Interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Hank Shocklee by Kembrew McLeod in Stay Free! (which is not involved in any way with the manufacture and distribution of mini-pads):
- When Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in 1988, it was as if the album had landed from another planet. Nothing sounded like it at the time. It Takes a Nation came frontloaded with sirens, squeals, and squawks that augmented the chaotic, collaged backing tracks over which P.E. frontman Chuck D laid his politically and poetically radical rhymes. He rapped about white supremacy, capitalism, the music industry, black nationalism, and–in the case of “Caught, Can I Get a Witness?”– digital sampling: “CAUGHT, NOW IN COURT ‘ CAUSE I STOLE A BEAT / THIS IS A SAMPLING SPORT / MAIL FROM THE COURTS AND JAIL / CLAIMS I STOLE THE BEATS THAT I RAIL … I FOUND THIS MINERAL THAT I CALL A BEAT / I PAID ZERO.”
In the mid- to late 1980s, hip-hop artists had a very small window of oppor-tunity to run wild with the newly emerging sampling technologies before the record labels and lawyers started paying attention. No one took advantage of these technologies more effectively than Public Enemy, who put hundreds of sampled aural fragments into It Takes a Nation and stirred them up to create a new, radical sound that changed the way we hear music. But by 1991, no one paid zero for the records they sampled without getting sued. They had to pay a lot.
….Stay Free!: What are the origins of sampling in hip-hop?
Chuck D: Sampling basically comes from the fact that rap music is not music. It’s rap over music. So vocals were used over records in the very beginning stages of hip-hop in the 0s to the early ’80s. In the late 1980s, rappers were recording over live bands who were basically emulating the sounds off of the records. Eventually, you had synthesizers and samplers, which would take sounds that would then get arranged or looped, so rappers can still do their thing over it. The arrangement of sounds taken from recordings came around 1984 to 1989.
Stay Free!: Those synthesizers and samplers were expensive back then, especially in 1984. How did hip-hop artists get them if they didn’t have a lot of money?
Chuck D: Not only were they expensive, but they were limited in what they could do–they could only sample two seconds at a time. But people were able to get a hold of equipment by renting time out in studios.
Stay Free!: How did the Bomb Squad [Public Enemy’s production team, led by Shocklee] use samplers and other recording technologies to put together the tracks on It Takes a Nation of Millions.
Hank Shocklee: The first thing we would do is the beat, the skeleton of the track. The beat would actually have bits and pieces of samples already in it, but it would only be rhythm sections. Chuck would start writing and trying different ideas to see what worked. Once he got an idea, we would look at it and see where the track was going. Then we would just start adding on whatever it needed, depending on the lyrics. I kind of architected the whole idea. The sound has a look to me, and Public Enemy was all about having a sound that had its own distinct vision. We didn’t want to use anything we considered traditional R&B stuff–bass lines and melodies and chord structures and things of that nature.?
Stay Free!: How did you use samplers as instruments?
Chuck D: We thought sampling was just another way of arranging sounds. Just like a musician would take the sounds off of an instrument and arrange them their own particular way. So we thought we was quite crafty with it.
Shocklee: “Don’t Believe the Hype,” for example–that was basically played with the turntable and transformed and then sampled. Some of the manipulation we was doing was more on the turntable, live end of it.
Stay Free!: When you were sampling from many different sources during the making of It Takes a Nation, were you at all worried about copyright clearance?
Shocklee: No. Nobody did. At the time, it wasn’t even an issue. The only time copyright was an issue was if you actually took the entire rhythm of a song, as in looping, which a lot of people are doing today. You’re going to take a track, loop the entire thing, and then that becomes the basic track for the song. They just paperclip a backbeat to it. But we were taking a horn hit here, a guitar riff there, we might take a little speech, a kicking snare from somewhere else. It was all bits and pieces.
Stay Free!: Did you have to license the samples in It Takes a Nation of Millions before it was released?
Shocklee: No, it was cleared afterwards. A lot of stuff was cleared afterwards. Back in the day, things was different. The copyright laws didn’t really extend into sampling until the hip-hop artists started getting sued. As a matter of fact, copyright didn’t start catching up with us until Fear of a Black Planet. That’s when the copyrights and everything started becoming stricter because you had a lot of groups doing it and people were taking whole songs. It got so widespread that the record companies started policing the releases before they got out.
Stay Free!: With its hundreds of samples, is it possible to make a record like It Takes a Nation of Millions today? Would it be possible to clear every sample?
Shocklee: It wouldn’t be impossible. It would just be very, very costly. The first thing that was starting to happen by the late 1980s was that the people were doing buyouts. You could have a buyout–meaning you could purchase the rights to sample a sound–for around $1,500. Then it started creeping up to $3,000, $3,500, $5,000, $7,500. Then they threw in this thing called rollover rates. If your rollover rate is every 100,000 units, then for every 100,000 units you sell, you have to pay an additional $7,500. A record that sells two million copies would kick that cost up twenty times. Now you’re looking at one song costing you more than half of what you would make on your album.
Chuck D: Corporations found that hip-hop music was viable. It sold albums, which was the bread and butter of corporations. Since the corporations owned all the sounds, their lawyers began to search out people who illegally infringed upon their records. All the rap artists were on the big six record companies, so you might have some lawyers from Sony looking at some lawyers from BMG and some lawyers from BMG saying, “Your artist is doing this,” so it was a tit for tat that usually made money for the lawyers, garnering money for the company. Very little went to the original artist or the publishing company.
Shocklee: By 1990, all the publishers and their lawyers started making moves. One big one was Bridgeport, the publishing house that owns all the George Clinton stuff. Once all the little guys started realizing you can get paid from rappers if they use your sample, it prompted the record companies to start investigating because now the people that they publish are getting paid….
Much more at Stay Free! Check it out.
I would very much like to see sampling greatly opened up, with standard rates across the board like the royaltiy rates for recording someone else’s song: I can record any song I want and the royalty rates are set and not subject to individual negotiation, nor can it be prohibited by the rights holder, unlike say, the Beatles and Stones who forbid sampling of their material outright (see DJ Dangermouse case). The entire library of recorded work should be avaiable for sampling at standardized rates as all published songs are available for performance or recording.
Here is more on the Public Enemy production team (“The Bomb Squad”) by Kevin Johnson from the Encyclopedia of Record Producers:
- The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric (Vietnam) Sadler, Carl Ryder)
Think of the one rap album that stands out as being the best of all time. What comes to mind? Run-D.M.C.’s self-titled debut? A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm? N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic? Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full? Fugees’ The Score? Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted?
The list goes on and on, but one group and one album that stands out is Public Enemy and its 1988 classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – almost a greatest-hits package within itself with cuts like “Don’t Believe The Hype,” “Bring The Noise,” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”
For several years after It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that album’s title would prove true as the controversial Public Enemy seemed unstoppable.
Among the reasons for the group’s success were the in-your-face, political raps of Chuck D and his flow with partner Flavor Flav, but behind the rappers and behind most of PE’s work was the production outfit known as the Bomb Squad, who were single-handedly responsible for one of rap’s most recognizable, popular, and hardcore sounds.
The Bomb Squad was, as its name implied, explosive. Core members Hank
Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric (Vietnam) Sadler, and Carl Ryder created unique, bombastic musical blasts often full of sirens, whistles, and other effects.
“We weren’t looking for a sound, so to speak,” says Hank Shocklee. “We were
looking for sonics, and through sonics we shaped an image. We wanted the music we were doing to be as visual as possible. Like when you hear thunder you have thunder in your mind and what it is – what it represents – its intrinsic meaning. Thunder has the feeling of disaster about to happen, destruction,” says Shocklee.
“Also, we wanted [the music] to have color. the color of thunder is black and dark gray. We approached it that way, looking for music with emotion and color.”
True rap-heads will be surprised to learn that, in creating Public Enemy’s music, it was a rock’n’roll-edged sound the member of the Bomb Squad were seeking, not a rap or R&B edge.
“We wanted the same effects of rock’n’roll without using the instruments,” explains Shocklee. “Groups like Metallica, Megadeth, and Guns N’ Roses were using lots of glaring guitars, distortion and frequencies hovering around the same area. We looked for things that gave you that emotion and feel without actually using them.”
Shocklee, the Bomb Squad’s core, first got into production during the mid-’80s when he was asked to work on a song for an unknown rap group Chuck D was part of. A dance producer was recruited to produce the song.
“He said he knew hip-hop,” Shocklee says of the dance producer. “We were like, ‘We don’t want no fuckin’ 115 or 120 beats per minute.’ We didn’t want none of that. We wanted to do something that was 83 beats per minute and that was funky and hot and would get play on the streets. That’s the vibe we were
With that in mind, Shocklee figured he should take over the production, and he called in Sadler. “I wanted him to organize the samples, and then we kept working together.”
Though the record was a failure, entrepreneurs Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin [see entry] of Def Jam took notice and commissioned the group to do a 12-inch record; and with that money, Shocklee and crew stretched it out into several songs. Those tracks, which cost a mere $12,000, would become 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the first Public Enemy album.
The production crew, however, did not become known as the Bomb Squad until It Takes a Nation of Millions. “Before, we were together to fulfill a specific mission,” says Shocklee. “Then we perfected that level. The beauty of what we were doing . . . we pushed the envelope, using techniques like filtering, the way we truncated samples, and we didn’t sequence anything. Everything was played freehand. We wanted the feel of the non-exactness, so to speak.”
Shocklee says a couple of things about It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back make the album unique. “We invented the [rap music] interlude on Nation, and now they’re full-length skits,” he says.
Also, the album was marketed in a ground-breaking way. The track “Rebel Without a Pause,” for example, was the B-side of one of the singles from Yo! Bum Rush the Show, while another popular song from Nation, “Bring The Noise,” appeared on the soundtrack to Less Than Zero. The fact that these songs were underground hits prior to the release of Nation only increased the demand for the album.
More Public Enemy projects followed, like Fear of a Black Planet and the anthemic “Fight The Power,” from the Do The Right Thing soundtrack, and the Bomb Squad continually exploded into other genres with other groups, producing “Steppin’ to the A.M.” for Third Bass, “Don’t Be Afraid (the Jazz
You Up version)” by Aaron Hall, and a few songs for Bell Biv Devoe like “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)” and “Let Me Know Something.”
Though the Squad appeared to be as productive as ever, things weren’t as they had once been behind the scenes. Bomb Squad players began shifting, with folks like Gary G. Wiz, Larry “Panic” Walford, and Kevin Young figuring in and out of the mix. Eventually, the original group disbanded.
“To be honest, after Fear of a Black Planet, I was keeping things together with smoke and mirrors,” says Shocklee, who may continue to use the Bomb Squad moniker working with other people. “There were different agendas.”