Who would have thought that out of a late ‘70s punk-driven group would come one of the most influential and beloved white rap acts ever? Well, this was certainly the case for the Beastie Boys, who in 1979 started out as the Young Aborigines. Shortly after Adam “MCA” Yauch joined the group, the name was changed to “Beastie Boys,” and the band soon found themselves a supporting act for such punk groups as Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. Also of note at this time was the inclusion of original drummer Kate Schellenbach, who would later become the skin-pounder for Luscious Jackson in the ‘90s.
In the early ‘80s, the Beasties found themselves teamed up with Rick Rubin, who transformed the group into a hip-hop trio featuring Yauch, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, who joined the act after original member John Berry left. In 1984, the group released their first Def Jam item, a 12” EP entitled Rock Hard (their club fave “Cookie Puss” had been released separately a short time before). It was around this same time that Schellenbach left the group, citing differences with Rubin, whom she cited as saying there was no room for her in the act because she didn’t fit the group’s new image.
In 1986, the Beasties released their first LP, Licensed to Ill. The album was an outstanding success, becoming the best-selling rap album of the ‘80s, and was the first rap album to top the Billboard charts, remaining there for five straight weeks. It also presented the group as a bunch of snarky, bratty goofballs who liked nothing more than getting drunk, getting laid, and hanging out at White Castle. “Fight for Your Right,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” “She’s Crafty,” and “Brass Monkey” were just a few of the many tracks on the album that won over a ton of fans. The music was lean. Basically it was your typical backbeat with the Boys rapping on top, but Rick Rubin was genius enough to throw heavy metal guitar on top in some spots and sample Led Zeppelin in others. A groundbreaking achievement.
For the follow-up, though, the Boys didn’t want to make a clone. Instead, they teamed up with the Dust Brothers (and Capitol Records) who had been working on some tracks as a separate project. When the Beasties heard the tracks, they immediately wanted to use them as the basis for their next album. That LP, the stunning Paul’s Boutique, would cost a fortune to make now due to all the samples (amongst them the Beatles on “The Sounds of Science” – an event that would be unheard of today). Back in 1989, however, the album just made it under the legal radar before things got stickier for groups who sampled others’ work. Paul’s Boutique remains the group’s masterwork. It was criminally ignored at the time by fans who wanted the same dopey sounds and ideas of the first album, but has since become one of the most influential works in rap and hip-hop circles. The “Hey Ladies” single and accompanying video kept the band visible, nevertheless.
For their third time out, the group decided to go back to their roots and pick up real instruments and incorporate them into the mix. The resulting Check Your Head (on their own newly formed Grand Royal label) propelled the Beasties back into the limelight. By this point (1992), alternative rock had exploded onto every radio and into every scene one could imagine, and the Beasties’ incorporation of punk and funk elements into their ever-evolving sound was revelatory to a lot of new fans at the time. Again, the new album took a new step forward and presented the Boys as more than capable funkmeisters. The best thing about it was that it wasn’t just some cheeky novelty gimmick. The guys really loved that sort of music, and the grooves of Check Your Head more than proved this. “So What’Cha Want” and “Gratitude” rocked the hell out of most everything else at the time.
However, the next album, Ill Communication, felt more like a sequel than anything before. Only this time, the Boys went even farther back and recorded a couple punk tunes like “Heart Attack Man” that didn’t really add anything to the overall experience. Though containing such classics as “Sabotage,” “Sure Shot,” and “Root Down,” Ill Communication felt more like a “safe” release than one that continued to push the envelope. Nevertheless, it became another fan-pleaser and further solidified the Beasties as a group that was here to stay for the long run.
The next release, Hello Nasty, arrived in 1998 and quickly went to the top of the charts. The lead-off single “Intergalactic” got the foot in the door and the rest of the album just barged its way in. A lot of the album was based around Horovitz’s 303 drum machine and new DJ Mix Master Mike’s turntable skills. Unlike Ill Communication, Hello Nasty did experiment a bit, including the wonderful bossa-nova tinged “I Don’t Know” sung by MCA and featuring his girlfriend on backing vocals. Not everything on the disc worked, but it did dare to take its chances where the previous album hadn’t.
In 2004, the band returned from a somewhat lengthy hiatus with the amazing To the 5 Boroughs, a love letter straight to NYC after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The sound was lean and inspired and was easily the group’s best work since Paul’s Boutique. It’s often said that artists create some of their best work under stress, and this album is a prime example of just that. While there are plenty of politically inspired raps on the album, there’s also time for celebration, such as on “Triple Trouble” and “Oh Word?” Easily one of the best releases of the year, bar none.
Most recently, the Boys released The Mix-Up, an instrumental album that doesn’t hold up consistently well. Perhaps this is to be somewhat expected, as the funk instrumentals that dotted Check Your Head and Ill Communication were fun, but worked well because they were breaks from all the other action. The Beasties are at their best when they are rapping and funking, so they might not want to quit their day job to be full-time instrumental groovers. Despite this, the group remains largely influential, and any future releases will certainly be well anticipated and embraced by the Boys’ longtime fans (for what it’s worth, The Mix-Up did win a Grammy in 2008 for “Best Pop Instrumental Album,” so someone out there sure as hell liked it enough).
Beastie Boy Links:
“All the wife beaters and all the tax cheaters / Sitting in the White House pulling their peters” – “Car Thief” (from Paul’s Botique)
“I’ve got billions and billions of rhymes to flex / ‘Cause I’ve got more rhymes than Carl Sagan’s got turtlenecks” – “Hey Fuck You” (from To the 5 Boroughs)
“The song and dance keeping you in a trance / If you don’t buy my record I got my advance” – “Brass Monkey” (from Licensed to Ill)