[30 October 2009]
By the time the Beastie Boys came to release their fifth studio album, enough time had passed for a new release to be greeted with a reaction other than one focused on what the group would do next. Previously the story had been about transitions, from the frat-boy pranks of Licensed to Ill to the genre-busting experimentalism of Paul’s Boutique, from that album to the Beasties-play-their-instruments exploration of Check Your Head, thence to the debate over whether Ill Communication delivered anything other than warmed-up leftovers. It seemed like it might just be possible to judge the group on the music they had served up as veterans of a scene they had been instrumental in creating.
The emphasis here was less on showing how the band had moved on than on showcasing the various styles they had developed, from the scratchy rock of “Remote Control” through the lounge jazz of “Song for the Man”, and the shaky sci-fi electro of “Intergalactic” to the cosmic reggae of “Dr. Lee, PhD” (featuring a captivating cameo from Lee Perry, elucidating about Jesus, “Mr. Clown”, and the “Beastly Boys”). The album closed with the somber Sparklehorse-like “Instant Death”, a fitting departure for a work which found as much space for slow-to-medium tempo reflection as it did for party beats.
Along the way, however, the listener was still treated to regular Beastie b-boy hip-hop that adopted the party flow of the group’s formative years. Eschewing the emerging aesthetic of meter-expanding multirhymed lines used by rising stars Jay-Z and Eminem, the Beasties made it clear that they played to an earlier rhythm (though they could still pack it full of verbiage). The group had displayed a penchant for nostalgia as early as Paul’s Boutique, and they would continue to mine the past for the sounds of the present, both in their rapping style and their choice of early hip-hop technology. As the opening track “Super Disco Breakin’” was quick to make clear, “Nothing sounds quite like an 808”.
Another constant was the smartass rhyming: “Sometimes I like to brag, sometimes I’m soft spoken / When I’m in Holland I eat the pannenkoeken”; “up to my neck like Toulouse Lautrec”; “Fresh like a box of Krispy Kremes / Kenny Rogers’ Gambler is my gambling theme”; and on and on, on and on. The Beasties had always been fond of displaying their knowledge, but the mixture of cultural capital boasting and celebration of the products of actual capital could be grating. There’s no denying the fun for Geordies or fans of black metal (and especially for those who fit both descriptions) to be treated to the line “This one’s for Newcastle, where Venom come from” (from “Dedication”). But for every such example (and there are plenty more in this ref-fest of a record) there is the accompanying doubt over whether endless pop culture references ever make for anything of lasting value.
The other side of this is that the Beasties have always been right on the ball with pinpointing our culture’s obsession with its recent cultural past, and in identifying the potential for the irruption of the vernacular into official channels of communication. They precede and predict the cultural politics of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and like many of their sampling contemporaries, highlight both an impatience with the present and a fascination with (re)mastering the past. Dropping names alongside beats, they reconnect to a gut-level desire for mastery and performance that is at once infuriating and intoxicating. The stress is on movin’, breakin’, flowin’, cookin’—just as it was for Miles Davis in an earlier age of cool. Above all, though, it’s on namin’.
Besides, it’s been over a decade and Hello Nasty‘s particular brand of goonery is still sounding fine. The single “Intergalactic” remains fresh and funny, its kitsch sci-fi blending with classic ‘80s-style rap. This was the year of Cher’s “Believe”, which ushered in an era of Auto-Tune—to hear the Beasties’ crap robots intoning “Intergalactic planetary / Planetary intergalactic” was to be granted welcome respite from this new horror. Furthermore, the song provided as good a description of the Beastie Boys’ ambition as any, promising to visit “another dimension” even as it lambasted past attempts to do so. It also had a hilarious video.
Which brings us to the remastered album, the ultimate site for any long-established group to stage the debate between commodity and cultural worth. To a certain extent, we’re given another dimension to the original release. Before, Hello Nasty was a double vinyl record as well as a CD; now it is available as a quadruple record and a double CD. The sound is excellent and the separation is impressive, but then the original (produced by the band and Mario Caldato (The “Mario C” of “Intergalactic”) also sounded—and still sounds—good. The bonus tracks are a mixed bag, including a number of throwaway skits and demos, remixes both inspiring (Fat Boy Slim’s “Body Movin’”) and less so (Colleone & Webb’s “Intergalactic”), a dub of “Dr. Lee, PhD”, and some cool instrumental and rhythm tracks (“Stink Bug”, “Peanut Butter & Jelly”) that add to the general reflective ambience of the album. Hello Nasty packs the largest number of tracks (43) of the Beastie Boys 2009 remasters, though whether it was really worth pressing that much vinyl to accommodate the extra material is debatable. The lack of any contextual information is frustrating; a booklet with background notes, reminiscences, photos, and so on would have been welcome, as would a way of incorporating the videos for “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin’”. (Extra material is available at the band’s website, where listeners can also download an audio commentary.)
In the time since the original release of Hello Nasty a whole alternative scene of hip-hop has flourished on the use of surreal lyrics, cartoon quotations, twisted musical paths, and wayward aliases. If the album seems less unusual than it did on its appearance in 1998, its inventiveness should not be overlooked. Five albums in, the Beastie Boys were still able to set the controls for another dimension.