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The biggest charge I could level against It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is that it's too in my wheelhouse. I wanted to know that Flavor Flav himself punched in snares on one of the several occasions legendary production team the Bomb Squad revamped James Brown's "Funky Drummer." I wanted to know that the original metal riff underneath "She Watch Channel Zero?!" was Bad Brains' "Re-Ignition" (fit the Afrocentricity thematically), not Slayer's "Angel of Death" (ultimately owned by Rick Rubin). I wanted to know the Shocklee brothers accidentally discovered how to filter a bassline when something was only half-plugged in accidentally.
To get full disclosure out of the way, I'm rooting for Christopher R. Weingarten. We've edited each other exactly once, me for his excellent and missed Paper Thin Walls brainchild right before Getty Images shut it down, and him for my What Was It Anyway? blog, an attempted spin-off from another late webmag, Stylus. His band Parts & Labor has enjoyed lots of love around here, not least because of his frenetic, pileup drumming before leaving in 2007. And he's doing a lot to keep rock criticism from jacking itself off, with less obscure projects like his stunt-reviewing 1000 albums from 2009 on Twitter and his popular Hipster Puppies timewaster, which just earned him a book deal. I don't much know the guy outside of online exchanges, but I had hope for his 33 1/3 book because a) he appears to understand the human attention span better than most non-television writers and b) the sound-fx-crazy Parts & Labor are the rare punk band to sound massively corrupted by the Bomb Squad's squealing innovations.
Whereas Geeta Dayal's well-intentioned Another Green World book started to shore up my impatience for an album where I was usually able to ignore Phil Collins' playing credits, Weingarten performs a minor miracle and brings me around to an album I always found slightly overrated for its massive impact, brass balls and respectably disjunct but ultimately hard-to-take sonics (I always preferred the more flowing, dystopian, impressionistic Fear of a Black Planet). That was retarded.
Now I understand the hour-long benchmark's valleys: why the two-minute intro was given to a London DJ (America didn't give a shit about P.E.'s debut, not even Def Jam owner Russell Simmons, whereas England rap audiences threw pennies at LL Cool J for his love-man bullshit). I appreciate the nagging wheeze in "Rebel Without a Pause" better with the added humor that Chuck D's mom asked "what's that teakettle?" and that the group free knowledges turning it backwards for virtually the same beat on "Terminator X to the Edge of Panic" (it's a really good beat).
Coming as a fan, Weingarten relegates P.E.'s myriad controversies elsewhere. He clearly wanted people to focus on the reason they were great, and his discipline's doesn't go unrewarded; the book doesn't need it. He saves the anti-Semitism charges, Flavor's reality show and their subsequent output for the Fear of a Black Planet book. This is an account of a group riding high at its greatest, and just about every switch that was flipped to get them there. I liked Chuck D waxing rhapsodic about his heroes Isaac Hayes, Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown before compressing them into two-second loops and I liked Hank and Keith Shocklee (nee Boxley) explaining how they not only made do with samplers that couldn't loop enough time but made them live and fallible like the funk they idolized.
That's the technical stuff; I knew this was the best 33 1/3 I've read when he led with (no intro, no foreword, just) a microbiography of James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield in an attempt to humanize one of the many tiny gadgets in the machine of Public Enemy's maddeningly detailed patchwork, in this case, the percussionist behind a break so impossible Biz Markie even claims that no one's ever attempted to beatbox it. As a drummer himself, "Funky Drummer" is close to Weingarten's heart, and parallel to the album he's celebrating, he weaves it throughout the book as a de facto spinal column. The tangents are addictive rather than distracting for once, like the sidebar tracing Kool Moe Dee's "Go See the Doctor" evolving into Young Jeezy, or the documentary of sound bites twerked to fit "Night of the Living Baseheads'" subject matter.
Casting a humanistic light on Chuck D's stone-faced crew adds dimension as well: Terminator X talking his way into the group by bragging about scratching skills that ultimately sounded horrible until Hank Shocklee took the bass out. And I couldn't be happier to know that Chuck D invited 15-year-old racially-motivated-rape victim Tawana Brawley to appear in P.E.'s "Fight the Power" video. Or that he loved to sing "Say It Loud (I'm Black and Proud)" with his grade-school mates. And you have to love the subtle inclusion of a Pitchfork festival account where the crowd just didn't rock it up to P.E.'s standard. SEE ALSO: twitter.com/1000timesyes
SEE ALSO: www.publicenemy.com
SEE ALSO: www.33third.blogspot.com
SEE ALSO: www.continuumbooks.com
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.
See other articles by Dan Weiss.
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