The Over/Under: Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys’ evolution from bratty, snot-nosed hardcore punks into hip-hop elder statesmen is one of the unlikeliest stories in contemporary music. Actually, 25 years later, it can be easy to forget how unlikely that evolution was. When Licensed To Ill dropped in 1986, the album’s blend of rap and hard rock was perfectly suited to its moment; Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” had been released only four months earlier (and was, like Licensed To Ill, produced by hip-hop crossover’s mad genius Rick Rubin). But the Beasties’ comparative youth, beer-spitting white-boy antics and casual queer-baiting and sexism dogged them through the album’s rapid chart climb and Run-DMC’s ill-fated “Raising Hell” tour, on which they played as one of several supporting acts. The group later claimed that much of that early slope-browed persona was intended as parody. Still, the young Beasties took plain delight in showing their asses in public. Even as Licensed To Ill help signal rap’s mainstream viability, parents and cultural watchdog groups—mainly white, it must be said—pegged Adam Yauch (MCA), Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (King Ad-Rock) as dangerous influences on “impressionable” suburban youth. On the other side of the color line, many hip-hop fans, equally put off by the Beasties’ relentless clowning, dismissed them as callow poseurs unfit to carry Run-DMC’s Adidas. To their credit, the Beastie Boys learned their lesson in Licensed To Ill’s aftermath. In 1989, after relocating to California and hooking up with the staggeringly gifted Dust Brothers production team, the group released Paul’s Boutique. Infamously dismissed in its own day, the album is now revered as one of the most progressive and important hip-hop records ever made. By the time Check Your Head appeared in 1992, the Beasties had successfully shed their image as immature bozos and morphed into genre-savvy trendsetters. The band’s next two records, Ill Communication and Hello Nasty, would set the standard for the pop-culture-smashup approach that came to dominate hip hop in the 1990s. Following more generically straight albums of stripped-down rap (To The 5 Boroughs) and Blue Note soul funk (The Mix Up), and now firmly settled in the third act of their career, the Beastie Boys are slated to release the long-delayed The Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1 late this fall. How far it all seems from “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” Thank gawd.

:: The Five Most Overrated Beastie Boys Songs
1. “Intergalactic” (1998)
All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Earlewine once called Hello Nasty “the last album of the decade to capture what the ‘90s actually felt like,” which is as succinct an assessment as you’ll probably ever read. The Beasties’ fifth album is a multicultural stew of genres and styles, from bossa nova to house to dub to synth rock. But it was tweaked space rhyme “Intergalactic” that became the album’s breakout track. You remember how impossible it was to get away from “Intergalactic”; incessant radio and video exposure made it one of the Beastie Boys’ most ubiquitous singles. But a dozen years on, it’s cleverer than it is smart, with most of the lyrics given over to the tongue-in-cheek self-aggrandizing that the Beasties could execute, by then, with their collective left hand. The rhymes are funny and sharp, and I dig the couplet “Your knees’ll start shaking and your fingers pop/Like a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock” as much as anyone. But there’s heavier, funnier, hookier stuff on the record; revisit “The Negotiation Limerick File” if you haven’t heard it in a while. And like little else in the Beasties’ catalog, the final cut of “Intergalactic” always sounded overproduced to me. By way of comparison, check the earliest version of the song, dating from the Ill Communication sessions and dressed down in that album’s junkyard aesthetic.

Hello Nasty Version:

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Original Version:

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2. “Paul Revere” (1986)
Contrary to what you might be remembering, the most embarrassing thing on Licensed To Ill isn’t “Fight For Your Right” but “Paul Revere.” (I’m not counting “Girls,” which is more unfortunate than embarrassing.) It seems pretty clear that “Paul Revere” is intended as a goof on hip hop’s tall-tale stories of the criminal life, unless bar stickups perpetrated by Upper West Side Jewish youth were much more frequent in the 1980s than I recall. Still, “Paul Revere” continues to cling to life, enjoying renewed popularity among kids whose parents were in high school when Licensed To Ill was released, while better tunes like “Hold It, Now Hit It” and “The New Style” get passed over.

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3. “Sabotage” (1994)
Despite the fact that Spike Jonze gave the Beasties the best video of their career in “Sabotage,” the song itself is misleadingly bombastic, sounding grander and more substantial than it actually is. At least part of that phenomenon lies in the fact that it’s an utterly unique entry in their catalog. The three-piece had never recorded anything this loud and aggressive before—even their forays into punk tend to be trebly and short, with no bottom end to speak of—and Horovitz’s nasal tenor is matched perfectly to the thundering arrangement. So it’s definitely something of a tour de force, and to date, it’s an experiment they haven’t revisited. But “Sabotage” became to Ill Communication what “Intergalactic” was to Hello Nasty, and as in the former case, it’s unrepresentative of what the album does best. Yet it’s the song most casual listeners remember best from the record. “Sure Shot” or “Root Down,” anyone? (Word to the wise, though: If you haven’t seen Katie King’s shot-for-shot mashup of the “Sabotage” video with footage from Battlestar Galactica, available here, run, don’t walk.)

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4. “Brass Monkey” (1986)
A virtual index of every ball-scratching, glue-sniffing, drunkypants pose-out to be found on Licensed To Ill. If it’s not a joke, it’s boneheaded. If it is a joke, it’s boneheaded and it ain’t funny. I know I’m probably alone on this. Please, let’s not fight.

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5. “So What’cha Want” (1992)
In context, “So What’cha Want” is one of the Check Your Head’s simplest songs, built on three primary samples—Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” Southside Movement’s “I’ve Been Watching You” and Big Daddy Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ With Biz”—and delivered in a traditional verbal handoff style. It’s also one of the most traditional arrangements on an album filled with dense layerings of samples and styles. This isn’t a bad thing, on the merits. But Check Your Head’s grab-bag approach was what made the album interesting, and even when that approach was applied to straight-ahead MC’ing, as it was on the album’s preceding single, “Pass The Mic,” it made the end result engaging and forward-looking. Not so on “So What’cha Want,” which is a solid cut, but not in the same league as “Pass The Mic.” Or the album’s other two singles, “Jimmy James” and “Gratitude,” for that matter.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Beastie Boys Songs
1. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” (1989)
With their second release, the Beasties desperately wanted to turn in a brainy, experimental record that would remove the “frat rap” label they’d been stuck with. Strictly speaking, Paul’s Boutique is a collaboration between the Beastie Boys and production team the Dust Brothers, E.Z. Mike (Mike Simpson) and King Gizmo (John King). Impressed by their cutup and mixing skills, Yauch recruited the duo to develop the music for the Beastie Boys’ sophomore record, fully half of which was written over tracks the Dust Brothers had already completed. The 12-and-a-half-minute medley that closes Paul’s Boutique is the crown jewel of the album, patterned on the side-two medley from the Beatles’ Abbey Road: nine song fragments edited together, followed by a short coda (a reprise of album opener “To All The Girls”). The album leading up to the closing suite is complex and inventive—far more so than their first album might have suggested—but “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is unstoppable, a furious torrent of rhymes, cuts, samples, breaks and beats that starts slowly and gradually picks up speed until bass-heavy closer “A.W.O.L.” nails it all to the floor. It took critics and fans a few years to catch up with the album, but in “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” you can hear everything that makes Paul’s Boutique remarkable, in bite-size form.

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2. “Ch-Check It Out” (2004)
Over here on the “purist” end of the spectrum, we have To The 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys’ post-September 11 love letter to NYC. Released more than half a decade after the expansive Hello Nasty, To The 5 Boroughs initially sounded like a throwback. And it is, in a manner of speaking—the most straightforward hip-hop album the Beasties had ever recorded. But if it’s less experimental than most entries in the band’s catalog, it’s also one of its tightest and most focused records, self-produced and stripped down so that the lyrical flow and wordplay come full center, supported by the spare beats of DJ Mix Master Mike. “Ch-Check It Out,” the opening track, was also its first single, and the Beasties’ fondness for pop culture references and old-school hip hop has rarely sounded this arresting and assured. The group’s dramatic June 2004 performance of the song on Letterman nicely captures both the song’s technical merits and the album’s hometown spirit.

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3. “Finger Lickin’ Good” (1992)
Bob Dylan, avant-garde jazz icon Rahsaan Roland Kirk, James Brown, the 5th Dimension, soul organist Johnny Hammond: “Finger Lickin’ Good,” a criminally overlooked track from Check Your Head, features one of the most vital sets of samples on the record. It also boasts a rhythmically adept lyrical performance, featuring only Diamond and Yauch interweaving goofy toast-and-boast lines back and forth: “Sport the crazy funky threads that you never even seen before/What I’m lacking from macking I can find at the thrift store.” In comparison to the rest of the album, “Finger Lickin’ Good” doesn’t give up much in the way of political consciousness or soul groove, and yet its playful, tricky confidence makes it one of the record’s most infectious and good-natured cuts.

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4. “The Scoop” (1994)
Speaking of political consciousness, “The Scoop,” from Ill Communication, lays out the Beasties’ developing social agenda in ways both complex and intriguing. The individual band members were, by this point, beginning to follow diverse musical and social paths, and frequently on Ill Communication you’ll find a line by one member opposed by another. On “B-Boys Making With The Freak-Freak,” Horovitz drops “Legalize the weed and I’ll say, ‘Thank heavens!’” “The Scoop” opens with Yauch, recently drawn to Buddhist history and study, declaring nonviolence and abstinence from drugs: “I don’t get blind, I don’t drink wine/I took a sledgehammer, and I broke my nine.” Importantly, however, in the Beastie Boys’ universe these viewpoints didn’t necessarily set their proponents at odds with each other. That sort of mutual respect for divergent opinions was one of the key signals that the Beastie Boys were not only a significant musical collective, but a group pushing a message of social acceptance and inclusivity. It’s a message they’ve continued to develop on subsequent releases, and one of the elements of their aesthetic that makes the band so unique.

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5. “B For My Name” (2007)
Some dismiss it, but put me in the pro-Beastie Boys soul instrumental camp. When The Mix-Up appeared in 2007, it seemed a left-field release, though not a complete shock. The Beasties had been dabbling in this sort of thing since Check Your Head, but The Mix-Up was a smooth, cool, remarkably self-assured studio performance from a band that had begun, in its earliest incarnation, as a sloppy hardcore-punk outfit. The all-instrumental record seemed to touch a surprisingly deep nerve in the fan community as well. Over at the highly recommended fan site Beastiemixes, a Staten Island head case who goes by the sobriquet CosmoKramer mashed up the entire album with a capella vocal tracks from previous Beastie Boys records, calling the whole stunning project The Re-Mix-Up, and the flow is so damn nice there are whole sets of lyrics I can’t hear any more without hearing the Re-Mix-Up version in my head. Both the original version of album opener “B For My Name” and CosmoKramer’s remix “B For My Name Vs. Unite” are given here. That sort of cut-and-paste approach has served as the Beastie Boys’ most consistent strength over their entire career. And there’s something very satisfying about this particular band, so famous for its 20-plus years of culture mining, being cut up and reassembled by new generations of listeners.
“B For My Name”:

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“B For My Name Vs. Unite”:

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—Eric Waggoner

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7 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the more difficult over/unders imaginable, just because of all the confusion and different relationships people have with the BBoys. This is as good as I can imagine getting it, though I may’ve also included Shadrach and Super Disco Breakin’ in underrated and “Girls” & “An Open Letter To NYC” in overrated.

  2. Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Pretty good here. You missed the excellent excellent excellent “Son of Neckbone” probably the best instrumental in the whole beastie catalog, and a non-album track to boot.

    Also – “Sabotage” was not any fiercer than “Time For Livin”, “Gratitude” or “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun” (although that heaviness came from Anthrax, fresh off of their Public Enemy collab).

    How come “Alive” didn’t make the over-rated? It was a throwaway single used to buoy a spotty over-priced retrospective double disc collection, and it was as ubiquitous as Intergalactic the next summer, although it lacked the great rhymes, unique instrumentation, and amazing video work of “Intergalactic”. For my money “Alive” is ten times more over-rated than “Intergalactic”

  3. Charles Bryan
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    The author misses High Plains Drifter and What Comes Around Goes Around – two gems from Boutique. I disagree on So Whatcha Want – it’s got more kick than Pass the Mic but less than Professory Booty.

    Bottom Line: Boutique remains the greatest hip hop album ever made – hands down. The Chronic comes close and Eminem and Jay Z are fantastic technical rappers, but no album has been as dense, as deep, as mystical, as old school, and as complex or clever as Boutique was.

    Nas had it right. Hip Hop is Dead.

  4. Douglas bonar
    Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    all these songs are still great til this day

  5. Don
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Generic Magnet O/U list: Pick a bunch of great, popular songs and call them “overrated.”

  6. Andrew the Noisy
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Hell, I’m surprised that every song on the under list wasn’t from Boutique. For a lot of critics that’s the only album they made. Maybe one of these days I’ll put it on and it won’t put me to sleep.

  7. Posted May 6, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Just found out about Adam’s news. 🙁 Will miss Yauch’s contribution in their unique, funny and energetic music videos. RIP, he was a great soul.