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Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “What Comes Around”

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Monday, Mar 12, 2012
“What Comes Around” is an ebullient three-minute track that highlights the Beastie Boys’ and Dust Brothers’ incomparable ability to create pleasant irony through perfectly-placed samples and humorous turns-of-phrase.
cover art

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

(Capitol; US: 25 Jul 1989; UK: Import)

After the heavy themes and violent imagery of “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” and “Car Thief”, the boys are back to having plain old fun. “What Comes Around” is a goofy, lazily funky song about the power of karma . . .or something like that. Really, it’s just an ebullient three-minute track that highlights the Beastie Boys’ and Dust Brother’s incomparable ability to create pleasant irony through perfectly-placed samples and humorous turns-of-phrase.

Any discussion of “What Comes Around” has to start with that incredible groove. The Dust Brothers take the rhythm section part directly from the song “Put on Train” by Blue Note jazz pianist Gene Harris and his group the Three Sounds. It features a James Brownish choppy guitar rhythm, a tastefully minimalistic bass line, and some bluesy piano fills (the latter highlighted especially on the chorus). For the most part, the Boys and the Brothers do very little editing to the sample, letting its grooviness speak for itself. But about a minute into the song, they drop in the main guitar riff from Alice Cooper’s “It’s Hot Tonight”, which lines up perfectly with Harris’ rhythm. It’s a subtle touch, for sure. It shows, though, how good the artists really were at finding the right sample for the right moment. It’s amazing that a classic metal guitar riff and a jazz piano lick can coexist and sound like they were meant for each other.
The Beastie Boys show off their lyrical chops as well on this track. Just when you think they have run out of creative, original metaphors to describe their poetic prowess, we are given, “Reach into my mind for the rhymes I’m seeking / Like a garbage bag full overflowing now it’s leaking”. Similarly, the Beasties have seemingly beaten the dead horse of their own exaggerated masculinity, but then we get the line “Rapunzel Rapunzel let down your hair / So I can climb up and get into your underwear”. Sure, the use of the classic fairytale here is crude. It’s also pretty creative and funny. The laughs continue with deliberately cheesy lines like, “You’re all mixed up like pasta primavera”.

If you had any doubt that the Beasties were having a good time in the studio when they recorded this track, lay your fears to rest. “What Comes Around” ends in goofy, hilarious chaos. The Boys repeat stupid words and phrases like “funky” over and over again and make nonsense sounds. It’s kind of a lopsided, messed-up version of scat singing. It’s like a free association game, hence we get phrases like “slam Alabama”. At the very end, one of the Boys throws out the profound line “like penicillin” and another yells out “Doris the Finkasaurus”. “What Comes Around” is in the tradition of novelty absurdist tracks like the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” or “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”, conjuring up the image of friends standing on a Brooklyn street corner on a Sunday afternoon saying a bunch of stupid stuff. Urban life is full of many dangers, as we have learned on the previous two tracks. If you’re looking for a good time, though, it’s there for you anytime you want it.

Previous entries:

* “To All the Girls”/“Shake Your Rump”
* “Johnny Ryall”
* “Egg Man”
* “High Plains Drifter”
* “The Sounds of Silence”
* “3-Minute Rule”
* “Hey Ladies”
* “5-Piece Chicken Dinner”/“Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”
* “Car Thief”

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