Counterbalance: Beastie Boys’ ‘Ill Communication’

I've got the brand new doo-doo, guaranteed like Yoo-Hoo, I'm on like Dr. John, yeah Mr. Zu Zu. I'm a newlywed, not a divorcee, and everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey. Beastie Boys’ 1994 landmark is this week’s Counterbalance. Phone is ringing. Oh my God.
Beastie Boys
Ill Communication
Capitol / Grand Royal

Mendelsohn: Hey, Klinger. Remember 1994? I do, but mostly through my rose-colored glasses of teenage nostalgia. The year had a strange mix of music. Grunge was starting to lose its hold while the lad rock from Britain had yet to talk over the charts. What 1994 gave us was an eclectic music scene that offered up albums by Jeff Buckley, Portishead, Oasis, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G. and Soundgarden, just to name a few. And like the wide-ranging, critically acclaimed albums of the year, there was one that seemed to capture the zeitgeist, as pop became an amalgamation of the varied genres of the ever-expanding music universe. That record was Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication — a sort of genre-defying jam session, as the former frat hip-hop brohams from Brooklyn tried to get in touch with another level, melding their punk-influenced hip-hop with laid-back grooves, world beat, and funk as they reinvented themselves into enlightened elder statesmen.

Aside from Beck’s Odelay, Beasties Boys’ Ill Communication is one of those albums that has stuck with me over the years. So much so that it doesn’t sound dated or immediately toss me down the nostalgia vortex. Looking back, this album either doesn’t make any sense or it makes complete sense. Sometimes, I’m still not sure.

Klinger: I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that, Mendelsohn, but I suspect it will all be made clear soon. As for me, I have come to a conclusion that might well be viewed as heresy within the music nerd community. I’m going to go so far as to say that Ill Communication (currently No. 266 on the Great List) is better than the far more critically acclaimed Paul’s Boutique (No. 127). Is that OK to say? I don’t care. I’m saying it anyway.

The entire first third or of Ill Communication passes from nearly impossible strength to strength. From that sampled flute sample (Jeremy Steig’s “Howling for Judy”) on up through the eminently quotable “Get It Together”, which makes me wish I had a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tillie, there’s not a wasted moment here. And if it gets a little murkier after that, Ill Communication is still a non-stop groove with a maturity that’s only hinted at in its predecessor. And don’t get me wrong—I love Paul’s Boutique, but it’s also very much the Dust Brothers’ record as much as it is a Beasties’ record. Anyway, I guess this is all a way of saying that this album makes perfect sense to me, but I’ll let you continue.

Mendelsohn: It makes perfect sense to me as well. But looking back at the Beastie Boys’ career arc, it is a little strange. Moving from the party-centric License to Ill to the sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique to the largely overlooked Check Your Head, there is a clear evolution in the Beastie Boys’ sound. Check Your Head laid the groundwork for Ill Communication, as the boys picked up instruments again to revisit their punk roots and create their own beats. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great album, but it wasn’t a blockbuster and their reaction was to double down and add in Tibetan monks chanting coupled with smooth funk instrumentals. That does’t quite make sense to me — I’m not complaining — it’s just not a move I would make. But then my name isn’t Ad-Rock, Mike D, or MCA.

And that’s why I always find myself in awe of this record. Yes, it is the best Beastie Boys album — better than Paul’s Boutique, despite the critical consensus — but that’s only half of it. The Beastie Boys seemed to take everything they had learned over the years, put it all together, and then stepped out of their own shadow with an album that perfectly captured the zeitgeist. The world was getting bigger as global community began to solidify thanks to NAFTA and nuclear disarmament, the music industry was about to peak, a fledgling Internet was about to change the world, and three kids from Brooklyn, now veterans in the music business, released an album that didn’t sound like anything else at the time and it appealed to nearly every corner of the listening demographic.

The reasons for the album’s success are plain to see but I would also be comfortable chalking it up to divine intervention. Also, that video they did with Spike Jonze for “Sabotage” probably helped a little too.

Klinger: Yeah, that’s always fun. And I don’t want to disagree with you too much with your macro-level analysis of the mid-’90s Beastie Boys, but it seems to me that the real reason Ill Communication is so freakin’ great lies in their personal evolution. Right there in the first track, MCA addresses the need to respect women, which in turn subtly addresses their previously, shall we say, cavalier attitude toward women in the past. We’re a long way from whiffle ball bats here, folks. And the fact that they’re able to present this kinder, gentler approach without losing their braggadocio or their cool says a lot.

I’m not sure whether the ’80s-era Beastie Boys would have been quite nearly as hard on Detroit Pistons jerk Bill Laimbeer, but “Tough Guy” is a thing of beauty, and the fact that they utilize their hardcore skills for the track makes it that much better. In fact, my only quibble here is that they rely a little too heavily on their fuzzy mics, making their lyrics a little too impenetrable at times. But willful obfuscation was kind of the thing back in the ’90s, a time when zines would publish whole lengthy articles in a completely illegible typeface. Plus it has allowed for the lyrics to time-release themselves over the past 20 years, so there’s that.

So we’re in agreement overall, Mendelsohn. What’s your take on why the critics have continued to rank Paul’s Boutique so far above Ill Communication?

Mendelsohn: Because Paul’s Boutique came out first? And while I suspect everyone liked the new and improved Beastie Boys, who were all sensitive without being wimps, they also came off a little preachy at times. Not Bono-level preachy, but still.

Honestly, I would point to the fact that hip-hop had really hit its stride by the mid-1990s. So even though Ill Communication was a well-executed album and a huge step forward for the group, it wasn’t as ground breaking as Paul’s Boutique, an album that had slowly grown in stature over the years and came to be recognized as a sort of magnum opus of sampling when heavy sampling was the norm. As you noted, it is as much a Dust Brothers album as it is a Beastie Boys album. Another way to look at it: Ill Communication wasn’t even the top rated hip-hop album of 1994. That honor went to Nas’ Illmatic — then the Beastie Boys and then a couple slots later you get Biggie’s Ready to Die. The Beastie Boys were neither a hip-hop group nor a rock band and I think that type of outsider status from both camps probably hurt them more then it helped. How would you classify this record, Klinger?

Klinger: Well first of all I’m not sure how much it hurt them. They carried with them a sort of unassailable cool that ensured their place in the canon, although that was certainly more clearly defined on the rock side of the spectrum. I can only wonder what would have happened if the Beastie Boys had been more prolific. If they hadn’t waited as long as six years between regular studio albums, we might have a clearer picture of their breadth and depth. Or maybe they would have diluted their power with half-assed efforts. We’ll never know, of course — with the tragic loss of Adam Yauch, we’ve heard the last of the Beasties as we know them. All we can do, I suppose, is be glad that we got what we got. And with Ill Communication we have one hell of an album, one that transcends its time now as much as it did then.