Following the band’s announcement that they’ll no longer make music or perform under the name Beastie Boys, no doubt still troubled by the tragically premature death of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012, here at The Modern Ape we’ve decided to pay homage to the Boys and have a look back at their sometimes raunchy, occasionally bizarre and always boisterous career.
Famously formed as a hardcore punk band in early ’80s New York, Beastie Boys’ original line up supported such punk luminaries as the Misfits and the Dead Kennedys, before incorporating elements of rap and hip hop into their sound. By 1986, with the help of Def Jam pioneer Rick Rubin, Beastie Boys had gone full rap, releasing their debut album Licensed to Ill the same year on Def Jam records (which became the first rap album to top the Billboard album chart). Licensed to Ill is a rough, enthusiastic debut, in parts ebullient, something of a pastiche of rap at the time. However that’s not to say the album wasn’t released in earnest; despite their punk rock beginnings (and still an overtly punk themed album), the Boys had gone full hip hop. This first album was a landmark in the genre in more ways than one. Aside from as mentioned becoming the first rap album to top the Billboard album chart, it paved the way for white rappers in the mainstream. It’s hardly surprising to see white rap artists who are successful in 2014 (Macklemore and Mac Miller are the first two that instantly spring to mind), but in the mid 80s rap was still very much a new thing, and more importantly very much an aspect of African-American culture. Beastie Boys were one of the first all white rap groups to really make waves in the industry and Licensed to Ill, as juvenile and rudimentary as it may seem, showed the rap world that white guys can do it too.
By 1989, it was time for the difficult second album. Paul’s Boutique, released by Capitol records in July of that year, was a marked change from the “frat hip-hop” and party vibe of their debut LP. Although retaining some of the spirt of Licensed to Ill, particularly in tracks such as “Hey Ladies” and “Shake Your Rump”, Boutique has a much more experimental feel, a quantum leap from their debut in terms of instrumentation and sampling (most of which was apparently cleared) but familiar enough to be recognisable as a Beastie Boys record. Gone are the overdriven guitar riffs and cut-and-paste hip-hop drum beat, replaced with eclectic instrumentation and funky basslines. Listening to Paul’s Boutique in 2014, it seems to be imbued with a strange quality – the sampling and production are remarkably modern sounding for the time (opening track “To All the Girls” wouldn’t sound out of place on a badbadnotgood LP) but there’s a definite underlying “classic” feel, with the trademark exaggerated vocal performance present, as well as some party themed lyrical content. Boutique isn’t the best hip-hop album of all time and no one would argue that it is. But what it undeniably possesses are qualities that means it has to be included in the conversation.
As the nineties dawned, the Boys released their third full length LP, again on Capitol records. Check Your Head was recorded in 1991 and first saw the light of day in April of the next year, three years after the experimental Paul’s Boutique. Check Your Head is, as well as my personal favourite Beastie Boys album, an exercise in parity – it contains the energetic, punk feel of Licensed to Ill whilst retaining the eclectic instrumentation and sophistication of Paul’s Boutique. “Groove Holmes” is an instrumental delight, living up to its name by being the grooviest track on the record, in stark contrast to “So What’cha Want”, showcasing the more coherent, punk inspired side of the album. So far, then, we have one punk hip-hop album, one experimental hip-hop album, and one that combines the two and presents it all in one brilliant record. What’s next? Well Listen all y’all, and I’ll tell you.
1994 brought us Ill Communication, probably the quintessential Beastie Boys album. Opening with a dog barking before a sample of a flute loop at the start of “Sure Shot”, it promised – or threatened – to be an experimental enigma. After a matter of seconds, though, the inimitable vocals of Mike D reassure us that the Boys are back in town. Beginning to experiment more and more, this album is a favourite of many fans. From understated funk tones to traditional hip-hop stylings, all permeated with engaging instrumental tracks, Ill Communication is yet another landmark in hip-hop – it was their second album to top the Billboard album chart whilst also introducing the world to one of the Boys’ most recognisable, and many would say best singles, “Sabotage”. This song and its Spike Jonze directed video are now, 20 years on, regarded as classic hip-hop moments and rightly so, the band’s early punk rock influenced sound is really evident on “Sabotage” and provides a well placed contrast to the somewhat experimental and instrumental nature of the rest of the album (not including overtly hardcore influenced Heart Attack Man).
Hello Nasty dropped in 1998 on Capitol records, and debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart, giving the band its third #1 and second consecutively. Four years had passed since the eclectic Hello Nasty, but that doesn’t mean the Boys had lost their touch for great hip-hop and innovative music videos. Again the band showcased their ability to incorporate a myriad of stylistic elements and genre features into their sound, which only serves to make the album more sonically engaging. The singles included another staple of the band’s catalogue “Intergalactic”, as well as “Body Movin'”, “The Negotiation Limerick File” and “Remote Control/3 MCs and One DJ”, a double side that was half punk influenced early Boys’ sound and half hip-hop sample showcase. The album as a whole recalls the party vibe of their earlier sound, whilst retaining some of the funk influence and sample work of Boutique and Communication, though Nasty was less reliant on instrumental tracks than its predecessor.
The Boys’ fifth effort, To the 5 Boroughs, is for all intents and purposes the band’s personal love letter to New York City, with the album title, as well as the artwork invoking imagery of their home city. Many journalists and reviewers hailed it as the band’s best album since Paul’s Boutique, remarking that it was a mature record which sees the Beastie Boys truly honing and refining their style almost 20 years after their debut LP. Perhaps vindicating these opinions, Boroughs opened at #1 on the Billboard chart, just as Hello Nasty did 6 years before, giving the band their third #1 album in three attempts. Opening with the bombastic single “Ch-Check It Out”, another mainstay of the Beastie Boys most recognisable tracks, the record itself is surprisingly energetic, with “An Open Letter to NYC” reinforcing the New York themed imagery of the album, a warm ode to the city, acknowledging itself as a “love letter” to the city and referencing the city’s recent plight (released only three years after the 9/11 attacks, MCA remarks “we know you’ve been through hell”), it encapsulates the spirit of the album fantastically, with mature lyrical content juxtaposed expertly against a typical Beastie Boys sample.
In the words of Mike D, “hip hop… continues to be one of the only forms of music that strives on evolution and innovation.” A fitting soundbite to encapsulate the spirit of the Beastie Boys sixth studio album, fully instrumental record The Mix Up. It’s difficult for a band to sound like themselves when they attempt instrumental music, a complex and challenging art form in itself. Beastie Boys took on the challenge in 2007, going on to win a grammy for their efforts. The Mix Up isn’t without its charm, and the nature of hip-hop as a genre lends itself to instrumental versions – a lack of a traditional verse-chorus-verse in a lot of hip-hop means there’s a lot more room for manoeuvre, so stylistically it’s sound. However, instrumental music isn’t everyone’s bag, so although it was critically well received, commercially it didn’t do as well as some of their previous work, perhaps being a little too innovative for the average hip-hop fan. The album is certainly worth a good few listens, though, with some of the instrumentation being just brilliantly intertwined to create a sonic masterpiece.
Beastie Boys final and most recent studio album comes in the form of 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Its irreverent title and modern artwork frame an album that recalls the Beastie Boys at their juvenile, call and response best. After the mature side they showed with Boroughs, Hot Sauce is a refreshingly old-skool effort, simultaneously dispelling myths that the Beastie Boys had grown up, and also that they were contractually obliged to only ever collab with Biz Markie. Nas and Santigold appear on the record, on the tracks “Too Many Rappers” and “Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win” respectively. Many see it as a return to form for the Boys, whereas others see it as a regression after Boroughs. I see it as what the Boys left us with, and I’m glad it was a fun, Beastie Boys themed party.
While we may not be seeing anymore new music from the Boys anytime soon, they have been and will continue to be not just an important part of my musical experience, but an important part of hip-hop and popular music in general. They taught us how to party, they taught us how to laugh at ourselves, and they taught us that 3 white Jewish guys can become one of the most important hip-hop groups there ever has been, and ever will be. They taught us it’s okay to be ourselves, and that it’s okay to change ourselves should we see fit. They also taught us that when a bond, be it musical or otherwise, is built on friendship, it can last forever and never get boring, or worn out, or destroyed by those who seek to destroy it. This has been a look back at the career of the Beastie Boys, the illest rappers this side of Brooklyn.