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The best 33 and 1/3 books make you realize not only why an album is so great, but that it is better than you thought. I grew up listening to Public Enemy. I remember when "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" was a "world premiere" video on MTV. I was a fourth-grader; a whiteboy from the sticks who would soon be reading books by and about Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Huey Newton, Marcus Garvey, and Eldridge Cleaver -- thanks to Chuck D and Public Enemy. P.E. was definitely my favorite group up through 1994, and even after the big miss with Muse-Sick-N-Hour-Mess-Age, I still cited them as my favorite group "of all time," with Nation of Millions #2 only to Illmatic. But somehow, over the past five years or so, P.E. and this album had fallen in my estimation. I was asked to compile a list of top 25 hip-hop albums of all time last year, and I ranked Nation of Millions... #25. Well, after reading this excellent book by Christopher Weingarten, it's back at #2 and may even be knocking on the door of #1 -- and for reasons I never would have suspected.
Growing up, I was always much more concerned with lyricism than production. I remember I used to consider hip-hop beats "background music" for the rhyming. My favorite emcees as a kid were Rakim, KRS-ONE, and Chuck D. Rapping was about being smart, first and foremost, and it wasn't until The Chronic that I really started paying attention to beats. Now, I make beats (or at least try to) on the MPC 2000, and I've been doing that an and off again for 15 years. I collect records and always listen for samples, but this is a comparatively recent development, if you consider that the bulk of the formative years of my hip-hop education came B.C. (Before Chronic). Thus, while I have a keen appreciation for what guys like Pete Rock, J Dilla, DJ Premier, and even Kanye West do and have done with their samplers, I never really gave a whole lot of thought to the Bomb Squad. Chris Weingarten's book is actually much more about Nation's production than Chuck D's lyrical content -- and that really surprised me.
As a beat-digger myself, I loved Weingarten's approach. He takes each of the major samples used by Public Enemy, and traces not only why and how they were used, but also the conditions under which the original recordings were made! The amount of care and research required to do this is staggering, and it is no surprise that at 138 pages (prior to Works Cited), this is the longest of the five hip-hop books in the 33 and 1/3 series. For example, when looking at P.E.'s usage of James Brown's "The Grunt," Weingarten goes back to an evening when the J.B.'s were in mutiny, refusing to take the stage for the Godfather of Soul unless he paid them more. Refusing to bow down to his band, Brown tracked down Bootsy Collins and his Pacesetters and sent his private jet to pick them up and play the show! From here, we get "The Grunt." Each of the major samples used are traced in similar fashion, and I especially liked the sections on Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas (and the whole Wattstax thing, which I knew nothing about).
The denseness of information caused me to read this book over three or four days, whereas I finished most of the other 33 and 1/3 books in a day or two, but the entire time I was reading it, I kept relaying stories to my wife and telling her, "This is like the greatest thing I've ever read!" All the while, I was listening to Nation of Millions, and I haven't stopped. It is once again in heavy rotation, and now -- for the first time ever -- I truly appreciate its greatness. You know how P.E. had that chaotic, rock 'n roll intensity to their music? That's because they didn't sequence their beats -- they'd all stand around at samplers, tapping them in, jamming like a live band! Four samplers (or more), with even Flavor Flav responsible for the snares! These are the kind of details that I love, and they're missing from all of the other 33 and 1/3 books (save Paul's Boutique) that I've read. I've enjoyed all the hip-hop books in the series, and Paul's Boutique gives it a run for its money, but this is the best. Stop what you're doing and buy this book NOW!