New York's Beastie Boys started as a young, sloppy punk band in 1979, but didn't achieve success until a toss-off joke rap single, Cooky Puss, put them somewhere on the local map. They hooked up with Rick Rubin, got signed to Columbia, released the huge-selling novelty rap album Licensed to Ill, and the rest is history. So how did these guys wind up lasting over three decades while nearly all their contemporaries became old hat in the early 90's? Well, the Beasties weren't afraid to grow up and re-invent themselves, so they were able to keep afloat on the constantly changing hip-hop landscape of the 90's by forging their own path. Thus it was tough for the fans to get tired of them, as they never really stuck to any sound long enough for people to get sick of it. Even their singles are almost all radically different - "Sabotage", "Hey Ladies", "Fight For Your Right", and "Intergalactic" all have different appeal, as they tend not to repeat themselves. This led them to have a longer prime than almost every other mid-80's rap act, most of which were washed up after the 2nd or 3rd album.
It's hard to generalize the Beasties' sound, as the only thing that's really consistent from album to album are the vocals. These guys have not one, but three guys with nasal voices, including the gruff MCA and two high-pitched ones who are tough to tell apart (Adrock and Mike D.). For the most part you hear all the guys trading lines on nearly every song - 'solo' spots are pretty rare, especially on the early albums. They're obnoxious and irritating to a degree, but they have enough personality and write a lot of truly clever lyrics to make up for it. Surprisingly, they did pick up their instruments again starting with 1992's Check Your Head, and though their instrumental skills aren't worth much of a mention, they milked 'em for what they were worth, and even had the balls to record an all-instrumental album. If nothing else, the breadth of their catalogue eclipses nearly any other hip-hop artist ever, which may explain why to this day they have so many fans even though they're only semi-active. On to the reviews:
Licensed to Ill (1986) (plus one star if you're a teenager)
This is really the ultimate in white frat-boy rap - the lyrical subjects include partying, women, stealing bikes, women, drinking, girls, having sex with women, punching musicians in the face, and violating women with wiffleball bats. They reference White Castle as many times as they sample Led Zeppelin (three) and have a vocal technique that can be described as "nonstop yelling". Also, the original title was Don't Be a Faggot and the cover has a not-so-hidden message that says "eat me". So if you're 16, you probably just found yourself a new favorite album. At least it would be if it were, say, 1988 - the TR-808 drum machine is such a big part of this sound that this thing is pretty much inexorably tied to the late 80's. This album sold by the truckload, especially to those who still love rock - both of the singles ("Fight For Your Right to Party" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn") were aided by monster riffs courtesy of Slayer's Kerry King, while "Rhymin' and Stealin'" combines the drums from Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" with guitar from Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf", and may be the best thing on here for that fact alone. Elsewhere, there's a big chunk of "Low Rider" ("Slow Ride"), some more Zep ("She's Crafty"), as well as tracks that mix up bits and pieces of a bunch of songs ("Time to Get Ill", "Hold It Now, Hit It"). All this really does is mask the fact that these guys don't really have any musical ideas of their own, but that's fine - you're clearly supposed to pay attention to the Beasties themselves, which is how they're able to get away with songs where the backing is either thin ("Girls") or practically nonexistent ("Paul Revere", "Posse in Effect"). So the real question is, how funny are the lyrics? Well, like pretty much every Beasties album (up to Hello Nasty, at least), it's endlessly quotable, though there's a weird lack of self-awareness here. Hell, every line on "Fight for Your Right" is classic, and both "Girls" and "Brass Monkey" (two truly obnoxious singles, by the way) were pretty ubiquitous, so you probably already know what to expect here. Let me just say that the Beasties were around 19 or 20 when this was recorded and I can't see anyone much older than that getting a real kick out of them. Yes, it's crude, but it's 1986 crude - they don't even swear! In today's post-Bloodhound Gang world this is downright tame. It's a lot of fun and works well at parties, but it also essentially equates to a novelty record, so there's not a lot of replay value. Hell, it's not even like they've got great delivery, unless you like being shouted at for 40 minutes. Still, it's a classic in its own right, so maybe my 3-star rating isn't doing it justice. I just don't feel like listening to it much.
Paul's Boutique (1989)
Perhaps sensing that they had hit on a dead-end (how dated did Run DMC wind up sounding?), the Beasties teamed up with the Dust Brothers to produce this infamous game-changer. This may be the most reference-heavy album ever released (legally) - with the exception of a few beats, literally everything here is sampled. The Dusts obviously have a huge stack of records at their disposal, borrowing a little bit of everything, from old-school funk to classic rock to (then) contemporary hip-hop, with many tracks sampling ten or more records while remaining structurally sound and fundamentally coherent – they're not just spinning off a much of samples just because they can, unlike similar acts that came later (such as Girl Talk). Needless to say, there was never a record like this again, as a ton of legislation was passed that would prevent samples from being cleared so easily. This may have actually worked as an instrumental record, but it's the Beasties who really put this over the top. They're just as busy as the production is, making so many references on each song that I'm not sure it's possible for any one person to get them all. Not only that, but they're getting increasingly clever as well, as nearly every line either drops some kind of reference, uses some form of wordplay or has a double entendre. Hell, sometimes they even trade lines with the samples! I can only imagine how long it took to come up with all this. I don't know how much of this review I really want to spend discussing the sheer scope of this album, as you can go to a site like this one and see for yourself.
As for the actual music - well, half the fun is deciphering all the samples and references, but the sound itself is great. When the Dusts and Beasties are firing on all cylinders - mixing up beats and trading lines against an array of catchy and memorable samples, it's so high-energy and dense that it can't help but amaze. I'm talking mostly about "Shake Your Rump", "Hey Ladies", and "Shadrach" here, but the stuff that isn't packed to the gills works too. Even the more recognizable samples work wonders - the bass line from Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" or the guitar riff from Abbey Road's "The End" seem more at home on this album than they do on the originals! They're just as much fun as they were on Licensed to Ill, but do everything better - "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun" is heavier than anything on the debut, and there are more funny lines in the first three songs (not counting the intro) than there is on that entire album. The album ends in an interesting way, collecting all the bits and pieces of half-tunes that didn't fit anywhere else into the 12-minute "B-Boy Bouillabaisse", which is as entertaining and rapid-fire as most everything else on here, as many of the nine "sections" that make it up could have stood on their own. The only problem is that it deprives the album of a real ending, as it just stops when the samples run out. But that's just nitpicking - Paul's Boutique deserves the classic status that it wound up getting (though it flopped on initial release), and is still miles ahead of nearly every other hip-hop album that's come since. Not everything works, but the sheer density of ideas here makes up for it. Perhaps the best thing about the album is how the Dusts allowed enough space for everything to breathe by not needlessly amping up the volume or layering too many things on top of each other (both of which have become trends in modern hip-hop). The result is an album that is not only one of the most creative hip-hop albums ever released, but also one of the best sounding, which is incredible considering that none of the music is original.
Check Your Head (1992)
With the Dust Brothers out of the picture, the Beasties needed to re-invent themselves yet again, and wound up casting themselves as a funk-rock band that didn't have to rely so heavily on other artists. So while "Jimmy James" and "Finger Lickin' Good" are great pastiches of samples that would sound at home on Paul's Boutique, most of the music here is original. Instrumentally, they are decent - they still have their rough punk chops (as on their cover of "Time For Livin'"), but mostly alternate between heavy, fuzzed out rock ("Pass the Mic", "Gratitude"), and loose funk ("Live at PJ's"), sometimes skillfully combining the two ("The Maestro", "Stand Together"). Perhaps the most interesting thing is that they do several straight funk instrumentals, which is practically unheard of on a hip-hop album. Even more surprising, they're actually good - "Pow", "Groove Holmes", and "In 3's" are plenty enjoyable, especially as the Beasties do not try to force anything. They certainly aren't the most talented instrumental combo out there but they do know what they're capable of. As another step forward, they also reveal their more spiritual side, which has its ups and downs – while "Something's Gotta Give" is trippy and memorable, the closing meditation "Namaste" is a rare moment of hippie indulgence. At least they don't try to sing. Lyrically, they try to be more profound, saving most of the funnier lines for "Professor Booty". It definitely feels like they stopped drinking and started smoking a lot more, though their lyrics can be ham-fisted ("I wish more peace between the races/someday, we will all be one"), there are still some clever moments. "If you can feel what I'm feelin' then it's a musical masterpiece, hear what I'm dealin' with, then that's cool at least", goes the opening like on "Pass the Mic", and if nothing else you can tell that the Beasties are invested 100% in this, as if they had finally found their identity. The hit was "So What'cha Want", a thundering tune with a big beat, more Zeppelin-style rock than rap. In fact, you could argue that this is more of an alternative rock album than a hip-hop one. Extra credit goes to Money Mark on keyboards, who not only fills out the group's sound, but also takes away some of the roughness and gives them some legitimacy as a band. Produced by Mario Caldato, who would remain with the group throughout the decade.
Some Old Bullshit (1994)
This is the inevitable "before they were famous" compilation that allows fans to see the kind of crap they were up to before they hooked up with Rick Rubin. The title is basically accurate, and while I do get a kick out of "Cooky Puss" and admit that "Egg Raid on Mojo" is actually a pretty great punk song, the most entertaining part of this release is the dog on the cover. Basically, half the runtime is their early punk stuff, which is okay, but doesn't really sound like the Beasties at all, as whoever is singing is clearly imitating someone else. The scratch-centric later material is kind of proto-dub hip-hop (but without much actual rapping), and is interesting from a historical perspective. But like most early-80's stuff that's famous for pre-dating modern hip-hop, it turns out to be much too long and static. For the brave only.
Ill Communication (1994)
Since they finally hit on a formula they could replicate themselves, it's no surprise that Ill Communication sounds a lot like Check Your Head. This time, there's more punk and less funk - most of the tracks have a dirtier, faster sound, with more distortion (especially on the vocals). If you liked the last album, you'll probably like this one too, even if most of the hip-hop stuff is uneven. On the plus side, the flute hooks and sharp rhymes in "Sure Shot" and "Flute Loop" are classic, and "Get it Together" (with Q-Tip) is one of their finest moments, both musically and lyrically. But a lot of it passes by with no impression, especially when the vocals are so distorted that you can't even make out the lyrics - "The Update", "B-Boys Makin' With the Freak Freak", and "Alright Hear This" are the worst offenders. Musically, this is a grab bag - they do the smooth jazz instrumental "Ricky's Theme", and follow it up with the ridiculously fast punker "Heart Attack Man". It's a ride, but it's one that usually pays off, as there are three classic singles here and a lot of really good instrumental stuff - "Sabrosa" and "Futterman's Rule" are their best funk pieces yet, though all seven (!) of the instrumentals are enjoyable. Perhaps the strangest part is a couple of tunes based on Tibetan throat singing, one of which has MCA pledging himself to Buddhism in a moment that's both respectable and cringeworthy. But they do get points for trying - I can't think of any other hip-hop group that would attempt even half of this stuff. If nothing else, their "anything goes" mentality did result in one of the first (and best) rap-rock singles, "Sabotage", which is a classic, like it or not. I suppose there's a good argument for this being an album that would have made a great EP had they narrowed it down to 7-8 songs, and I can't really argue with that, though I would miss some of the instrumentals. As scattershot as their last couple of albums could be, at least there was a clear sense of direction, while this one really is all over the place. But it's fun and fast-paced to the point where a few filler tracks don't really hurt much, and while the end-result is basically a second-rate Check Your Head, that's not exactly a bad outcome.
Aglio E Olio (1995)
For this EP, the Beasties briefly return to their roots (and I do mean briefly - the whole thing is only 11 minutes long) and crank out a bunch of fast-paced, snotty punk songs, the likes of which they hadn't done since 1982's Polly Wog Stew. It doesn't make me want to put my head in a vice like the guy on the front cover, but everything on here's a blur. It's somewhere between the faster tunes on Check Your Head and the balls-out style of "Tough Guy" and "Heart Attack Man". It's rough and very little of it is memorable, which is kind of the point, but "I Want Some" does resemble an actual song, so it automatically becomes the best track on here. So why does it exist? I'm not sure what the audience for something like this is, but I am starting to think this is where the Beasties got a little impressed with their own ability to mimic a wide variety of musical styles.
The In Sound From Way Out! (1996)
Hence, this record. The In Sound is basically a collection of the instrumentals from the last few albums, with a couple of new tracks and instrumental versions of "Lighten Up" and "Namaste". Needless to say, it loses its charm when you've got an album that's nothing but this stuff. This is even more pointless than Aglio E Olio, which at least was made up of new music. Here, you get a smooth funk instrumental ("Son of Neckbone"), and the tripped out "Drinkin' Wine", which is akin to a backwards-tape dub experiment. Perhaps they were trying to prove they could have taken jobs writing incidental music for weather forecasts if the whole rap thing didn't turn out. Either way, I do feel bad for the Beasties' completists who bought this album for the new stuff and realized after that it was a bad idea.
Hello Nasty (1998)
With a four year lay-off and nothing left to prove, the Beasties dive head-on into their natural place as veteran goofballs, putting out an album that shows them at the peak of their eclecticism. Once again, there are plenty of tracks, only around half of which actually qualify as hip-hop. But instead of doing more funk instrumentals, they go all over the place - spy music ("Sneakin' Out the Hospital"), elevator muzak ("Picture This"), reggae ("Dr. Lee, Ph.D"), oddly sincere guitar ballads ("I Don't Know"), something that sounds like a massively bungled Elton John B-Side ("Song For the Man"), and stuff that's totally unclassifiable ("And Me"). But even the hip-hop is totally spaced out - mostly synth-driven and sample-heavy, with all sorts of trippy effects on the vocals ("Flowin' Prose"). Perhaps you're familiar with "Intergalactic" (maybe the single strangest rap hit of the 90's) - most of this comes from a similar area in deep left field. One of the tunes has them rapping mostly in limericks ("The Negotiation Limerick File"), one puts a beat under distorted carnival music ("Body Movin'"), and several others are based on wonky synthesizers that would have sounded out of place even in the 80's ("Super Disco Breakin'", "Remote Control", "Unite" - oddly, some of the best tracks). Also included: lots of random Biz Markie spots. Plenty of killer bass lines ("Just a Test", "The Grasshopper Unit"). A reference to Boggle. Tons of scratching and mixing courtesy of a new DJ (Mix Master Mike). A song with a long flute solo. A half-dozen tracks that could have easily been a totally different band. Seventy minutes of music and only one song that overstays its welcome ("Dr. Lee, Ph. D", a funny novelty tune which has Lee "Scratch" Perry as a guest). Even if they don't take themselves so seriously anymore, the quality of the music doesn't dip - the only real knock against this album is that it's too long, but with more ideas than even Paul's Boutique, that's easy to forgive. This is one of the most genuinely fun rap albums of the 90's, which is surprising considering that Ill Communication seemed to imply that they were going the other way. It wound up being a massive hit despite having very little single material – even the Beasties themselves admit how dumb the big hook on "Intergalactic" is. But it's hard to deny how infectiously entertaining it is, and the rest of this follows suit. If only more groups could evolve like this.
The Sounds of Science (1999)
This is the Beasties' anthology, which preceded a pretty long silence, leading many to think that the Boys just got old and stopped making albums. This is basically everything you'd ever want in an anthology - all the important hits, all the failed singles, alternate takes (the original "Jimmy James", a different mix of "3 MC's and 1 DJ"), a new song ("Alive"), some great album tracks, a few songs that didn't make the albums, and some goofing off. This represents pretty much everything they've done in the last 17 years, containing tracks from Polly Wog Stew, Aglio E Olio, and The In Sound From Way Out!, plus a couple of songs from Mike D.'s joke country album (the book explains that he was bonked on the head and emerged a country singer). Out of all the "new" songs, my favorite is "Live Wire", which is trippier and wonkier than Hello Nasty's "And Me", which is saying something. As for the new single, it's okay, certainly sounding like it could be their last single, plus it contains one of their most perplexing lines yet - "Here's a little something that you might not like/My DJ's name is Mix Master Mike". Does Mix Master Mike have a lot of enemies, or just a reputation as a shitty DJ?
To the 5 Burroughs (2004)
Most hip-hop acts don't have much of a shelf life - of the pioneers, even the big ones (Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) only stayed popular and active for five or so years. The 90's stars fared a little better - some went into crime drama or reality TV, while those who still stayed in the music business switched into more of a producer role or just owned labels outright. Even Eminem is starting to lose his popularity now that fans realize he hasn't been relevant for a decade. The Beasties arguably had the best shot, as they seemingly could adapt to anything and didn't rely on things that the fans would grow out of, such as shock humor or vulgarity. That said, taking a 6-year layoff really didn't help - given how long they'd been around, they were still younger than you'd think (only in their early-30's when Hello Nasty came out) and had a few good years left as the elder statesmen of hip-hop. You know, guys who got more rhymes than they got gray hairs. But not releasing anything for over half a decade? Definitely more gray hairs than rhymes. Also not helping: this album isn't very good.
What happened was that the Beastie Men lost their edge and wound up sounding like a parody of themselves, and not in a clever, self-aware way either. They go with retro old school hip hop beats, which was strangely hailed as a "return to form" even though they never sounded like this. Most of the Beasties' appeal came from their penchant for catchy, rapid fire samples, a good sense of groove, clever lyrics, and their forward-thinking mentality that kept them ahead of the game, right from the start. This album features very little of that - it's hard to remember how any of the music goes, as there are canned beats and generic electronic noise everywhere, to the point where the samples of Chic's "Good Times" (which has now been sampled by literally every hip-hop artist ever) in "Triple Trouble" sound downright refreshing. There are a lot of tracks where basically nothing happens ("Shazam", "Time to Build", "Rhyme the Rhyme Well", "3 The Hard Way", "That's It That's All", "We Got The"), and even the gimmickry doesn't sound fresh this time around ("Crawlspace", similar to "Flowin' Prose" but without the cool production tricks). All it does is call attention to the fact that the Beasties can't really carry an album by themselves - none of them have great voices, and MCA sounds like he has a cold. As far as the lyrics go, the 9/11 attacks gave the guys a new sense of patriotism (at least to their home state) and activism, though their stance is the same not-at-all interesting one taken on by almost every other musician ("Bush sucks and is ruining the country, also why can't we just all get along"). It's a split between the usual Beastie goofiness and ham-fisted, half-assed rhymes like "George W ain't got nothin' on me/We got to take the power away from he." The real question - is there at least anything as good as the post-Hello Nasty single "Alive"? Well, there are a couple of tunes - the leadoff track "Ch-Check It Out" is a bunch of fun, has a lot of clever lines, and is both fast-paced and catchy. But the centerpiece of the album is "An Open Letter to NYC", which actually grooves along quite well (even though there's a nauseating electronic sound that makes it sound like you're in an airplane) and has some pointed rhymes, showing off what the new mature Beasties could do if they bothered to spend more than a couple hours in the studio. Either way I've been tearing down this album so much that the "only kinda negative" rating might be confusing, so let me just say that this album does get a few things right - it has a good, crisp sound to it, and a lot of the non-political lyrics are actually pretty funny. Also, they don't really overstep their bounds; the toss-off tunes are pretty short, and when they hit upon a good hook ("Oh Word?", "Right Right Now Now") things roll along nicely. Basically, it only really looks bad if you compare it to any of their last four albums - otherwise, it's just a middling somewhat-retro album with a few good singles, which is about par for the course for aging hip-hop stars. Fortunately, it wasn't their swansong.
The Mix-Up (2007)
Look, I dug the instrumental interludes on Check Your Head as much as anybody, but if there's one thing that The In Sound From Way Out! proved, it's that the Beasties can't really stand alone as an instrumental funk band, as their bag of tricks is limited and nobody has the chops to do anything but keep a groove. Regardless, they decided to record a new instrumental album anyway, and the result is every bit as decent and pointless as you were probably expecting. Everything here is low-key and a little funky, free of soloing or really anything besides the standard bass/guitar/drum/keyboard setup ("Dramastically Different" has a sitar, but that's it). There's a bit of welcome abrasion near the end - "The Cousin of Death" has some distortion and loud drums, but the structure is the same as everything else. Otherwise, most of the tunes go for the laid-back groove of "Ricky's Theme", which isn't exactly a bad goal, though it means you're basically getting an album full of interludes. The real question is, what does this have to do with the Beastie Boys? There are no vocals, but there easily could have been - most of the music is mid-tempo and generally simple, so I don't see why they couldn't have rapped over it and made something that really would have been special. If it was just some start-up funk band, I doubt anyone would have thought they had much potential. So let's just enjoy this for what it is - a perfectly fine chill-out instrumental album that doesn't take chances, but doesn't lose the groove either. As background music, it's actually quite good, as there's enough going on that you can pay attention to it, but there's nothing distracting. Plus, the album sounds like it was a lot of fun to make, which works in their favor, as the music is really naturally likeable. My only real complaint is that they do the same kind of break-downs on every track, which only highlights their lack of chops (or ideas), but 'tis better to stick with what you know rather than try a bunch of stuff that doesn't work. I actually dig the "long jam session that was probably recorded in an afternoon" vibe on here, and keeping everything under four minutes (besides "Off the Grid", which is one of the best anyway) dissolves any ill-will I may have had towards it. Worth a listen if you liked their prior instrumentals, just don't expect the same mileage as something like Check Your Head.
Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 (2011)
Now that the expectations have cooled a bit, the fact that the Beasties are releasing an album at all in 2011 is something to celebrate. After all, it's been seven years since their last vocal album, which in itself would be a pretty long career in hip-hop. They may be middle-aged now, but they take it in stride - Mike D. boasts that "Grandpa's been rappin' since '83", and all three make references that are intentionally dated (Ted Danson, Lee Majors, "Fight for Your Right to Party"). The question is, do they finally sound like themselves again? Yes and no - the album's component parts are similar to Check Your Head, but the sound is basically new. The backing tracks are mostly a mixture of buzz synths, loud snare, and overdriven bass, with vocals that are nearly all distorted. So the effect this album has can be utterly disorienting, especially on tracks like "Nonstop Disco Powerpack" that are stuffed with continuous vocal manipulation. It's basically an entire album of "Pass the Mic"-style production tricks, which at least sounds a lot more at home with their style than To the 5 Burroughs did. At times, this works well - "Too Many Rappers" is noisy as hell, but it has a dark and powerful sound that's unlike anything else in their catalogue. But as the album goes on, the constant barrage of noise causes most of the tracks after the Santigold collaboration to blend together, so by the time it abruptly ends, you're left wondering what the hell happened. Mostly this is because there are virtually no hooks at all (save for "OK"), and there's only two real changes of pace on the whole album. One is that Santigold collab ("Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win"), which is echo-drenched reggae with the Beasties in more of a supporting role (something they hadn't done before). It's actually pretty good - Santigold carries the track well, and the chorus is one of the best things on the album. Two is "Lee Majors Come Again", a high-octance thrash-punk song, which is their best along these lines (believe it or not). As far as the rest goes, I suspect most of it would probably sound better on a compilation album, as a lot of these tracks are solid on their own ("Here's a Little Somethin' For Ya", "Long Burn the Fire") but don't really register as much when placed next to confusing half-songs ("Funky Donkey", "Crazy Ass Shit") or garbled electro ("Tadlock's Glasses"). In the end, I'd think most Beastie fans should be glad this album exists, as it's better than their last hip-hop album and a hell of a lot more self-aware, and if nothing else recalls some of their better work. My version came with a bonus track, a remix of "Make Some Noise" by Cornelius (!) which makes me wonder if the boys could benefit greatly from an outside producer or remixer - the Record Store Day promos with remixes/mashups of "Here's a Little Somethin' For Ya" and "Lee Majors Come Again" were the most exciting things these guys have released since Hello Nasty.