The Beastie Boys are quite a revolutionary pair of artists, and one of my childhood favorites. I can remember a time when I was just a pipsqueak, hearing their 1989 classic Paul’s Boutique playing in the car with me and my mother, and it feels me up with an immense joy that I got to experience this kind of music at such a young age; of course, I recall hearing their other albums on a number of occasions, and I always enjoyed them, but Paul’s Boutique always stuck with me, because it was pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, along with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Tool, etc. I can remember those sample-heavy beats and pop culture-infused rhymes blaring through the stereo like it was just yesterday, and to this day, I never get tired of listening to The Beastie Boys’ discography; it sounds just as fresh today as it did when they first hit the scene back in the ‘80’s.
The most abstruse thing about the Beastie Boys, though, was that they weren’t always a hip-hop group. Through the start of their career, Adam “MCA” Yauch, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, and Michael “Mike D” Diamond were a hardcore punk band before transitioning to rap music in 1983 after their single “Cooky Puss” accumulated some buzz in the underground scene. They recruited then-unknown Rick Rubin as their DJ, who would subsequently go on to form Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons, and sign the Beastie Boys; from there, they were performing on tour with the likes of Madonna, Public Image Ltd. , LL Cool J, and Run-D.M.C. By 1986, they would cut their first record with Rubin, the landmark License to Ill, and the rest was history.
Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D brought forth some of the most eclectic, original, and hard-hitting music of the Hip hop genre; so much so that you can’t really restrict it to just rap music, because they were incorporating punk rock, heavy metal, jazz, funk, and electronic in their works. These guys are legendary; like Public Enemy, N.W.A., LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys were true pioneers of the Golden Age of Hip hop. They not only broke down cultural barriers and made it possible for other legends like Eminem to pursue critical success in the same field, but their influence in Hip hop, as well as alternative rock, is widespread; every band who was spitting rhymes over distorted guitars and heavy percussion are forever in their debt.
I’d like to dedicate this article to Adam “MCA” Yauch, who sadly passed away in 2012 at the age of 47 due to parotid cancer. He not only contributed greatly to the Beastie Boys’ signature sound and attitude, but he was also a humanitarian; after studying Tibetan Buddhism in 1996, he helped create the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit organization that helps raise awareness for the Tibetan independence movement, which eventually spawned the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, where everybody from U2, Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker performed at, which eventually raised over a million dollars for Tibetan and other social justice causes. So here’s to you, MCA; you made the world a better place by fighting for the rights of others.
8.) The Mix-Up
Let’s be perfectly frank here: this album is kind of a huge letdown in their discography, because it’s entirely instrumental. But I have to commend them for making that kind of musical statement. They took all of their earlier musical influences and condensed them into something that was but a microcosm of what made them the diverse group that they were; the instrumentation harboring most of their funk-drenched sensibilities, with a tinge of soul-infused jazz.
The Mix-Up is the sound of the Beastie Boys marching to the beat of their own drum, rejecting their hip hop roots all together; so you can’t really fault them for wanting to try something a little bit different, and believe me, they succeed in making a cool album here…just don’t expect to hear a “Sabotage” in this one.
7.) Hot Sauce Committee Part 2
Released 4 years after The Mix-Up, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 was originally going to be conceived as two albums, with Part 1 set for release in 2009, but that plan got scrapped due to Adam Yauch’s illness, so they just put out Part 2 instead. This would also be their final outing as a group before the death of Yauch.
Here is an album that exhibited the Beastie’s still at the height of their genre-bending creativity; this time, they’ve gotten back into their natural element, but with more experimental production in their beats, utilizing a more electro and synth-infused sound that coincided with the obscure sampling they were now implementing. This may have been the last time they were making music together, but with Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, they proved they were still going against the grain, and that there was no telling what kind of capricious unorthodoxy they would’ve thrown into the ever-expanding world of Hip hop.
6.) To the 5 Boroughs
2004’s To the 5 Boroughs is probably the most straightforward album in their catalog. It’s also their most serious one; substituting their kitschy humor and kaleidoscopic instrumentation in favor of a more rudimentary rap album that pays tribute to their home state of New York in the aftermath of post-9/11 America.
This is the Beastie Boys at their rawest; they’re more in touch with their East Cost roots here, churning out badass tune after badass tune, like the killer opener “Ch-Check It Out,” “Right Right Now Now,” “3 The Hard Way,” “Hey F**k You,” and “Shazam!” To the 5 Boroughs is classic Beasties, albeit much more mature.
5.) Hello Nasty
Hello Nasty was released in 1998, four years after Ill Communication, and was, yet again, a stylistic change in contrast of the latter; all thanks to the recruitment of turntablist Mix Master Mike. Here, they’ve tucked away their Miles Davis funk-infused punk aesthetic and created a multi-textural sound of hip hop futurism in its sticky web of pulse-pounding beats, space lounge, avant-pop noise, and Latin jazz flavor.
This is a very underrated classic in their repertoire that houses some of the most forward-thinking alternative hip-hop the Beastie Boys were known for; seriously, these tracks sound like the past, present, and future all rolled up into this b-boy cluster of celestial rhythm. Look no further than the bombastically out-of-this-world hit singles “Body Movin’” and “Intergalactic;” the latter being forever imbedded in my childhood due to me always seeing that hilarious music video of that gigantic robot and squid fighting each other while the Beasties prance around in those quarantine suits…back when MTV actually played music videos!
4.) Ill Communication
Now that we’re talking about iconic music videos, this would be a perfect moment to segue into 1994’s Ill Communication, because there’s this little song you all may have heard of…and that’s the legendary hit “Sabotage,” with it’s classic music video that parodies those cheesy 1970’s crime dramas, with Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D as fictional cops getting into shenanigans; I remember it playing incessantly as a kid, so it holds a special place in my heart for being one of my all-time favorite songs. How can anybody forget those droning one-note bass and guitar licks, those assaultive drum fills, and Ad-Rock practically screaming in your face?; this is premier rap rock before Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock had to come along and plague the airwaves for as long as they did.
All that aside, the entire album is a true testament to just how atypical the Beastie Boys’ style was. They’re still dropping braggadocious rhymes over the obscure samples of Jimmy Smith, Jeremy Steig, Yusef Lateef, Moog Machines, and Afrique, but they’ve also expanded their live instrumentation in ways that were similar to that of their prior record, Check Your Head, but this time they took inspiration from Miles Davis’s jazz funk masterpieces On the Corner and Agharta and produced an unsettling yet propulsive accessibility similar to those.
This is one of the great album of the 90’s that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many of the other critically-acclaimed works of that epoch. How can you go wrong with a collection of songs like “Sure Shot,” “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak,” “Bobo on the Corner,” “Root Down,” “Sabotage,” the Q-Tip collaboration “Get It Together” “The Update,” “Futterman’s Rule,” “Alright Hear This,” “Flute Loop,” and the punk ferocity of “Heart Attack Man?”
3.) Licensed to Ill
Here’s the record that started it all: their killer 1986 debut. Produced with the jarring and ear-splitting crunch of the legendary Rick Rubin, Licensed to Ill, along with Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell (Also released the same year, as well as produced by Rubin.), is an important piece of music that not only helped bring Hip Hop into the mainstream, but also had a rock and roll edge to it that catered to a much wider audience; Licensed to Ill also made history by being the first mainstream rap album to shoot to the number one spot on the Billboard 200 and go platinum.
This is an undeniable classic that established the Beastie Boys as boundary-breaking kids with an undying love for the hip-hop culture; they may have presented themselves as repugnant clowns in their off-putting lyrics pertaining to getting loaded, bagging chicks, getting money, squeezing “jammies” at their enemies, and hanging with their “posse,” but they brought an unfiltered attitude that was indisputably conducive to their punk roots.
Even if rap music isn’t what you’re particularly fond of, there’s still no denying the immense power of some of these songs. The mean and rambunctious opening of “Rhymin’ & Stealin’, which samples John Bonham’s famous driving beat of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” as well as the guitar riff for Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” is sure to satisfy the classic rock fans. But then you also have “She’s Crafty,” which samples Jimmy Page’s iconic riff from Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” the ironic party anthem of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” and who can overlook “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” a raucous headbanger dedicated to an exasperating tour through New York, which features Kerry King of Slayer playing the main riff and guitar solo?
This is a record that bridges the gap between two conflicting genres, Rock and roll and Hip hop, and unifies them in ways that make the two mutually inclusive in scope and temperament.
2.) Check Your Head
For a group like Beastie Boys, recording a follow-up to an album like Paul’s Boutique was just never in the cards; to recreate something as ambitiously alien as that record would be a waste of their time…plus, its album sales tanked and their label didn’t want to have anything to do with them at that point, so this was the perfect opportunity for MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D to start from scratch and get back to the fountainhead of their true nature…while also immersing themselves in different genres and deconstructing them into a multifaceted madhouse of experimental Hip hop, Black Flag/Bad Brains-inspired punk, alt-rock, mellow jazz-funk, and an overall expatriation of their goofball personas; the final product was 1992’s Check Your Head, the album that cemented their legacy as innovators of mutability.
The Beastie Boys never set out to master just one type of style; they made it their life’s mission to not be pigeonholed as a one-note band, or sellouts for that matter. They loved punk rock, but they also loved Hip hop; but most of all, they valued musical growth, and the rejection of popularity. Check Your Head demonstrates that, while they could dismantle your mind, as well as your speakers, with ill lyricism and incendiary beats, they could also turn on a dime and put your auditory cavities six feet under with thrashing guitars, bass, drums, and muddled vocals drenched in unearthly distortion.
Key tracks to listen to: The Jimi Hendrix-sampled “Jimmy James,” “Funky Boss,” “Pass the Mic,” “Finger Lickin’ Good,” hit single and probably the best song on the album, “So What’cha Want,” “Something’s Got to Give,” “Stand Together,” “The Maestro,” “Professor Booty,” and “Namaste.”
1.) Paul’s Boutique
Going back to what I previously stated in my introduction: Paul’s Boutique is one of my top ten favorite albums of all time; I’ve loved it ever since I was a little kid, and it makes me think of my mother and how she pretty much got me into all of this great music at such a young age. But I don’t just hold this record in high regard strictly for sentimental value; no, I hold it in high regard because it’s one of the most unique albums of all time, and one of the very best. Even though it was an initial flop at the time, everybody in the Hip hop community was blown away by it, and soon The Beastie Boys transformed from immature one-hit wonders to one of the most respected rap groups around.
With the help of producers The Dust Brothers, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique took the concept of sampledelia that groups like De La Soul (“3 Feet High & Rising“) and Public Enemy (“It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back“) were employing around the same time, and they created a postmodern sound collage of every kind of sample imaginable that even the most ardent crate digger would blush at. Artists as eclectic as Alphonse Mouzon, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, David Bromberg, The Eagles, Mountain, The Commodores, Led Zeppelin, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, John William’s Jaws theme, The Band, The Ramones, James Brown, Incredible Bongo Band, Donovan, The Jackson Five, Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, The Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, and The Crusaders, Chic, and The Meters, just to name a small fraction, are sampled on this album; over 100 songs are reportedly sampled here. And that’s not even counting The Beatles whose songs “The End,” Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are present on “The Sounds of Science;” it’s also worth noting that The Beatles sued The Beastie Boys for unauthorized use of their music, because, to quote Mike D, “what’s cooler than being sued by The Beatles?”
Paul’s Boutique is nothing short of incredible. I would even go as far as to compare it to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica in that, like Trout Mask Replica, Paul’s Boutique is one big piece of abstract art in music form. It’s been famously referred to as the “Sgt. Pepper’s of Hip hop,” and who can really argue with that? This is one of those albums you need to hear before you die.
Key tracks to listen to: THE WHOLE ALBUM