I am about to compare the Beastie Boys to the Beatles. Wait! Don't leave yet! Give me a chance?
Since you are required to have a favorite Beatle, from the beginning of my awareness of the band, I used to say Paul. He was the cute one, after all. It was only in my adolescent years when I really started to get to know the band both through their personal history and discography that I sharply changed direction and was 100% John's girl. As a casual fan of the Beastie Boys, I picked Mike D as my favorite, once again based on his looks. Over the past few months, I've been feeding my hunger for new (to me) music by listening to the entirety of the Beastie Boys catalogue. It has come almost as no surprise to me that I am suddenly far more in Ad Rock's corner now.
John was the most outspoken of the Beatles, and with his high pitched voice and nickname of "the Kid," Ad Rock may be the wildest member of the Beastie Boys, so you would think I would have recognized what I liked about both of these guys from day one. I am moderately ashamed of my initially shallow tastes, but I suppose "casual fan" and "shallow" sort of go hand in hand, right?
I think the Beastie Boys caught my attention in my youth mostly for their music videos and the sense of humor they let shine through them. I wasn't a very big fan of hip hop back then, though even I knew that the Beastie Boys were something not quite normal for the genre, and I don't just mean because of their race. I've seen their music referred to as "alternative hip hop" and I think it works in regards to an "alternative to the norm" kind of sense. Hip hop punk might also be a decent description, as they originally started out as a punk band and both their sense of humor and their approach to the music seem to mirror that punk style quite a bit.
This quality of standing out from the pack has made them just as influential as The Beatles to both hip hop and the post-Green Day punk scene, and they were also one of the first bands of their generation to speak openly about political and social issues. They've evolved in their music over the span of their history, and I'm going to break that down for you now.
License to Ill
Their debut album is probably their best known, and there's a lot of good reasons for that. In my opinion, however, the one song on this album that is the most well known and quite possibly your favorite of theirs, I really, really don't like.
Freshman year of high school I attended the first dance of the year with a friend. When the DJ started playing "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" she began shouting out the lyrics along with many others in the gym. I must have had a really confused look on my face, because she turned to me and said "It's a really old song." This is the point where I get peeved about something that was created since I was born being referred to as "really old," but even beyond that, I was already familiar with it. I had seen the video on MTV as much as anyone else had. I just didn't see why it was such a big deal. I still don't. It makes me happy to know that the Beastie Boys themselves feel about the same way and have not performed this song live since 1987.
The album contains quite a bit of sampling, but this is sampling done right - a quick riff stolen from another song that makes you go "I know that!" rather than just stealing an entire chorus and rapping over it (like a certain Bad Boy would later do). More than anything, it's the sense of humor that really makes me love this album. This is the Beastie Boys at their rudest, and especially knowing now where they end up, you can't get offended by it. Normally hearing a guy shouting that he wants a girl to "do the dishes" and "clean up my room" would earn a smack from me, but the song is just so cutesy I find it hilarious. I also couldn't help but chuckle every time I heard them claim to own a gun. What can I say, I just can't see three skinny Jewish boys like them secretly packing heat.
The boys are pretty much known for name dropping themselves constantly. This is something that really used to annoy me back when rap was in its heyday, but apparently I've become immune to it. I suppose another way to look at it is this: think about most bands you know, and how many of them you can actually name every single member. Obviously your favorites you know them all, but most other bands you probably just know the lead singer or the particularly skilled guitar player. On the other hand, even if you're just a casual fan of the Beastie Boys, I bet you know all three.
Some of their rhymes on this album are better than others. For instance, I have to applaud the use of the word "pagoda" just for the sake of name dropping Abe Vigoda. Who would even think of that? On the other hand, there's also a lot of repetition. MCA tells us that he's "got a license to kill" and then rhymes it with "it's time to get ill" at least twice on the album. They also bring up Whitecastle in almost every single song. You'd almost think they made a deal with the company.
The Beastie Boys made an attempt to draw their own Beatles comparison at this point by covering "I'm Down." The song takes samples from the chorus of the Beatles song and features their typical over the top lyrics during the verses. Michael Jackson flat out refused to give them the rights to release it. I found the track on YouTube and I have to admit I'm inclined to agree with MJ on this one. It's just not very good.
The album, however, is made up entirely of songs that could be singles on their own, and I think Rick Rubin is the one we can thank for that. The man is legendary for a reason. It's not unlike the way George Martin guided the Beatles on their first few albums to create those pop hits. The Beatles didn't really start to take control until around Rubber Soul, and it was only after leaving Def Jam that the Beastie Boys were able to start really experimenting more with their sound and create something very different.
On paper, this album should be all kinds of awesomeness to me. It's the Beastie Boys being produced by the Dust Brothers. I absolutely love the Dust Brothers work on the Fight Club soundtrack. Beck's Odelay and Guero, also produced by them, are my favorites of his discography.
On the first listen through, I really liked it. Some songs were weaker than others, but there's just so many layers to the sampling that it's a literal feast for your ears. On repeated listenings, however, a lot of this didn't really hold up for me. While "Shake Your Rump" and "Hey Ladies" are probably two of my favorite Beastie Boys songs, and "Sounds of Science" and "What Comes Around" aren't too bad either, I find myself with an urge to skip through most of the rest.
What the album is really missing is a "Paul Revere, Part Two" that would explain to us how the King Ad Rock got mysteriously dethroned since the last album.
Despite my personal feelings, this is probably their most critically acclaimed album, and I think that anyone who is a fan of music should give it at least one listen through. If you can't be bothered to find the whole album, at least check out "The Sounds of Science." Having been denied a cover, they decided to get a little more daring and push the rights of fair use by sampling multiple Beatles tracks on the recording.
EDIT: Six months later I now feel completely differently about this album. I think it just took more time for me to absorb some of these songs. "High Plains Drifter," "Looking Down the Barrel of Gun," and "Shadrach" are all now among my favorite by the group.
Check Your Head
It's about this point that I started feeling really discouraged going through these albums, but fortunately I know better things are on the horizon. I didn't include their original punk album on this list because it was not label released and honestly, what I've heard of it is not very good. Check Your Head is a sort of return to those roots, featuring the boys playing their own instruments on this album along with the sampling. Unfortunately it has the feel that they were practicing their instruments and just hit record, because what we end up with is a lot of funky bass grooves and no real rapping on top of them. "So Whatcha Want" and "Jimmy James" are pretty much the only songs on the album that are worth listening to, in my opinion. I keep seeing "Pass the Mic" listed as a hit in places, but I had never heard of it before, and Mike D actually commits the sin of rhyming a word with itself on it. The word is "commercial" and while you could probably stretch that to have two meanings and make it work, he doesn't.
Worst of all, the guys attempt to sing on some of the tracks. While I think they have fantastic ability in terms of rhyme and rhythm, their actual singing can be pretty painful to listen to. While I don't care for this direction, I applaud them for pushing the boundaries and trying out new things they hadn't before. There aren't many rappers out there who also play their own instruments, much like the Beatles were one of the early bands to actually write their own songs.
This album was a bit of a return to popularity for the Beastie Boys, in large part due to the music video for "Sabotage." It was simply inescapable on MTV for a long time, and I don't recall ever complaining about seeing it. The video is hilarious and the song has such a great bass riff. As for the rest of the album, it's a mixed bag. It's got some really great rap songs ("Sure Shot," "Root Down," and "Get It Together"), some really terrible punk songs ("Tough Guy" and "Heart Attack Man"), and some more funk based grooves that don't feel like they belong on the album, in my opinion. The worse of it is their insistence to run nearly all their vocals through a very heavy filter, thereby making them unintelligible. A song like "The Update" sounds like it may have some important message to get across - however I can't understand a word of it, so I can't tell you what that is. This filter problem also existed on Check Your Head. The Beastie Boys have released remastered versions of these albums through their website, but without listening to them I don't know if this was improved upon or not.
This was the album I was looking forward to the most. As much as I enjoyed "Sabotage" and its video, "Intergalactic" is pretty much my all time favorite of theirs and "Body Movin'" is also pretty great. I was surprised to find out that the album version of "Body Movin'" is actually quite different from the Fat Boy Slim remix we're so familiar with. The remix is much, much better, as the chorus on the album version is sped up Chipmunk style and the music on the verses is just all around lacking. Beyond the singles, the punk songs seem to have been dropped, but we've still got a mix of slow jazz and rap songs. The slower songs have Ad Rock once again attempting to sing on a couple ("Song for the Man" and "Instant Death"), and even he must know he's not very good at it because it's really not much more than flat, melodic speaking. Three others songs have three different female vocalists("Song for Junior," "Picture This,"and "I Don't Know"), all of which are extremely high pitched and unpleasant to listen to, much like Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney's appearances on Beatles tracks. However if you skip these five songs (out of twenty two total) you've got a fairly solid hip hop album. "The Move," "Putting Shame in Your Game," and "Three MCs and One DJ" in particular stick out but there really isn't a bad one. They've mercifully lost the filter and we can hear them rap again!
To The 5 Boroughs
I honestly didn't know this album existed until I started going through their discography. This is a post 9/11 album, and since the guys are from New York, it's logical that the album is essentially a tribute to their hometown. The good news is that this album is 100% rap. The bad news is that since this album was released in 2004, there's a couple of "George W. Bush sucks!" songs which make it extremely dated. For whatever reason, despite its own name drop, the Beatles' "Revolution" does not feel anywhere near as dated to me. "Ch-check it out" and "Triple Trouble" are still really good songs, and overall it's a solid hip hop album if you don't mind your musicians getting political.
Possibly in response to their last album being nothing but rap, this album is all instrumental. They apparently originally had plans to bring in various up and coming vocalists to sing on the album, but scrapped that idea. The music is similar in style to the jazz and funk songs they had on past albums, but much more polished in sound. Personally, there are very few times when I choose to listen to instrumentals - vocals and lyrics are pretty key for me when it comes to music. The exception is mostly when I'm writing, because I don't want the artist's words mixing with those in my head, so to speak. I could certainly listen to this while writing, as none of the music is chaotic or unsettling. Since I absolutely hate pretentious attempts at describing the feel of music, I'm just going to recommend that you check out some samples of this album and see if it fits your own personal tastes. I also once again have to applaud their willingness to take risks and put out something completely different, and to also learn from their past experiences that this kind of music does not necessarily mesh with the rap songs.
Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two
And now we're up to date. This album was actually a birthday present to me, or at least that's how I like to think of it whenever albums or movies are released on my birthday. Once again we have a nearly 100% rap album here. It's still nicely varied though, as some have a more alternative Rage Against the Machine style and others are more straight up hip hop. My biggest complaint is that it feels too short. There are a total of sixteen tracks, but three of them are under one minute in length and a good portion of the others are also under four minutes. The vocal filters have also returned. It's not so bad to make them unintelligible, but I'd much prefer to hear them clean. The strongest songs are "Make Some Noise," "Too Many Rappers" featuring Nas, and "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win" featuring Santi Gold. Dare I compare this increase in collaboration to Billy Preston playing with the Beatles? The one glaring exception to these additional vocalists being an improvement is "Crazy Ass Sh*t," which features Mike D's sons rapping on it. While I'm sure he and his wife find that absolutely adorable, all I can do is groan and skip through the track the moment I hear it.
Coincidentally with this album's release date, this whole adventure started because of my birthday. At my thirtieth birthday party while feeling quite intoxicated, I announced to the room, "I'm going to sing 'Sabotage' in Rock Band now. Anyone who wants to play with me, come on." If you own the first Rock Band game and have ever played Vocals, you probably know "Sabotage" as the one song even someone who is tone deaf can perform. It's all rapping and you don't have to hit a single note. You do have to get the words/rhythm right, but once you have that down you can gold star the song without much trouble. Rock Band fanatic that I am, somewhere along the way I decided to enhance the experience by also trying to sound like Ad Rock. The party was the first time I had actually done that in front of people, and they all seemed to enjoy it.
Free MP3 Download!
Jak has been a long time Beastie Boys fan, and not long after the party he said to me, "I'm going to cover 'Sabotage' and I want you to do the vocals." He and I have discussed doing something together for ages now, but this is the first time we've really done a song together and it was a lot of fun. It feels incredibly weird to hear myself via a recording like this, but I think it came out pretty good. You can download the song by right clicking on this link. I hope you enjoy it!
As if that wasn't enough, I also have a video for you.
Brass Monkey Taste Test