This Week In History: Public Enemy’s Second Album Revolutionizes Hip-Hop

On June 28, 1988, Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, one of the most important, influential records of all time.

In 1988, Chuck D and Public Enemy had already signed to Def Jam and released a bombastic, signature hip-hop record with Yo! Bum Rush The Show. Chuck D was already on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable and powerful voices in rap, but he had his sights set even higher. While their debut album was acclaimed by hip-hop fans, it failed to match the mainstream popularity of their contemporaries the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. Inspired by Marvin Gaye’s seminal record What’s Going On, Public Enemy sought to create an album that was musically unique with a strong social and political message. “Years of saved-up ideas,” noted Chuck, “were compiled into one focussed aural missile.”

Before forming Public Enemy, Chuck D and Flavor Flav were friends working as truck drivers delivering furniture for Chuck’s father. Chuck D also hosted a radio show on his college’s station WBAU, and was an MC with the group Spectrum City. Chuck D and Flavor Flav recorded a track they titled “Public Enemy #1” that was used as a promo for the radio show. The track made its way to Rick Rubin at Def Jam records, and he spent the next two years trying to, and eventually succeeding in, signing the duo to his label.

Chuck D and Flavor Flav recruited the Spectrum City crew of Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, and Eric Sadler (known collectively as The Bomb Squad) to be his production team, as well as Terminator X to fill the role as DJ. They soon found themselves as the opening act for the Beastie Boys during the latter’s Licensed to Ill tour, and released Yo! Bum Rush The Show in 1987.

“On the day that Yo! Bum Rush the Show was released, we was already in the trenches recording Nation of Millions,” Chuck D stated. The now classic album was recorded in 30 days for an estimated $25,000. “It was aggressive, race-against-the-clock teamwork, taking chances in sound,” recalled Chuck D in a 1995 interview with Mojo.

In the album’s first month after release it sold 500,000 copies, peaking at number 42 on the U.S. Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, and number one on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It Takes A Nation spent 49 weeks on the Top Pop chart, reaching certified platinum status within a year. The record quickly achieved the mainstream exposure the group fell short of on their debut, while continuing to grow their critical acclaim. It is still widely regarded as Public Enemy’s best work, and remains one of the most influential records of all time.