The fact is that funky is the most misused word in music today," exclaims an impassioned Michael "Mike D" Diamond, the Beastie Boy who tends to get the most impassioned. The other Beasties look up from their Indian food and shout their agreement over the racket being made by a party of seventeen French tourists that has surrounded us in a midtown Manhattan restaurant.
"A lot of people are getting over playing 'chink-chink-chink' on the guitar and people saying they're funky," says Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz.
"That shit isn't funky!" Diamond calls out.
"You just got to put on a James Brown record if you want to know what that word means," says a dead-serious Adam "MCA" Yauch, shaking his head. "James was defining that word on a regular basis."
They may not be the Hardest Working Men in Show Business, but the Beastie Boys have learned a thing or two about funk since their quadruple-platinum debut, Licensed to Ill, exploded in a hail of Budweiser, bong hits and caged dancing girls in 1986. The years since have largely been spent buying records and soaking up sounds, and their new album, Check Your Head, is a glorious train wreck of styles – old-school rap, echodrenched psychedelia, blaxploitation-movie themes, even bluesy organ-trio jazz. It somehow emerges as the first genuine punk-funk fusion, if that label hasn't been ruined by previous applications to dozens of unconvincing Next Big Things.
Five years ago the Beastie Boys were the ones whose funkiness was on the line. They were three white, Jewish New Yorkers, formerly a teen hardcore band called the Young and the Useless, serving up a snotty cartoon version of hip-hop culture – a grungy chronicle of nonstop partying and unsafe sex, fueled by throbbing Led Zeppelin guitar riffs – that quickly became the best-selling rap album ever. Concerned observers saw them as a novelty at best, maybe even the end of rap as we knew it.
Back then no one would have believed that the Beastie Boys would still be an issue now. Yet after a legal battle with the Def Jam label (the Beasties said they were owed royalties; the company said they were taking too long to deliver their second album) and a move to Los Angeles, they released Paul's Boutique on Capitol Records in 1989. A brilliant, dizzying masterpiece of surgical-strike samples and pop-culture detritus, it barely went gold but gave the group new critical respectability. Now, three years later, Check Your Head is as different from Paul's Boutique as that album was from Licensed to Ill and as groundbreaking as either one. They won the fight for their right to party, and then, while no one was looking, the Beastie Boys turned into one of today's most consistently creative bands.
And yes – "band" is indeed the appropriate description. The Boys play instruments on about three quarters of Check Your Head (the same lineup as in their punk days – Horovitz on guitar, Yauch on bass and Diamond playing drums – augmented by itinerant carpenter Keyboard Money Mark Nishita), with samples woven and injected into the mix. They're not exactly technical aces, but playing hasn't sounded this much fun since the first Ramones records.
"A lot of the theory this time was 'Okay, let's make a record that's like all the dope break parts of the records we listen to,'" Diamond says. "We wanted to play because we were inspired by the music we were listening to all the time."
If there's a secret to the Beastie Boys' survival, it is this willingness to wear their influences on their raggedy sleeves. They have never claimed to be anything they're not or to play anything but music they like listening to. From the street-corner couplet trading of "Pass the Mic" (the first single) to the thrash metal of "Time for Livin' " to the swinging instrumentals "POW" and "In 3's," on Check Your Head, the Beasties are going back to the roots of rap and roots of their own.
To make room for the music, the rhymes on Check Your Head are fairly rudimentary, but the theme that comes through the clearest is the group giving thanks. "It's no question life's been good to me," Diamond raps on "Professor Booty," while on "Pass the Mic" he claims, "To tell the truth I am exactly what I want to be." One track is titled simply "Gratitude." After so many accusations that they've exploited black music and culture to get to the top, the Beastie Boys have apparently decided to make their respect explicit this time around. That's why bass-slapping, guitar-scratching longhairs faking the funk are no joke to the Beastie Boys these days.
"The bottom line with a lot of bands that funk is being applied to is that they don't really listen to funk and aren't versed in funk," according to Diamond. "Like, you know, Gordon Lightfoot."
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