[22 August 2014]
Beastie Boy MCA (Adam Yauch) died of cancer in 2012, but only in June did Beastie Mike D (Mike Diamond) finally and officially announce that the legendary hip-hop group is done making music under that name. For thirty years, the trio (the third being Adrock, aka Adam Horovitz) bounced in and out of each other’s rhymes with remarkable chemistry and balanced each other out to perfection: Mike D was the tenor with swagger, Adrock the wisecracking soprano, and MCA the baritone that was also the group’s spiritual backbone.
But now is a time to reflect on and appreciate—with a sad finality—a group arguably as important as any of the alt-rock and hip hop eras. The Beasties crossed musical genres (e.g. punk, funk, rap, rock, Latin grooves, jazz) like few others, and were always ahead of the pack in whatever they were doing. They started out as an early hardcore punk group, then became early rap icons, followed by ground breaking runs as both hip-hop and alt-rock visionaries before settling in as respected statesmen. They were one of the most fun and funniest bands of all-time, but they also had some of the most serious beats.
Of course, “Fight for Your Right” (1986) was the song that broke them. I still remember hearing it on the radio for the first time in 1986 and barely even knowing what to make of it. Someone had finally taken the over-the-top, MTV Spring Break-party mentality and rude excesses of the ‘80s and pushed it all over the edge, to maximum comedic effect. They were the cleverest dummies on the planet.
Unfortunately, that song also haunted the three a bit, as in its aftermath they had to work extra hard to actually prove their considerable musical talents and ambitions. The Beasties played the long game, though, and it paid off. Not that the jokey “Fight” was ever meant to be a compositional masterpiece, of course, but the song remains at best maybe the fifth-best song just on that album, 1986’s License to Ill, and maybe their twentieth- or thirtieth-best song overall.
Beyond the Beastie’s impressive collection of hits and bona fide classics, such as “Paul Revere”, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, “Shake Your Rump”, “So What’cha Want”, “Intergalactic”, et al., the below five songs are not only underappreciated (two were never even played live, and another only six times in twenty years), but even the ones that are fairly well-known are otherwise deserving of more attention, for various reasons. One of these songs, in fact, I will call their greatest song ever. These tracks hopefully help capture the full depth and breadth of the Beastie Boy experience, as well as reminding us why they mattered so much and why they will be missed.
5. “Stand Together”
“Stand Together”, from Check Your Head (1992), follows the odd audio clip, “Blue Nun”, a funny and pretentious-sounding, ‘60s-era ad for Blue Nun wine. It opens with a funky, clucking sax riff, followed by the phasing in of a searing, industrial buzz-saw sound—actually an electric drill being manipulated in the studio by Beastie collaborator Money Mark. This explodes with some of the group’s most slamming beats and maybe MCA’s most slamming rhymes. The initial drill-effect propels the song throughout, occasionally being scratched, and the guitar riff gets chopped up as well. The drums are supremely funky and the same horns are interspersed throughout. It is an amazing song and a brilliant early fusion of rap and the sonic force of hardcore (and a logical predecessor to some of Kanye West’s recent, jaw-dropping work, such as “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”).
Using a distorted mic, it is hard to make out the lyrics, at least until MCA asserts himself on the mic at the end of the first verse:
So I ask creation for rhymes for this jam
Gimme lickle [?] solo and I’ll take the mic stand
The feint chorus of “Love vibe, love vibe” helps maintain the positive and spacey feel. Mike D and Adrock’s only vocal parts are to simply add in the “stand together” lines towards the end:
Stand together (people come together now)
It’s about time (we’ve got to get together now)
Light years from any typical rap/rock hybrids, this was a sort-of hardcore hip hop. Bringing the best of these genres together is a real feat, and here the Beastie Boys simply kill it.
4. “Time For Livin’”
“Time for Livin’”, also from Check Your Head, is probably the best of the Beastie Boys’ hardcore punk tracks. Most all of the Beasties’ straight punk songs are good, crazy fun, but this one really stands out as being amongst the best of the genre.
“Time for Livin’” can loosely be described as a cover/mash-up of: A) an unreleased song by an early ‘80s New York hardcore band, Front Line, and B) the title and lyrics from an early ‘70s minor hit from Sly and the Family Stone (though it is utterly unrecognizable from its namesake). Like most great punk songs, “Time for Livin” came about totally spontaneously. In the early ‘90s, the three Beasties, along with long-time collaborator and producer Mario Caldato, had been informally jamming and playing the Front Line instrumental. After much cajoling to add some hardcore vocals, Mike D grabbed the Sly and the Family Stone album that happened to be lying around, pulled out the sleeve with the lyrics, and according to D:
Before I knew it, everyone was moving shit out of the way in our relatively small control room, making room for me to go buck wild. After a few takes of screaming my brains out and stage diving off the control room couch, it was done. (This quotation is taken from the liner notes to Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science, 1997.)
Mike D and the band are all at full-tilt:
Ain’t nobody got to spell it for me
Ain’t nobody got to yell I can see
Ain’t nobody got the pain I can hear
But if I have to I’ll yell in your ear
The song is utterly frenetic, of course, but it also has just enough song structure, just enough tension-and-release, and a banging bass line, to make it a classic.
3. “Railroad Blues”
No, “Railroad Blues” is not quite the greatest song of all-time, but it is deserving of a spot on this list. This is a novelty song—actually off of a novelty ‘album,’ of sorts. Yet this is the Beastie Boys, a band that turned their first novelty/crank-call-on-tape hit, “Cookie Puss”, into a full blown rap career, and their second, “Fight for Your Right”, into an all-time hit. As a song that captures the Beasties’ anything-goes artistic approach and sense of humor, “Railroad Blues” is a pretty great artifact.
Actually, the backstory of “Railroad Blues”, and to the entire recording of Country Mike’s Greatest Hits, is probably better than the song itself. In the mid ‘90s, the Beasties had embraced video and film and had begun working on a screenplay with Oscar-nominee and Beastie music video director, Spike Jonze. According to Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold (2007), the screenplay had a working title of We Can Do This. The raw script then began to yield at least one full-blown comic character: Mike Diamond’s country music star/alter ego, Country Mike.
Country Mike, so it went, had been a rags-to-riches country star, who had then fallen prey to drugs, only to rebound and come back as a TV star. His signature threat to foes was that he was going to “read them boys the news.”
The soundtrack began just with some song titles, such as “Sally Was a Half-Wit” and “Country Christmas”, and the Beasties began to put together some mock country songs. Diamond’s crooning is comically bad, at times he even yodels, but they did in fact record a full album’s worth of songs.
To give the album some authenticity, the Beasties later brought in acclaimed pedal steel guitarist, William “Bucky” Baxter, well known for his work with Steve Earle and Bob Dylan. It is apparently the rest of the Beastie Boys on the other instruments, who by then had actually become quite good and even versatile musicians.
“Railroad Blues” is the story of “Johnny”, a railroad worker around the time of the San Francisco gold rush. Johnny breaks his mom’s heart when he leaves home and heads out West where “[t]he only sure thing’s his next meal.” Country Mike’s singing makes him sound just a bit dim-witted, though he also seems upbeat and extremely earnest, at least. The song begins with the sounds of chickens and then a train conductor’s call as Johnny boards a train. Country Mike sings a couple of lines in a comically surreal falsetto as Johnny’s mom (in a possible nod to legendary psycho-billy psycho, Hasil Adkins).
And one day Johnny finally got a reply
When he opened Momma’s letter, he began to cry
She’s a-writing from her deathbed and this is what she said:
“Please don’t be mad at me, son, cause tomorrow I’ll be dead.”
The song is almost, but not quite, passable as a real but not so-good lost track from country music’s past, like maybe from a short-lived, former opening act for Boxcar Willie. Baxter’s work covers up the joke for a little bit, at least until the loud train whistle punctuates the first line, which actually seems to mark the song both as authentic and as a rather hilarious joke, at the same time:
Johnny, he worked on the railroad [train whistle] pounding on iron and steel
Working his way out west now - the only sure thing’s his next meal [chickens clucking]
It is dumb, oddball, original, and very funny.
Some copies of the collection, Country Mike’s Greatest Hits went out to the band’s friends as a holiday record in 1997, but it unexpectedly grew legs and some bootlegs flourished (the full album is now available on YouTube). “Railroad Blues” and “Country Mike’s Theme” both ended up on the super inclusive, 2-disc compilation album, Anthology: Sounds of Science, in 1999. Country Mike’s film career, however, apparently ended before he could ever read anyone the news on the big screen.
2. “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” [feat. Santigold]
By the time of the Beastie’s final release, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 (2011), the group’s direct influence on the music world was not what it had once been, at least not since 1998’s Hello Nasty. The Beastie Boys were still revered, productive, toured successfully and all of that, of course (not to mention having film, charitable and other projects), but they were no longer expected to alter the music world as they transitioned into their later-adulthood (i.e. their late 40s).
Their 2004 effort, To the 5 Boroughs, is their consensus least-best album, which was followed by the all-instrumental The Mix-Up (2007) which, while good, by definition was not going to produce a “hit”. So, released to relatively little hype, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2 was an extremely good and successful album, though it did not necessarily reach the same mass audience much of their previous work had.
Nonetheless, the song “Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win”, featuring Santigold, in particular, will forever serve as evidence that the Beastie Boys did in fact still have it, right up to the end. The Beasties rarely had guest rappers or singers but here they were smart to have Santigold as the primary vocalist and she gives them as a fresh (and female) dynamic.
The Beasties had done dub rap before—with legendary producer Lee Perry on Hello Nasty, and this is an update for the 2010s. The music is a dub mix with a bouncing, reggae rhythm, and radiating a summertime vibe. Santigold sing/raps with a little island lilt and flows strongly and smoothly through the otherwise sharp lines:
At one time you were slick and your grill was cold
And now funny how the shit gets old
You can run but it will catch up
Like now, see me, I’ll show you up
Clearly, Santigold isn’t playing around, and the Beasties, too, seem to be sending the message that, while older, no young bucks in the rap game have anything on them, either:
Now you wanna get back when you had your shine
But you run the same thing every time when you rhyme
Can’t stop won’t stop no compromise
It’s a house of cards built out of lies
Thus the Beastie Boys were still doing their own thing at a high level and having as much fun as ever.
After a delay in the release of the album due to MCA’s cancer diagnosis in 2009, and then due to his subsequent passing, “Don’t Play No Game I Can’t Win” would never get played live. Further, the single was in fact the last Beastie Boy release, and it is a track worthy of that distinction.
1. “Year and a Day”
The album Paul’s Boutique (1989) does not possess the songwriting mastery of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. (A huge drawback, right?) But what the Beastie Boys did achieve along with those two albums (and the title is a reference to Paul McCartney’s vision for Sgt. Pepper’s), however, was to take listeners into a fully immersive, psychedelic, alternate universe of sound, lyrics, and feel. The Dust Brothers’ production team (the Beasties also worked with them on the music), and the Beastie Boys’ vocals and lyrics, turned out to be a timeless pairing. Layer upon layer of myriad pop music influences and samples are married to the Beastie’s equally kaleidoscopic, infectious and silly/smart pop culture references.
Also like those two previously mentioned albums, Paul’s Boutique is so dense that you can literally get lost in it. Whether it is just grooving to the music itself, trying to identify the myriad samples (Is that two different Beatles’ songs spliced together?), or in trying to figure out the significance of any particular reference the Beasties are making (be it The Bible, The Brady Bunch, Steve McQueen, etc.), it is an album that begs repeat listening.
“Year and a Day” is a short track (2:22) from the album, out of the song suite, “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. Musically, “Year and a Day” is primarily a mix of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, but sped up, a drum bit from Tower of Power, and, especially, it is the brilliant soul guitar blow-out from the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady, Pt. 1 & 2”. Yet as distinctive as Ernie Isley’s guitar line is, the other added elements, the production, and the rap, all meld together into something pretty fantastic.
This is also their only all-solo rap track ever (although it is, technically, only one part of a suite), from MCA and it has also, oddly, only been performed live six times, and never since 1995 (according to the BeastieMania.com). When considering the title of Beastie Boys’ absolute best song ever, there are certainly some solid contenders: “Paul Revere”, Shake Your Rump”, and maybe the consensus favorite, “Sabotage”. But “Year and a Day” is the spiritual center of the Beastie’s most transcendent album, and one of the more transcendent albums of all-time. MCA, in fact, later noted that this was the track on which he was first “starting to say what I’m feeling spiritually.” Further, talking to Salon, he said that by having purely positive lyrics, he saw himself “taking a big risk for myself doing that, just in terms of my own confidence.” “Year and a Day” was thus a fairly obvious step for MCA toward his conversion to Buddhism a couple of years later. Indeed, this may also be the track that set the tone for the rest of their career.
The entire “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” suite embodies the trio’s New York life, from their first, barebones, band pad (“59 Chrystie Street”), to MCA’s home-borough of Brooklyn (“Hello Brooklyn”), to riding the subway (“Stop That Train”), and so many other, seemingly infinite influences. MCA again uses a distorted mic, giving his voice an echo effect—and almost a feeling of being in the subway. He is loose and his lines propulsive. His words flow together to the point that the words are hard to decipher (and they were, again oddly, missing from the liner notes) yet the positivity comes through crystal clear, anyway:
Emcee for what I am, and do
The A is for Adam, and the lyrics…true
So as pray and hope, that the message is sent
And I am living in the dreams that I have dreamt
Adrock has said that at the time he and MCA had been skiing a lot, and MCA would regularly drop a little LSD (as evidenced in Allan Light’s 2005 book Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys). Hence:
I drop the L when I’m skiing
I’m smokin’ and peakin’
I put the skis on the roof almost every single weekend
Can’t stop the mindfuck when it’s rollin’ along
Can’t stop the smooth running when the shit’s running strong
This is apparently a formula for opening some serious doors of perception and finding one’s inner flow, because MCA is in a zone throughout:
Everything has changed but remains the same
So once again the mirror raised, and I see myself as clear as day
And I’m going to the limits of my ultimate destiny
Feeling as though somebody, somewhere, is testing me
Like much of the album, “Year and a Day” can at first seem too dense to reallyget. After all, many fans and critics were not sure what to make of Paul’s Boutique for a couple of years after it came out. Yet the effect of “Year and a Day” is utterly hypnotic.
As a whole, Paul’s Boutique is an ode to the best of the Beasties’ (and the Dust Brothers’) diverse musical and cultural influences—and the power of hip hop to make it all happen. If an artist can embrace all of those differences, and then rise above it all, they can make truly special art, and elevate themselves and the listener. Over their now completed career, the Beastie Boys certainly accomplished that and nowhere is that more evident than on “Year and a Day”. In that sense, it is their best song ever.