Somewhere along the line, the Beastie Boys “progressed” from relentless beer-spewing assailants on good taste to self-appointed arbiters of a one-world youth culture wherein B-boys, skatepunks and art-nerds meet to share in stoopid fresh communion. Sometimes, as in the Beasties’ fluid miscegenation of vintage Afro-funk and the hardcore punk that is their more proximate roots, it’s a brilliant concept. Of course, that self-elevation has also led to the pomposity that oozes from the trio’s intensifying notion that every note they record merits commercial release — not to mention coverage in the pages of its now-defunct back-slapping fanzine, Grand Royal.
Emerging from the remains a band called the Young Aborigines, the Beasties debuted in 1981 with Michael Diamond singing, Adam Yauch on bass, John Berry on guitar and Kate Schellenbach (who went on to the now-defunct Luscious Jackson) behind the drums. That same year, they cut and released Polly Wog Stew, later reissued as an import 12-inch of dubious legal standing. The eight light-speed blasts of average (but occasionally rambling) punk salvos lambaste standard targets like police (“Transit Cop”), but also veer into off-kilter slapstick like the ranting “Egg Raid on Mojo.”
Abandoning the sound of punk while delving further into its snotty attitude, the Beastie Boys became a trio — Yauch (aka MCA), Diamond (aka Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (aka King Ad-Rock, previously of the excellently named Young and the Useless) — and set a course for the big time. The first salvo in that direction came on 1983’s “Cooky Puss,” an ice cream store phone prank that did not go down smoothly at the house of Carvel. A tremendous beat pulsing with rock energy, sharp mix tricks and puerile spoken-word jive, the track is ridiculous but undeniably funny and danceable. Although critically dismissed as parody, it actually displays abundant empathy for hip-hop culture (and a straight-outta-junior-high sensayuma). The 12-inch includes a bogus reggae song, “Beastie Revolution,” that mugs Musical Youth and Rasta culture.
In 1984, the Beasties made their stylistic leap official with the release of “Rock Hard,” a 12-inch co-produced by NYU chum Rick Rubin and released on Def Jam, the label he and Russell Simmons had just launched. Unmistakably white and more than middle class, the group wisely acknowledged its ’70s rock heritage in hunks of guitar: AC/DC riffs pop up in “Rock Hard” and “Party’s Gettin’ Rough,” while Led Zep shards fill “Beastie Groove.” The band appeared in the loosely biographical film Krush Groove, for which they cut “She’s on It,” a fun, dumb stomper with a great guitar hook and obnoxious couplets like “She’d get down on her knees / If we’d only say please.” The Beasties had reached a new plateau of offensiveness and were squinting upwards.
The release of Licensed to Ill caught the guardians of popular culture napping. Within months, the album and its attendant 45s were skyrocketing towards astronomical sales levels as kids of all colors in countless countries rapped and danced to such intentionally moronic celebrations of self-indulgent stupidity and trash culture as “Fight for Your Right (To Party),” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” “Brass Monkey,” “Time to Get Ill” and the absurdly catchy “Girls.” Rubin’s brilliant stew of dodgy bits lifted from records by the Stones, Led Zep, Clash (and dozens more still unidentified), combined with the whining nasal roar of the three stooges’ inventive sexist drivel, somehow hit that perfect beat, and made the Beasties stars, dragging controversy, anger and damage reports in their wake. Thought it may have been created as a wry comment on the baser levels of both rock and hip-hop, the record’s net effect was to begin to erase the distinctions between the genres in the irresistible bluster of fratboys with a beat. Combined with the whining nasal roar of the three stooges’ unabashed invention, Rubin created a perfectly timed sound of adolescent freedom no other group from either side of the divide has ever quite matched.
By the time the Beasties came off the road, engineered a disputed label switch and got around to making a record (with time out for Horovitz to star in 1989’s Lost Angels), the rap world was a very different — and far more competitive — place. Recognizing the fragile oddness of their stylistic position, the trio (without Rubin) reached for street credibility on Paul’s Boutique. The thickly textured, deceptively subtle album distanced the Boys from the controversy-for-controversy’s-sake mindset and the getting-tired rock’n’rap fusion formula. The album makes extensive use of a remarkable array of samples — credit due to the Dust Brothers’ stoner-friendly production — and shows an impressive affinity for funk at its deepest. Tracks like “High Plains Drifter” and the whining anthem “Johnny Ryall” merge West Coast cool with East Coast tension, propelled by a swagger unlike anything the group had previously mastered. Even the moments of utter goofiness — like “Egg Man” and the Mr. Wizard-gone-bad “The Sounds of Science” — are handled more nimble-mindedly. An indispensable item in any hip-hop library.
Check Your Head is a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, the grooves roll out in impressive enough fashion — most intriguingly on the insinuating “Funky Boss” and “So What’cha Want” (which are fairly close to being two mixes of the same track, anyway) — but, too often, the Boys are simply passengers on a Jeep blasting the beats. The live instrumentation — a funk-rock fusion alternately reminiscent of Mandrill and ’70s TV themes — doesn’t do much for “Jimmy James” or “Gratitude,” although those tracks are far superior to tired sample pastiches like “Lighten Up.” (The band’s flair for odd sample juxtapositions is still there, though, as evidenced by “The Biz-vs-The Nuge,” which pits Mr. Markie against Ted Bowhunter.) Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the roots-revisiting hardcore splatter of “Time for Livin’.” (Incidentally, that first voice you hear belongs to Robin Zander, sampled from Cheap Trick at Budokan.)
There’s even more hammer-down HC on Ill Communication, a maddeningly inconsistent but whip-smart journey to the heart of urban youth culture. Alternating testosterone-fueled rockers like “Heart Attack Man” and “Tough Guy” with acid-jazz-imbued pieces like “Sure Shot” and “Flute Loop” (both of which employ chilled-out flute samples, from records by, respectively, Jeremy Steig and the Blues Project), the trio whips up a mighty vertiginous storm. Referencing or sampling culture deities from Russell Simmons to Moms Mabley, the Beasties remain defiantly — and studiedly — post-modern. But with a few glaring exceptions (like “Bodhisattva Vow,” one of Yauch’s pious paeans to his newly accepted Buddhist faith), the band wears its cultural hodgepodge well.
Some Old Bullshit is a useful compilation of the band’s embryonic material, comprising the Polly Wog Stew EP, the long out-of-print “Cooky Puss” single and previously unissued early versions of “Egg Raid on Mojo” and “Transit Cop.” The packaging, which includes reprints of flyers, set lists and vintage photos — as well as an amusing band history penned by Diamond — is in itself enough of a purchase incentive for fans, even those who own the rare original vinyl.
Root Down is another, far less interesting, product of the Boys’ vault-vacuuming. Built around three versions of the title track, the ten-song disc — strictly a vanity pressing — appends live renditions of material both old (“Time to Get Ill,” “Flute Loop”) or in-progress (the Barretta-meets-Barbieri jam “Sabrosa,” which would turn up in its studio version on The In Sound From Way Out!). In an effort to relive their hardcore adolescence, the Beasties then whipped out Aglio & Olio, a breathless see-we-still-can set of no-speed-limit thrashers (eight songs, 12 minutes, no waiting) marked by equal parts puerile lyrical juvenilia and brainpan-bash guitar sledgehammering. A brief blast from the band’s stylistic past.
Strictly instrumental, The In Sound From Way Out! is an intermittently successful attempt to bridge Afro-funk fusion and kitschy ’60s “electronic pop music of the future.” While there’s no disputing the instrumental dexterity at play (especially on Yauch’s part) in the grooves of “Bobo on the Corner” and “Son of Neckbone,” the Beasties slip too often from tribute to duplication—right down to the title and cover, both of which were “borrowed” from an album by ’60s Moog masters Perrey-Kingsley. More than anything else, this collection is reminiscent — in spirit — of Frank Zappa’s early post-Mothers work.
The Beasties’ first proper album in four years, Hello Nasty is something of a stylistic retrospective, a good-natured assortment of comfortable (often corny) old-school self-consciousness (quoting Run-DMC in “Putting Shame in Your Game,” dusting off the electric boogie vocal processor for “Intergalactic”), an updated variation on the rap-rock they made with Rick Rubin, jazzy cinema soundtrackery, fuggy funk, groovy pop swing and rote BB indulgence (e.g., a song snippet in Spanish, a phone message from their new DJ, Mixmaster Mike, etc.). Rather than challenge themselves to evolve, the Beasties — who co-produced the disc with longtime associate Mario Caldato Jr. — here seem content to muck around in familiar mud to reasonably entertaining effect. Of course, that’s only a surface view, since intentional backward motion by a band as diverse, able and, oh hell, post-modern as the Beasties is surely motivated by something more willful than a tribute to the history of hip-hop. Really, what does a line like “Breakdancers of the world unite” mean in 1998? Among the album’s various reissues, the 2023 25th anniversary edition is a four-LP box with 21 bonus tracks.
The Sounds of Science helpfully recapitulates the band’s first two decades in 42 non-chronological tracks on two discs, packaged with the kind of detailed creative-process annotation (“Yauch came in one day with this idea for a song where the fuzz bass keeps playing and we would all do these hits and stops to bring like suspense and drama …”) one generally expects from overly reflective singer-songwriters, not aging wiseguys still going strong. It’s cool that the trio can wax so eloquent about such an eclectic body of work, and it’s cooler that their choice of tracks is both sensible and unpredictable.
Onetime Beasties DJ Hurricane (Wendell Fite) cuts a surprisingly powerful figure as frontman on his solo bow, The Hurra. His rhymes aren’t particularly original, focusing as they do on the gat-centric worldview long ago parodied by the Beasties (particularly “Pass Me the Gun”), but Hurricane’s sinewy delivery and low-rider funk backing tracks make songs like “Elbow Room” and “Four Fly Guys” perfect for late-night beer-swilling.
Money Mark (Mark Ramos Nishita), the band’s keyboardist, waxes more experimental on Mark’s Keyboard Repair, a 30-track collection that, at its best, recalls some chance collaboration between Sebadoh and Parliament. The scratchy funk grooves of songs like the lead-off “Pretty Pain” are mottled with bedsit vocals and diffident melodies, while aural in-jokes like “Have Clav Will Travel” are well-steeped in a post-modern bath. Still, when Mark hits a stone groove — as on the too-brief “Spooky” and “Sunday Gardena Blvd.” — it’s strictly old-school, and strictly phat.