Licensed to Ill (Def Jam/Columbia, 1986)
Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989)
Check Your Head (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1992)
The In Sound From Way Out! (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1992)
Ill Communication (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1994)
Some Old Bullshit (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1994)
Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1998)
Sounds of Science (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1999)
To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol, 2004)
Solid Gold Hits (Capitol, 2005)
The Mix Up (Capitol, 2007)
The Beastie Boys—Adam "Ad Rock" Horovitz, Adam "MCA" Yauch, and Michael "Mike D" Diamond—have spent their entire career trying to live down their first record and live up to their second. That they have managed to do either, let alone both, is one of the not-particularly-minor miracles of reinvention that rock & roll has long thrived on.
There is little overstating the importance of the Beasties' debut, Licensed to Ill. It arrived out of nowhere, following some negligible hardcore punk singles, one hilarious prank phone call on wax ("Cookie Puss"), and two singles on the then-upstart Def Jam label. (Not for nothing did the Beasties collect this early material under the name Some Old Bullshit, aka S.O.B., which can be summed up thusly: enjoyable, yes; essential, no). From the Led Zeppelin sample that opened the album to the "Green Acres" sample that closed it, Licensed to Ill was bombastic and hilarious, driven equally by Saturday-morning cartoons, punk attitude, Jamaican bass, Seventies rock strutting and Eighties street swagger. It was also a phenomenon: It was the first credible hip-hop album from a white group, and it became the fastest-selling debut in Columbia Records history, something that never would have been possible if the record company had not convinced the Beasties to drop their original title, Don't Be a Faggot.
Make no mistake: Although the Beasties matured quickly and continually, at this point, they were adolescents with microphones and the chance to tell the world to suck their dicks, which is exactly what they did. Licensed to Ill is filled with enough references to guns, drugs, and empty sex (including the pornographic deployment of a Wiffle-ball bat in "Paul Revere") to qualify as a gangsta-rap cornerstone. The Beasties would later try to explain away their Licensed personas as a joke—"the most illingest B-boy" as a parody of rock-star excess—and though it's doubtless more complicated than this, it's also clear from the pirates-on-the-prowl boasts of the first cut, "Rhymin' & Stealin'," that there's a lot of playground playacting at work.
Producer Rick Rubin had already rolled out skeletal hip-hop rhythms with L.L. Cool J's Radio (1985) and had topped the charts in 1986 with a blend of rock guitars and rap on Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way." For Licensed to Ill, the producer upped the ante on both styles—the beats clanked harder and rumbled deeper, the guitars aped the skunk rock of Alice Cooper and Motörhead. "Fight for Your Right" became the pop-metal anthem the Beasties would forever try to live down (going so far as to apologize for it on the liner notes of their 1999 retrospective, The Sounds of Science). But the music of "The New Style" and "Hold It Now, Hit It" was radical and inventive, full of electro-rhythms and cavernous bass punctuated by guitar slams and breakbeats. For their part, the Beasties brought a sensibility born of cathode-ray-tube overexposure and liberal-arts majors—MCA name-checks Barney Miller's Abe Vigoda and Picasso. But they also brought with them a dream cultivated by coming of age in downtown Manhattan clubs in the early Eighties, with punk ebbing and rap ascendant: a vision of black and white music and audiences not just side by side but thoroughly inseparable. Ad Rock's nasal sneer was an instant hip-hop classic (you can hear its effect on Cypress Hill's B-Real, to say nothing of Eminem); MCA's growl got the party started right; and Mike D, well, Mike D tried hard to keep up and did.
Licensed to Ill sold 9 million copies, and after the Beasties fell into a royalty dispute with Def Jam, they decamped from Manhattan for Los Angeles, where they rented a house in the Hollywood Hills and began work on their second masterpiece. Licensed to Ill was the Beasties as the Three Stooges, full of comic aggression; Paul's Boutique was the Beasties as the Marx Brothers, full of comic surrealism. With producers the Dust Brothers, the Beasties introduced a dense, and densely funky, music woven of endless samples. It was, as they named the suite that ended the album, "B-boy Bouillabaisse," and the references flew faster and wilder than ever: David Bowie, Bob Marley, Clint Eastwood, Pink Floyd, the Funky Four Plus One, the Beatles, Fred Flintstone, J.D. Salinger, Jimi Hendrix, the Brady Bunch, Joni Mitchell, Galileo, Run-D.M.C., Ricky Powell, and on and on until the break of dawn.
The Beasties pioneered psychedelic hip-hop, which was mind-expanding in text and texture. It would take seven years until the world would catch up with the expansive grooves and mind-set of Paul's Boutique, at which point the Dust Brothers would be helping to make Beck a star. Meanwhile, the Beasties were still rhyming about girls, drugs, guns, and watching television, though now with a growing social conscience: They wear condoms, offer compassion to the homeless bum of "Johnny Ryall," and preach that "racism is a schism on the serious tip" to the knuckleheads in "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun."
When Paul's Boutique stiffed commercially, the Beasties regrouped at their G-Son studios, in L.A., built themselves a skate ramp, and began to re-create themselves as a total cultural experience. Check Your Head arrived with the Beasties' own magazine and label, both named Grand Royal, and a Beastie-approved wardrobe, which was sold at Mike D's X-Large stores in New York and L.A. The album took its name from Flex Your Head, a 1982 compilation of Washington, D.C., hardcore on the Dischord label, marking a return to the Beasties' hardcore-trio roots. This is where they went back to the basics, returning to their instruments, so they could try to play the beats they once sampled and bash their way through sloppy rock songs like "Gratitude." Conceptually, it was a breakthrough; but of all their records, Check Your Head has aged the worst. The freestyling on "Pass the Mic" (where Mike D rhymes "commercial" with "commercial" and offers the novel advice to "be true to yourself") sounds stiff, and when they try to replicate Seventies lounge-funk on the organ-driven "Lighten Up," it's downright embarrassing. (Their not-rare-enough rare grooves are collected on The In Sound From Way Out!, and you are advised to spend your money on any random Grant Green or Meters record.) Despite standouts like "So Whatcha Want," the indie-rockrap-band concept didn't really gel until Ill Communication was released.
For one thing, the Beasties—with help from Mario Caldalto—had gotten better at producing themselves. Ill Communication was more layered and tricked-out, not as spare and homemade as Check Your Head. Now the beats sounded like they had been cooked up in a laboratory, not knocked together in a garage; the album unfolded with strange, dubbed-up sonic detours into flute interludes and fuzzed-out rock and organ jams that offered the surprises of a good DJ set. (And the instrumentals centered on keyboardist Money Mark, who could actually play.) Mike D got his yoga on in "Root Down"; in "Sabotage," Ad Rock struck back at media snoopers who'd crashed a friend's wedding; and MCA was the spiritual seeker who'd discovered Buddhism while snowboarding. He was the group's moral center, laying down the law in "Sure Shot" ("The disrespect to women has got to be through"), laying out his mission in "Do It" ("Slowly but surely I seek to find my mind"), laying out hip-hop genealogy in "Alright Hear This" ("I give respect to what's been borrowed and lent/I know this music comes down from African descent"), and bringing back the old dream of black and white audiences together, also on "Sure Shot" ("Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I've got the ill communications"). In the year Kurt Cobain checked out, 1994, the Beasties became indie-rock leaders, headlining that year's Lollapalooza alongside the Smashing Pumpkins.
In the four years that followed Ill Communication, the Beasties moved back to New York and produced a nearly perfect synthesis of their early and later work. Hello Nasty combined the anarchic wiseass humor of Licensed to Ill with the musical reach of Paul's Boutique, and yes, they played the instruments (or some of them). The return to New York brought back an old-school vibe: "Super Disco Breakin'" the lead cut, and references to mid-Eighties hip-hop abound, from long-gone dances like the wop to Krush Groove and a sample of the Beasties' own "The New Style." But in truth, the old school the Beasties reconnected with wasn't old-school hip-hop; it was New York bohemia. They had long since stopped being a hip-hop group and were by now an indie-rock group that rapped. This was the first Beasties album to include singing—five songs, no less (six if you include dub-master Lee Perry's preaching on the estimable "Dr. Lee, PhD"). MCA gets existential on the bossa nova "I Don't Know," and Ad Rock takes on the objectification of women on "Song for the Man," which sounds like Sixties French pop. He also contributes "And Me," which sets a thrumming melody to a drum-and-bass beat that spirals into the strangest sounds ever to appear on a Beasties album. Ad Rock—who had indulged his jones to keep on making records with the hardcore band DFL and beat merchants BS 2000—provides much of Hello Nasty's drive and probably more than few twisted beats. He closes the album with "Instant Death," an attempt to come to terms with the loss of his mother.
To the 5 Boroughs arrived after a six-year layoff, during which time MCA and Mike D had started families. And much more had changed: The Twin Towers, depicted on the album's cover, had been leveled. The country was at war. It was an election year. The sound of To the 5 Boroughs is stripped-down and straight-forward—no instrumental interludes or singing, just hip-hop beats and straight-up rapping. But that sound has nothing to do with the hip-hop of their contemporaries—the disc is driven by breakbeats and scratches, as if the Beasties were trying to rock a Bronx roller rink in 1979. There is so much scratching, in fact, that the album serves as a de facto tribute not just to the spirit of New York but also to fallen comrade Jam Master Jay, from Run-D.M.C., who'd been shot dead two years earlier. There is also much editorializing from the Beasties—much of it necessary some of it pretty funny. The message was simple: more gun control, no war, and if the five boroughs can work together, so can the rest of us. "We need a little shift on over to the left," advises MCA on the dancehall jam "Time to Build," before Mike D, always the Beasties' business genius, starts rapping about the national debt. On such a high-minded album, the MC boasts come off stranger than ever. (What rapper had stepped up to the Beasties in the last 15 years?) But after six albums in a 20-year career, it all came down to the old dream, rekindled on "An Open Letter to NYC," which sampled CBGB punks the Dead Boys as well as Queens punks 50 Cent and Nas. The dream: black and white music and audiences, together forever. The chorus: "Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin/Black, white, New York—you make it happen."
The Mix-Up was an album of jazz-funk instrumentals that sounded like it was banged out over a weekend. Solid Gold Hits collects all of the group's singles and makes for a more streamlined compilation than Sounds of Science. In 2009, the group released deluxe reissues of Paul's Boutique, Check Your Head, Ill Communication and Hello Nasty; extras included commentary tracks, videos, and b-sides.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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