so that the snares would hit on the 2, but I told him that he needed to catch the offbeat snare."
Marley had already dumped the beat to tape and he told Kane that it was too late. Kane insisted and Marley had to resample the entire beat and dump it to tape again. When Kane suggested the “Mama Feel Good” horns Marley wasn’t pleased stating, “<an this sounds like Public Enemy – we ain’t tryin’ to sound like them, they wanna be down with the Juice Crew." Once the song was put together with the horns Marley had to admit that they had a hit on their hands, and he cosigned making it the next single that he was eager to play on the air (WBLS).
Word To The Motherland – “That was me giving my people a message that we needed to come together. I wanted to speak to my people about my people and let them know that we can be proud of who we are. I found the beat on a breakbeat record and there was a brother in L.G. projects that I used to hang out with named Shim Shawn. He had a Casio keyboard and a mixer that could sample, so we would sample drums on the Casio and if we needed to loop we would use the mixer. I put it together there to take it to Marley’s house. We actually tried to do that with 'Just Rhymin’ With Biz' because I did that with Shim Shawn at his crib too, but we couldn’t get the equipment to connect to Marley’s so he had to do the samples over again and dump them to tape."
When Kane is asked what’s his favorite song from Long Live The Kane to perform live he says emphatically “Set It Off!"
"That’s my favorite song to perform from my catalog period. "If I’m losing energy on stage or I’m in pain and moving slow – 'Set It Off' takes me there automatically as soon as that beat drops.”
Long Live The Kane is considered by many Kane fans his best album and it’s also considered one of the best from what is arguably the best year in the genre for full albums.
It Takes A Nation of Millions – Public Enemy
Yo! Bum Rush The Show – Public Enemy’s 1987 debut album was created and recorded in a transitional period for rap music. At the time when the songs were recorded sampling was not the dominant process of rap production. The drum machine was still very much an essential tool, and producers were manually mixing snippets of songs over drum machine beats.
Yo! was created right at the end of one technology and the beginning of another. Chuck D says, “The song that made Rick Rubin wanna sign me was “Public Enemy #1,” but we made that in ’84. The rap style was old. The song used to bang throughout Long Island in ’84 and ’85, but it was now 1987."
Between 1987’s Yo! Bumrush The Show and 1988’s Nation of Millions came the single “Rebel Without A Pause”/”You’re Gonna Get Yours.”
“You’re Gonna Get Yours” was a song from Yo!, but “Rebel Without A Pause” was a brand new sonic assault and Chuck D says matter of factly, “Rebel was our first hit record.”
The energy, response and momentum from “Rebel Without A Pause” transferred directly into It Takes A Nation of Millions. Chuck says further, “We went into making that record like it was a military mission. Me and Eric Saddler (a member of the Bomb Squad production team) heard 'I Know You Got Soul' by Eric B & Rakim and we said that it was inconceivable that a song could be that good.
"We sounded dated because we were caught in the major (label) system and we released an album 9 months after it was completed. Eric B’s brother Ant Barrier (R.I.P.) I love him because he was the biggest P.E. critic always saying that I had an old style like it was ’82. But here we are with Yo! that should have dropped in ’86 and it drops in ’87. Eric B & Rakim had already changed the game with 'Eric B. Is President' and 'My Melody,' KRS had 'South Bronx,' Ultra Magnetic, Stetsasonic are all bangin’ and here we are with "Public Enemy #1" which we originally did in 1984! After hearing 'Know You Got Soul' we weren’t broken, but we just came out with our album – March 1987. We were supposed to come out October ’86. The hot records from the summer of ’86 would still be lingering, but those records changed everything. We got pushed back to March because the Beastie Boys were pushed back to October because Bruce Springsteen pushed them back - they were supposed to come out in June. They were talking at one point of dropping L.L. Cool J (“Bigger & Deffer”) before us, and that would have pushed us out! The final straw was when me and Eric went to Old Westbury College where Kool Moe Dee was still a student and the D.J. played 'I Know You Got Soul' 5 times in a row, and every time he played it, it got better and better. It was the greatest fuckin’ record I ever heard in my life man. We knew that we had to make a record like that, and we had to use James Brown. The noise was 'The Grun'” by James’s band The J.B’s. The result was 'Rebel Without A Pause.'"
“Rebel Without A Pause” made such an impact that it was included on Nation of Millions which is widely regarded as one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Another “pre album” track was “Bring The Noise” from the “Less Than Zero” motion picture soundtrack. “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise” were perfect releases that gave a now eager fanbase a glimpse of what was to come soon. Chuck D says that Rick Rubin had reservations about including both songs on It Takes A Nation.
“We had to fight Rick on that one. He generally left us alone and we had creative control. I believe that he sat in on a mix of 'She Watch Channel Zero' because we were using Slayer on it. Other than that he left us alone to create.”
If Public Enemy’s mission statement was to raise 5000 potential Black leaders based on Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s teaching that Black people should seek leadership from within, then Nation of Millions was the platform to reach that number. With the first official single “Don’t Believe The Hype” the anticipation for this album which was laid out like a sonic movie was at an all time high and the mind revolution was in full effect. If the sequencing of albums is a lost art due to the a la carte way that music is consumed today, one should visit the perfect sequencing of “Millions” for a reminder.
Though rap releases contained skits before this release, and Keith Le Blanc had joined Malcolm X speeches with Hip=Hop beats as early as 1983, no one had ever made a statement with these techniques the way that Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad did on this sonic opus. The title “Countdown To Armageddon” is an attention grabber by itself and even though consists of simply applause and sirens from one of their U.K. tours, the frantic noise is a perfect intro to a reworked version of “Bring The Noise” which slides right into “Don’t Believe The Hype” a response to negative press reviews of the groups paramilitary image and live shows.
The uptempo “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” is a glimpse into the world of Hip- Hop’s #1 hype man and an introduction to his own slang and language. When a scratched interpolation from Queens Flash Gordon soundtrack comes from nowhere placing D.J. Terminator X’s voice over Flash’s as savior of the universe things go completely off the rails and remain that way for the 4 minutes and 32 seconds of what is essentially a backwards sample of “Rebel Without A Pause” called “Terminator X To The Edge of Panic.” The noise continues with an instrumental track with Flavor Flav’s voice sampled throughout called “Mind Terrorist” that segues into one of Chuck D’s greatest vocal performances “Louder Than A Bomb.”
“Caught, Can We Get A Witness” is lyrically a mock trial with Public Enemy going before a judge to defend themselves against uncleared samples. This creative piece of sonic perfection was released a full five years before Biz Markie’s real life sample drama “All Samples Cleared.” Arguably one of the most powerful tracks on Millions is “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got.” The Lafyette Afro Rock Band provide both the powerful horn backdrop and drum beats as the Nation Of Islam’s Sister Ava Muhammad shouts the names of great Black leaders all sent by the same God. This is powerful. Surely 5000 potential Black leaders are being birthed by this point in the album.
The mind of Chuck D is full of uncharted territory. “She Watch Channel Zero” is the story of a Sister who’s “brain is retrained by 24 inch remote” controlled television. Years before reality television Chuck tackled the results of the addiction of empty programming on society.
There are certain songs that are indelibly connected to the music videos that accompany them. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” comes immediately to mind. But it’s doubtful that anyone who saw the video for “Night of The Living Baseheads” upon its release can separate the memory of the audio from the visual. “Baseheads” remains one of rap music’s most creative music videos (my 11th grade sociology teacher made viewing it a graded assignment). Before rap records embraced the use and/or sale of drugs Chuck and company examined and condemned the damage inflicted on communities by both the seller and the user.
For fans of poetic lyricism “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos” remains one of Chuck D’s best written and executed pieces. The tale of a violent prison break due to incarceration for refusal to join the United States Army is a lofty idea for a rap song, but Chuck doesn’t rhyme for the sake of riddling. With an all-star cast of golden era rap artists in the video, P.E. created a masterpiece that has yet to be matched. “Security of The First World” was simply an instrumental interpolation of James Brown’s Funky drummer, but it reached the Material Girl who jacked it for her controversial song and video “Justify My Love.”
Rounding out one of rap music’s few perfect albums are the self-describing “Prophets of Rage” which finds Chuck explaining to those not in the know exactly why P.E. has a right to be hostile and “Party For Your Right To Fight” a play on one of their labelmates – The Beastie Boys most popular songs and a rallying call to shake your ass with good reason. All praise is due to Eric B & Rakim for putting a battery in P.E.'s back.