“Why not a Beastie revolution?” proposed the B side of the Beastie Boys’ first 12 inch back in 1983; 11 years later, it has happened — it’s time to get ill in ’94. Since their comeback in 1992 with Check Your Head, the Beasties — Mike D (Mike Diamond), MCA (Adam Yauch), Adrock (Adam Horovitz) and various cohorts — have bum-rushed nearly every media outlet, starting their own studio, record label, magazine and line of merchandise. Still, the core of the Beasties’ appeal remains their music — as funky as the Ohio Players’, as experimental as Sonic Youth’s.
Ill Communication continues the formula established on Check — home-grown jams powered by live instruments; speedy hardcore rants; and insane rhyme styles buried under the warm hiss of vintage analog studio equipment. (An old-school distrust of the digital age pervades Ill: As Mike D states on “Sure Shot,” “I listen to wax/I’m not using the CD.”) Since the Beasties’ earliest recordings, recently compiled on Some Old Bullshit, their mission remains intact: to explore the unifying threads between hip-hop and punk, taking their basic elements — the scratch of a needle across a vinyl groove, a pounding snare-bass thump, the crunch of a power chord — and slicing them up with a Ginsu knife. The resulting B-boy bouillabaisse blends both genres, living up to Mike D’s boast that he’ll “freak a fucking beat like the shit was in a blender.” Ill maintains the Beasties’ consistency of style, but underneath its goofy, dope-smokin’ antics lies — gasp! — an artistic maturity that reveals how the Boys have grown since they began as pimply New York punks making anarchic noise.
The Beasties’ fourth album lives up to its title — layers of distortion and echo often render the vocals unintelligible, reducing them to yet another rhythmic element. A reggae influence also pops up on Ill, but instead of the stuttering dancehall pulse pervading hip-hop, the Beasties look to the reverb effects of dub innovators like Lee “Scratch” Perry (name-checked in “Sure Shot”) for sonic inspiration. Elsewhere, the Beasties show their roots in “Root Down” — in this case, the strutting bass undertow, organ fills and wah-wah, chicken-scratch guitar of ’70s blaxploitation-era funk. Throughout, the Beasties demonstrate their musical diversity, ranging from the Gang Starr-style minimalist piano loop of “Get It Together” (featuring a virtuoso freestyle cameo by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest) to “Sabotage,” a bass-driven metallic rapfest. Only on the hardcore punk of “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” do the Beasties falter. While these tracks have visceral power, they ultimately show the Beasties to be punk classicists, unable to transcend the now reactionary sounding influences of ’80s thrash pioneers like Black Flag, Minor Threat and the Germs. Indeed, if the Beasties gave their hardcore the same sonic complexity they give their funk, they would prove truly dangerous.
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The Beasties’ funk emanates from the flow of their call-and-response rhymes, from the play of MCA’s rasp against Adrock’s freaky nasal cadence. Unafraid of the ridiculous, the Beasties remain masters of the absurdist rap lyric, such as when Adrock comes “steppin’ to the party in the Fila fresh/People lookin’ at me like I was David Koresh — yeah!” (“The Scoop”). The Beasties detail their expected obsessions with basketball (“Tough Guy”), golf (Mike D’s “wearing funky fly golf gear from head to toe”) and smoking pot (“Legalize the weed, and I’ll say, ‘Thank heavens,’ ” proclaims Adrock on “Freak Freak”).
Ill also conveys the Beasties’ more serious side as they pay homage to hip-hop’s New York roots. Constantly hyping that “motherfuckin’ old-school flavor,” they drop references like Busy Bee and the Zulu Beat show, romanticizing New York as a mythic rap Mecca. Despite their current status as residents of Los Angeles, MCA states in “The Scoop” that “New York City is the place that I feel at home in,” while Adrock claims in “Do It” that he “got the beats in Manhattan/You can hear the texture.” Even more surprising is MCA’s growing role as the Beasties’ social conscience: On “Sure Shot,” he states that “disrespecting women has got to reduce” and details his interest in Buddhism on “Bodhisattva Vow” and “The Update.”
Amazingly, the early-’80s material compiled on Bullshit prefigures nearly every musical development on Ill, moving from the blaring hardcore of “Transit Cop” to “Jimi,” an anti-drug song (!) whose narrator moans, “Let’s, like, get my bong and do up some heavy weed” over midtempo funky drums and psychedelic guitar. “Cooky Puss,” the Beasties’ first hip-hop release, sounds remarkably contemporary — its references to women as “bitches” predate gangsta rap, and it was a successful phoneprank record long before the Jerky Boys.
Bullshit ultimately demonstrates the nascent Beastie philosophy, which Adrock articulates for ’94 on “Alright Hear This”: “I brought a microphone/And I pick it up/And then I fuck it up/And then I turn it up … with the mighty rockin’ sound/And you know my culture — I came to get down.”