The Bomb Squad Used Sampled 808 Drums Instead of Basslines on ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’

Intricate sample stacking, gritty textures, and the production philosophy behind a masterwork of sound collage.

Though sampling was a common practice on rap records when Public Enemy started recording It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in 1987, the group and their in-house production team The Bomb Squad elevated the art form to another level throughout their sophomore effort.

To help the art of sampling cross into uncharted waters, Bomb Squad members Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Chuck D (under the alias Carl Ryder), Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, Gary G-Wiz, and Bill Stephney took stock of what other producers were doing at the time while figuring out how to separate themselves from the pack. “Everybody would sample, but they would sample maybe a kick a snare or maybe just a loop of a phrase,” Hank Shocklee told Owen Murphy in a 2018 KEXP interview. “That was the most that sampling was.”

Having already demonstrated some unique production savvy on their 1987 single “Public Enemy №1,” The Bomb Squad developed a deep understanding of how to layer multiple loops through nonstop recording and touring after the release of Public Enemy’s debut Yo! Bum Rush the Showan album that already showed an affinity for using multiple sample sources on tracks like “My Uzi Weighs A Ton.”

Not satisfied with finding just one central loop for a track, Shocklee began viewing Public Enemy as a band and each individual vinyl sample as an instrument. This outlook helped him conceptualize how to stitch together records from very disparate elements.

To find the right mix, The Bomb Squad dipped into their extensive record collection and used a system of trial and error to make sure each track on It Takes A Nation had the desired sound. “Finding the samples, that was pretty easy because I had a ridiculous record collection,” Shocklee told John Tatlock in a 2015 Quietus interview. “But finding the right pieces in the right contexts was the hard part.”

The process didn’t happen in a vacuum. In The Quietus interview, Shocklee was quick to give proper credit to fellow Bomb Squad sample master Eric “Vietnam” Sadler for being able to make sense of all the different elements in each beat. “I needed people like Eric, because for every sample you hear on the record, there were like ten that have to be put in place to see if it works,” Hank said. “Out of those ten you have to find the one that really expresses the emotion you intend to express.”

This process might sound exhausting to some, but The Bomb Squad treated each facet of production with the same obsessive attention to detail. Choosing to experiment and push the envelope on every single aspect of the It Takes A Nation beats, they even ditched traditional basslines.

Realizing they couldn’t neglect basslines altogether, the production team used 808 drums in their place—adding decay to the percussion hits or adjusting the pitch as-needed. Their method of obtaining the sounds was also unique. Instead of bringing in an actual Roland 808 drum machine and playing it live, they opted to sample the drums from different records and add effects themselves.

This ultimately lead to a dirty, raw quality that was more consistent with the Public Enemy aesthetic. “We would go and get a record that had recorded it already, and take that 808,” Shocklee told The Quietus. “Which is a texture thing. You get all the extra grittiness so it doesn’t come across clean.”

Members of Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad have acknowledged in interviews that the production process was a labor of love assisted by multiple talented people. In addition to Hank Shocklee, Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, and the rest of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy MC and frontman Chuck D also credited Greene St. Recording engineer Rod Hui for helping the group make everything work.

Calling him an “unacknowledged hero” in a 2018 interview with Urban Legends, Chuck explained how Hui and Shocklee combined their talents to bring the music on the album together. “You gotta organize the noise and Hank organized the noise,” Chuck told Kyle Eustice. “He was able to teach Rod Hui how some of that noise was useful.”

Although the noise may have been useful, Public Enemy’s production was so left field that certain people in the group didn’t even like some of their own songs. Chuck D hated “Bring The Noise” when he first heard it and admitted that he “practically threw it out the window” in a 2013 Rolling Stone interview. Thankfully, he resisted the urge and it ended up on the album.

Despite the occasional adverse reaction to their own game-changing material, Public Enemy viewed the songs in a different light once they saw how the general public responded to them. Now, over 30 years later, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back continues to find new audiences and stand the test of time.

It also serves as an important musical time capsule. Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad successfully brought in a new era of sound college sampling before multiple high-profile lawsuits forever changed the sound of rap in the late 80s and early 90s.

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)

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