Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “Shadrach”

Beastie Boys
Paul's Boutique

Over the course of Paul’s Boutique, the Beasties have made so many cultural references, both high and low, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all. We’ve heard about The Flinstones and Ernest Hemingway, Looney Toons and Hunter S. Thompson, Die Hard and Leonardo da Vinci. “Shadrach”, the last full-length track on Paul’s Boutique before the Boys launch into the short-fragment suite “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”, may be the most allusion-filled and self-referential of all. On this tune, the Beasties audaciously use religious allusions to talk about their own greatness. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come off as pretentious or distasteful.

The central conceit of “Shadrach” is that the Beastie Boys are a lot like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three characters from a biblical story found in the book of Daniel. These three were Babylonian Jews under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. The ruler ordered his subjects to bow and worship an idol when they heard certain ceremonial music. The three Jews refused the king’s orders and were cast into a fiery furnace. Shockingly, the three were not burned upon being thrown into the fire, so King Nebuchadnezzar ordered his people to worship the Jewish god instead.

Now, it’s not always clear exactly how the three Beasties are the modern-day Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It is possible that the group is making a profound statement about rap music in the modern world and intolerance across the ages (i.e. their status as Brooklyn Jews trying to make “credible” rap music and/or the revolutionary/misunderstood sonic technique of Paul’s Boutique). More than likely, though, the Beasties and the Dust Brothers heard a recording of “Loose Booty” by Sly & the Family Stone, which features the phrase “Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego” rapped in the background throughout the track, and thought that it would make an awesome sample. They simply took the naming of the three biblical heroes as a jumping-off point for a song once again focusing on their own skill as rappers.

The religious allusions don’t stop with references to the Hebrew Bible, though. There’s a shout-out to the teachings of Jesus Christ with the question/answer “Who shall inherit the earth? The meek shall.” This line is included with a sense of irony, given that the Beasties approach the subject of their own importance with anything but humility. We also get references to infamous televangelists Jerry Lee Swaggert and Jerry Lee Falwell. The boys give us a line from the John Newton hymn “Amazing Grace” (“I once was lost, but now I’m found”), as well. Near the end of the track, they assert that “the man upstairs I hope that he cares”. The Beasties aren’t conforming to organized religion, though, for they are “smoking the holy chalice got my own religion”.

These religious references on “Shadrach” stand alongside mentions of authors J.D. Salinger and Charles Dickens, Indy race car driver Mario Andretti, AC/DC, Goodyear Tires, and Harry S. Truman, among others. The boys use the “holy” allusions in a similar manner as they have used the references to movies, kids’ cartoons, and cereal boxes. They’re simply trying to come at their subject from multifarious angles and provide variety and interest for the listener. Plenty of songs since Paul’s Boutique have found their rappers essentially repeating “I’m a badass” over and over again for four minutes in a non-sophisticated manner. Sure, the Beasties might be full of themselves, but they know how to communicate that self-love with more style than any other.