Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

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"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"
Single by Public Enemy
from the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
A-side "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"
B-side "B Side Wins Again"
Released 1989
Format 12"
Genre Political hip hop
Length 6:23
Label Def Jam
Writer(s) Carl Ridenhour/Hank Shocklee/Eric "Vietnam" Sadler/William Drayton
Producer(s) The Bomb Squad
Public Enemy singles chronology
"Night of the Living Baseheads"
(1988)
"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"
(1989)
"Fight the Power"
(1989)

"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" is a 1989 song by the American hip hop group Public Enemy from their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The song tells the story of a draft dodger who makes a prison escape. It is built on a high-pitched piano sample from the 1969 Isaac Hayes song "Hot Buttered Soul".

The vocals are done mostly by lead Public Enemy rapper Chuck D, with sidekick Flavor Flav appearing in between verses, seemingly speaking to Chuck over the phone. Flavor went to another room and did actually call the studio to achieve this effect.

Lyrical Storyline[edit]

The lyrics deal with a fictional story of an escape from a US prison. Chuck has been drafted ("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"); however, he refuses to become part of the army ("Picture me giving a damn / I said 'never!'" and "They could not understand that I'm a black man and I could never be a veteran!"). The main idea behind this is that the (unnamed) war is wrong, with a hint of pure indignation towards the treatment of black people by other parts of American society ("here's a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me"). This serves to both criticize racism and the prison system ("Four of us packed in a cell like slaves").

Chuck is then taken to prison, from which he attempts to escape. "Black Steel" is a reference to a gun, which he needs to escape. By the end of the second verse, Chuck has taken a gun from a C.O. (corrections officer) who was "fallin' asleep." ("But ever when I catch a C.O. / Sleeping on the job/My plan is on go-ahead.")

With gun in hand, Chuck and the other prisoners escape "to the ghetto - no sell out." Chuck then comments on how there are 6 C.O.s who he "ought to put their head out." He does not, at first ("But I'll give 'em a chance 'cause I'm civilized"), but after a female tries to thwart the escape she is shot, ("Got a woman C.O. to call me a 'copter / She tried to get away, and I popped her"), presumably dead ("I had 6 C.O.s, now it's 5 to go").

The final verse ends with Chuck and the rest of the prisoners on their final escape. They are confronted with shots and there is a state of chaos. Chuck makes a comment about prison and racism ("This is what I mean—an anti-nigger machine"), which later became the basis for another Public Enemy song, "Anti-Nigger Machine" (featured on the 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet). Finally, the S1Ws come to the rescue. The song ends with the line "53 brothers on the run, and we are gone" indicating a successful prison escape. (However, in the video for the song, this line accompanies the image of Chuck D being hanged by the triumphant warden of the prison, suggesting that the prison riot was crushed and the final verse is nothing more than the wishful thinking of a "dead man walking.")

Chuck describes his situation as a cliffhanger at the end of each verse. The first verse sees him looking for a gun ("On the strength the situation's unreal / I got a raw deal / So I'm looking for the steel"). The second verse sees him making his move for the gun ("On the strength I'm a tell you the deal / I've got nothing to lose / 'Cause I'm going for the steel"). The third verse ends with him looking for the exit ("Time to break as time grows intense / I've got my steel in my right hand / Now I'm looking for the fence"). Finally Chuck is rescued ("Now the chase is on telling you to come on / 53 brothers on the run, and we are gone.")

Beat[edit]

The song features a slower, more melodic beat in comparison to other songs from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back but still remains highly chaotic. Aside from the aforementioned Hayes sample, the song samples "Little Green Apples" by The Escorts and "Living for the City" by Stevie Wonder.

The lines in the scratch breaks, "Now they got me in a cell" and "Death Row/What a brother knows", are samples from another song from the same album, "Bring The Noise".

Charts[edit]

Chart (1988) Peak
position
U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks 86
U.S. Billboard Hot Rap Singles 11

Covers[edit]

  • This song has been covered by the Brazilian metal band Sepultura and the rapper Sabotage.
  • It has been performed live on separate occasions with Chuck D on vocals by Asian Dub Foundation and Rage Against the Machine. In 1998, a live version from 1996 featuring Chuck D appeared on the Rage Against The Machine album Live & Rare.
  • Tricky covered the song, changing its name to "Black Steel", on his debut album Maxinquaye released in 1995. The stripped down rap sound of the original is replaced by pounding drums and guitars. Martina Topley-Bird sings the lyrics instead of rapping. [1]

Samples of the song[edit]

  • The same Isaac Hayes sample is used by The Game in the Just Blaze produced song "Remedy" on the album Doctor's Advocate. Chuck D's line "they got me in a cell" from "Black Steel" is also scratched in the hook.
  • The beginning of the song is sampled heavily in the song "Make Some Noise" by "Dougal & Gammer".

Interpolations[edit]

  • The song "Officer" by The Pharcyde opens with the lines, "I got a letter from the DMV the other day. I opened and read it, it said they were suckers".
  • The song "Untimely Meditations" by spoken-word artist Saul Williams, from his debut album Amethyst Rock Star, includes the lines "They wanted me for their army or whatever/ Picture me, I swirl like the wind".
  • On the song "Southern Gangsta" from Ludacris's album Theater of the Mind, Rick Ross begins his verse with the line: "I got a letter from the government the other day; I opened and read it, it said we was hustlers".
  • The Paris song "What would you do" (from the album Sonic Jihad) begins with words "I see a message from the government, like every day/ I watch it, and listen, and call 'em all suckas/ They warnin' me about Osama or whatever/ Picture me buyin' this scam, I said never".
  • Minnesota rapper Brother Ali opens his song "Letter From the Government" with the line, "I got a letter from the government the other day, I opened and read it, and burned it, man." The song appears on Brother Ali's 2007 album, The Undisputed Truth.
  • Rappers Talib Kweli has a song called "Letter From The Government", with a chorus very similar to the opening lines of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos". The song appears on Talib Kweli's and DJ Z-Trip's 2012 mixtape, Attack The Block. The following song, "That's Enough", begins with a sample from "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos".
  • In the song "Psychopathic Psypher 4", the Psychopathic Records line up (Cold 187um, Twiztid, the Insane Clown Posse, and others) rap about being mislabeled as a gang. Shaggy 2 Dope of the ICP uses the opening lines to the first verse, saying "I got a letter from the government the other day, opened it, read it, it said they was bitches!"

External links[edit]