Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back
. . .
“Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic.” That’s the name of the Isaac Hayes song — from his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul — from which the piano sample that fuels what is probably my favorite rap song: the titanic “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”
A prison breakout fantasia that is literally that piano sample over and over and over — the repetition of which might drive some people nuts, but I find totally and utterly compelling every single time — what makes “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is Chuck D living and breathing every single moment of the story he’s telling. Which — after some Flavor Flav exhortation and a sample of future Certain Song “Living For The City” — cold opens with an utterly classic verse.
I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given’ a damn, I said never
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn’t wit’ it, but just that very minute
It occurred to me
The suckers had authority
The next thing we know, Chuck is in prison for being a conscientious objector, and Flavor Flav is calling him telling that he and his crew are going to break Chuck out. As you do. One of the cool production tricks here is Flav actually called the studio to do all of his parts, which adds a needed bit of verisimilitude to the song.
After that, Chuck addresses his situation in prison as the plan to break him out comes together, and while I really can’t relate on a personal level, but I sure as shit can on a musical level, and the thing I love the most is his phrasing and his intonation, for example the way his voice wraps around “And I’m serious / Call me delirious.”
Or even better, during the last verse, there’s an amazing few lines that capture the fog of war as well as any song ever could.
And then I threw up my steel bullets flew up
And to my surprise the water tower blew up,
The bazooka was who?
And to my rescue, it was the S1Ws
Which is followed by a perfectly-timed “Yeahhhhh” from Flav, who continues to exhort as they all make their escape. But it’s not really a happy ending, of course, not then, not now. And so, as that piano sample digs its own way out, Terminator X scratches out Chuck intoning Br “Death row, what a brother know” from “Bring The Noise” over and over again to remind that that he knows that everything he just told us was just a story, just a fantasy, just a temporary respite from the actual reality of black incarceration.
Released as a single in 1989, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” made it to #11 on Billboard’s newly-mined rap charts, though it didn’t do all that well on the R&B charts, and obviously was way too hard to make any indentation on the pop charts whatsoever. But it’s easily one of the greatest songs of the 1980s.
“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” official video (muddy sound)
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