Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “The Sounds of Science”
“The Sounds of Science” is essentially a three-movement suite about hip-hop bravado. Rarely has science sounded hipper.
It’s fitting that the most recognizable samples from “The Sounds of Science” come from the Beatles’ catalog. On this tune, the Beasties are experimenting with form and pushing the boundaries of their genre in a similar manner as the Fab Four did in the second half of their career. “The Sounds of Science” is essentially a three-movement suite about hip-hop bravado, and rarely has science sounded hipper.
The central conceit of “The Sound of Science” is that the Beasties’ music and personae are like great scientific discoveries that might not be appreciated at the time (“No one really knows what I’m talking about”) but will someday be celebrated as ingenious. Sure, it’s arrogant as can be. It’s also pretty prescient.
The track’s first “movement” features a prominent sample from “When I’m Sixty-Four”, The effect is quite similar to the Beatles tune from which it’s derived. The clarinets and circus-like drums give the track a deliberately corny, old-fashioned, dancehall feel. The Beasties name check a number of important inventors, like Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton, to show how innovative they really are in their pursuit of original rap music. There’s a price to pay for their rambunctious creativity, though. They compare themselves to Jesus Christ (“I’ve got pegs through my hands and one through my feet”) when describing their show at Shea Stadium (another commonality with the Beatles) and getting kicked out of the Palladium Amphitheater.
Movement One’s sophistication is in the ironic juxtaposition of the machismo-laced lyrics with the playful, almost “sissy”-sounding music. With the second “movement”, it becomes clear that the first was almost a false-start, a fun little pastiche that we shouldn’t take too seriously. We get crowd noise from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before a reverb-heavy chant of Muhammed Ali’s battle cry, “Rope a dope!” echoed by some James Brown-style musical “stings”. With the line “Right up in your face and dis you!” from Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy”, the Beasties instantly seem more aggressive, a genuine threat rather than the cute tricksters who were just telling stories about science class.
From the opening lines of Movement Three (delivered a cappela), we realize that the Beasties’ haughtiness goes beyond just bragging about their superior music. They’re also talking about their sexual prowess and reputation as partiers (“Drunk a skunk am I from the celebration / To peep that freak unique penetration”). Apparently, they have “time and money for girls covered with honey”. We find out more than we want to about their sexual quirks with the lines “Had to get up to get the Jimmy protector / Went berserk and worked and exploded / She woke up in the morning and her face was coate..” After comparing themselves to Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, they admit, “I’m gonna die gonna die one day / Cause I’m goin' and goin' and goin' this way / Not like a roach or a piece of toast / I’m going out first class not going out coach”. They refuse to do anything small, including dying. All of this plays out in front of the aggressive groove from the Beatles’ “The End”.
As much as the Beasties brag about their insane abilities--musical or otherwise--the thing that’s so striking about this track today is how fresh its experimentation with form still sounds. The group manages to invoke several distinctive moods within the same song. While the multi-movement structure has been employed in rock repeatedly (see Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, for example), it has never been embraced as wholeheartedly in rap. Of course, the Beatles samples hold the whole track together. The only thing more striking than the Beasties’ creativity on “Sounds of Science” is the fact that sampling the Fab Fours’ music on a major hip-hop record was possible in 1988. With such great source material, it’s no wonder that the Beastie Boys made a three-minute masterpiece.