Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #71 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

I had mixed feelings going into Christopher R. Weingarten's volume on Public Enemy's classic album, It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold us Back. On the one hand, I wanted to be blown away by the book because it is about one of my favorite hip hop albums ever. On the other, I was kind of dreading reading an entire book written by Weingarten, known around Twitter as a bit of a reactionary curmudgeon. While I am certainly entertained by Weingarten's antics on Twitter and the constant arguments he provokes through his, ahem, strong opinions (latest: complaining about the state of interviewing), I wasn't sure I wanted to read an entire book by the man. If you haven't read his tweets, you might have encountered the video of Weingarten's stunning rant about the state of music criticism in the age of the internet, given at a conference a few years back. Or maybe you've heard about his successful attempt to review 1,000 records via Twitter (which was later released as this odd artifact). But alright--so that's Chris R. Weingarten, and this review is about a book he wrote, not the man himself. Still, while I was excited to read about It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, I was also worried that Weingarten might fuck it up with his weird, angsty, reactionary music critic persona.

Well, Weingarten didn't fuck it up. In fact, It Takes a Nation of Millions... turned out to be one of the best entries in the 33 1/3 series. It gets off to a bit of a slow start as the author provides context that doesn't quite fit (yet, it makes sense soon), but once the book gets rolling, Weingarten's explorations of the various samples that make up Public Enemy's classic record are engaging--revelatory even. Perhaps the single most important factor in making Weingarten's book a success is his ability to combine narrative and analysis in conveying the history of the album's key samples. He doesn't simply identify a sample's source and move on, he recreates the historical moment of each sample and, in the process, shows us that It Takes a Nation of Millions... is a daring and political record through and through, not just because of Chuck D's lyrics and Public Enemy's persona, but also because many of the key samples were pulled from historically loaded cultural moments. In the process, we learn a little bit about James Brown, his bands, and his contributions to African American culture. We also learn about Funkadelic, Stax records, the Wattstax festival, early hip hop--the list goes on and on. What I find most surprising about Weingarten's discussion of this source material is, while I've always been aware of many of the sample's sources (though I was unaware of just as many), I've never considered their import so thoroughly until reading this book.

Eventually, Weingarten's volume runs out of steam a bit. The final chapter turns toward a discussion of how It Takes a Nation of Millions... has, itself been sampled and how it continues to remain a vital cultural artifact. Unfortunately, this last chapter feels more like an epilogue than chapter eight, or like the 80's movie that gives a brief summary of what happened to each character after the movie. After being immersed in Weingarten's fascinating historical narratives and analysis, I found the last chapter's rapid-fire rundown a bit unnecessary. Granted, the record's influence isn't really the book's focus, but why not put some time into telling more of the stories behind PE's influence on culture instead of just mentioning some times they were sampled.

Of course, that's just a quibble, and the lesser ending doesn't really detract much from the book as a whole. In writing this review, it occurs to me that Weingarten's volume can be a very useful book. In my comp/rhet studies, I've read a glut of material about "remix" culture, or the "rip, mix, burn" mindset. But in their discussions of sampling and digital culture, few of these scholars ever really address the potential for the intertextual methods they are describing. If I had a bit more money, I'd probably carry a dozen copies of Weingarten's book with me at all times so that, when someone uses sampling in the context of comp/rhet, I could give them a copy and tell them how much more exciting their ideas are than they even know.

So there--while I don't always agree with his reactionary woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed tweets, I have to admit that Christopher R. Weingarten has written one of the finest books in the 33 1/3 series.

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