Continuing our new series in which Guardian and Observer writers pick their favourite albums ? with a view that you might do the same ? Dorian Lynskey says consider yourself ... warned!
To find, at an impressionable age, a record that not only expands your sense of what music can do but offers a new way of reading the world, is a remarkable privilege. For my 16-year-old self, undergoing a political awakening, the musical epiphany was Public Enemy's 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet but its predecessor is the group's stem-to-stern masterpiece and still the most exciting album I have ever heard.
White Britons like me were thrown a bone by this fiercely pro-black band in the shape of the first track, in which future Radio 1 rave ambassador Dave Pearce introduces the band at the London date of the 1987 Def Jam tour. After the ominous siren and Professor Griff's declaration, "London, England, consider yourselves warned!", I was already on the edge of my seat. Public Enemy's international ambitions and focus on live performance were just two reasons why, even as they gave me a passion for hip-hop, they always felt bigger than hip-hop. Leapfrogging rap's usual emphasis on local identity, they saw the bigger picture and couched it in suitably omnivorous music.
Chuck D describes Public Enemy as an "information portal": a dry term but an accurate one. Nation of Millions is so jammed with data, both musical and lyrical, that I'm still finding new clues and resonances 20 years later. Their goal was broad ? to "teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevards" ? and so was their frame of reference. You can unpack a whole history of black music and resistance from the samples and quotes of James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, John Coltrane, Bob Marley, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and so on, but you can also hear it assimilating white culture in the form of, among others, Queen, Slayer and James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause. (The pun on the latter is just one example of Chuck D's unparallelled flair for phrase-making.)
Even the lineup celebrated heterogeneity: the discipline and command of Chuck D, the goofball looseness of Flavor Flav, the turntable drama of Terminator X, the tumultuous beats of the Bomb Squad and the stern authority of Professor Griff, whose addled anti-semitism fortunately doesn't make it on to the record. Public Enemy came across as, simultaneously, the last gang in town (they were conceived as a hybrid of Run-DMC and the Clash), a sports team (Chuck D once aspired to be a sports commentator) and a political party (with roles modelled on the Black Panthers). Don't Believe the Hype is a conversation not just with the media and the audience but between band members. Has any other group examined and mythologised itself so astutely?
It's this feeling of constant motion, of organised chaos, that makes Nation of Millions the perfect marriage of medium and message. "An important message should have its importance embedded into the way it's relayed," Chuck once explained. "You hear Public Enemy, you hear a tone that says 'Look out! This is some serious shit coming!'" His quick mind and the Bomb Squad's edge-of-panic production spur each other on to ever greater intensity. This feeling sweeps along listeners whose political concerns may be different and Chuck D was aware of that: he never wanted to limit himself to addressing Louis Farrakhan's faithful, and he influenced a diverse generation of politically minded music fans. Throwing out as many unresolved questions as answers, Chuck D's lyrics are a provocation to the listener: an invitation to engage and debate.
A political work of art risks being smothered by respect, lodged in the box marked "important" rather than the one labelled "fun", but no matter how much I have analysed and picked apart Nation of Millions, it makes my heart beat faster every time. It explodes the popular but false dichotomy between cerebral and visceral, between political engagement and wild pleasure, and demonstrates that there is nothing as thrilling as an intellect on fire.
Or you could simply star rate it, or add it to one of your album lists. There are more than 3m new pages for you to explore as well as 600,000-plus artists' pages ? so if, for example, N.W.A are more your thing, or A Tribe Called Quest, then head there, find that act's albums and get to work ...