[31 July 2009]
“Now here’s a little story I got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well.” The early ‘90s was a very good time for the Beasties, who were still riding a wave of that increasingly rare combination of successes, artistic and commercial. Licensed to Ill‘s (1986) who-gives-a-shit-whether-or-not-they’re-being-“ironic”, punk-infused hip-hop guaranteed the trio at least 23 years worth (still counting) of heavy bar room and rock radio play. Paul’s Boutique (1989) saw the boys do the impossible and completely obliterate the novelty status that had been dogging them ever since “Fight For Your Right” hit the airwaves (not an easy feat for three white, Jewish 20-somethings who rapped over Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin riffs), delivering their definitive artistic statement. Check Your Head (1992) was, famously, the album that proved the Beasties were here to stay, a very nearly perfect marriage of the White Album eclecticism that’s since become their trademark and the accessible, mainstream appeal that, for better or worse, got lost in their previous album’s gorgeous, all-encompassing psychedelia.
And how did the Beasties follow this triad of uncommonly excellent, paradigm shifting albums? Popular opinion will tell you that they did it with the first Beastie Boys album that sounded a lot like another Beastie Boys album. But then, this is the same popular opinion that came dangerously close to overlooking Paul’s Boutique upon its initial run, so it’s best to take what it says with a few grains of salt. Ill Communication is far more than the Check Your Head: Part Deux that it’s so often condescendingly labeled as.
That’s not to say the criticism is entirely invalid. If Ill Communication never comes particularly close to reprising its predecessor, it does possess more than a bit of its kitchen sink spirit—albeit a refocused, refined version of it. With a few notable exceptions, the tracks on Ill Communication are far more of a piece than the ever shifting landscape of Check Your Head, zeroing in on the latter album’s jazz-funk and old-school hip-hop conceits and expanding them. What we get is an album that plays like an album rather than a collection of one-off songs connected by vague Monty Python logic. The evolving bass groove and distorted lyrics of “B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak” (also home to the most hysterical sample on the album) transitions nicely to the barreling dub-funk instrumental “Bobo on the Corner”, as does the percussion-heavy, environmentally conscious MCA solo “The Update” to the distorted guitars of “Futterman’s Rule”.
Even the Beastie Boys themselves feel more cemented and focused lyrically, even as the conceptual narratives that were characteristic of their earlier material vanish—no climactic egg fights or “on the run from the law” vigilante escapades here. Instead, we get a more free form, stream of consciousness lyrical flow and, even when the often obscure name-checking sends you scouring Wikipedia and the rhymes become unabashed non sequiturs (MCA on “Sure Shot”: “I keep my underwear up with a piece of elastic / I use a bullshit mic that’s made out of plastic”), the improvisational, tag team approach remains as deliriously fun as ever. The boys’ individual mic personas are also more recognizable than ever amidst the shared big-upping and hilarious juvenilia: Ad-Rock’s the name-dropping instigator, Mike D’s obsessed with authenticity (whether he’s talking up his golf game or choosing wax over CD), and MCA explores his newfound spirituality and social conscience (“Race against race, such a foolish waste / It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face”).
It’s harder than ever, on Ill Communication, to write off the Beasties as the snot-nosed punks that they played to a fault on Licensed to Ill. Part of the credit certainly goes to producer Mario Caldato, who imbues the album with enough limber beats and Native Tongues-esque jazz-funk (Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest even guests on standout “Get It Together”, positioning himself effortlessly between the Beastie’s usual mic-passing rapport) to make this the group’s most sincere embrasure of ‘90s alternative hip-hop. But most of the credit undoubtedly goes to the Beastie Boys themselves. Their several excursions into instrumental jazz-funk on this album—they name-check everyone from Jimmy Smith to Archie Shepp, just to prove they’ve done their homework—are what made The Mix-Up seem like not that bad of an idea. Their genre-shifting had become fluid to the point where the glorious metal thunder of “Sabotage” could somehow sit comfortably next to the bass-funk of “Root Down”. Plus, they’d become confident enough to let their lyrics wander wherever they wanted—whether the end result was a line in praise of Knicks player John Starks or a recitation of Buddhist vows.
As is usual with most bonus material, the remixes and outtakes that fill disc two of this reissue are hit or miss. The Free Zone mix of “Root Down” drenches the upbeat original in enough somber bells and pianos to make it a worthy reinterpretation (though it’s a bit jarring to hear Ad-Rock’s “Because I’ve got the flow where I grab my dick / And say ‘oh my god, that’s the funky shit’” wrapped in such gravitas), while the Buck-Wild mix of “Get It Together” covers almost the exact same ground as its parent track. The full version of “Heart Attack Man”‘s opening acoustic goof is every bit as funny as you’d expect it to be, but then so is the track composed of a minute and a half of the Beasties playing basketball (in other words, not very). And so on.
But that’s not exactly the point of this reissue. What it is, really, is a chance to re-evaluate the album that’s often pointed to as the first evidence of the Beastie Boys spinning their tires. And sure, while no one’s going to call Ill Communication the Beastie’s best album when we have the undisputed genius of Paul’s Boutique sitting a few years behind it, this LP is far more than a collection of b-sides from the Check Your Head era. It’s an impressive, often stunning synthesis of everything that makes the Beastie Boys what they are. Factor in that the Beasties are a whole hell of a lot of different things, and you’ll get some sense of how deep this criminally overlooked album actually is.