Music

Long Live the Beastie Boys: Their Five Most Underappreciated Songs

PopMatters looks at five Beastie Boys songs that are not only underappreciated, but some of their best.

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 BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Brian Wilson and the Beach BoysPet 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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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