If you live in New York, maybe you know a Beastie Boy. You could be only a few degrees of sexual separation from one. Perhaps you came into downward dog next to one at yoga this morning. Shit, since the audience for record reviews is pretty self-selecting, maybe you are a Beastie Boy.
But at the least, if you’re white and have an IQ higher than John Stockton’s free-throw percentage, you know someone like the Beastie Boys, some wiseacre who’s thought, “I watch too much TV and take a lot of drugs, too–I could’ve done that,” ever since Licensed To Ill cannonballed a placid pond in 1986. The Beasties made it look deceptively easy; that’s how we know they’re punk.
After racing out to L.A., where pretty girls and basketball courts are both more available, they eventually raced back home, like wiseacres since Odysseus. By then, their city was gone. You can’t chill on the corner with a 40 of O.E. in New York anymore, thanks to zero-tolerance dictates from the mayor, and there are about 90 other scenarios on Licensed that would earn them a one-way ticket on the Rikers Express. The Ritz, site of their riotous late-’86 show, is gone like Charles Oakley. The forty-deuce they hunted for seedy kicks has been deloused and Astroturfed for tourists, and the Ludlow St. they pictured as an anachronism of schmatte shops in the artwork to Paul’s Boutique is now the indie-rock Madison Ave. Oh, and girls in New York just don’t have new-wave hairdos anymore.
But the Beasties have got changes like my man David Bowie. After two epochal albums, the dusted-out Licensed To Ill and then the Dust Brothered Paul’s Boutique–the Talmud of the sample era, still devoutly studied and debated–they returned to the instruments they’d played as punks, and made Check Your Head and Ill Communication, albums that peak high and crash low. No longer the most illinest, illinest, illinest B-boys, they seemed to be making penance for earlier antics (Voice coverline, 1986: “Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece”) by preaching peace, environmentalism, feminist respect, and introspection. Before, they wanted to fight teachers, 7-Eleven clerks, fathers, sheriffs, bosses, and girls; now they had less beef than a vegetarian. MCA declared his commitment to Buddhism, and on the last album even rhymed “world” and “unfurl” like my man Jackson Browne. Imagine how penitent they’d have been if Columbia Records had let them title the debut Don’t Be a Faggot.
Hey, I was old school when you were in preschool, so I’m setting up the context. Because right away, quite deliberately, Hello Nasty declares a return to Licensed To Ill. On “Intergalactic,” the electrorockin’ single, they sample Ad-Rock from the debut’s “It’s the New Style,” and refer obliquely to the inner sleeve of Kool Moe Dee’s How Ya Like Me Now. On “Super Disco Breakin,’ ” the album-starting leasebreaker, they praise the 808 drum machine, every original B-boy’s hallowed beatbox. And later on, they mayonnaise a Run-DMC hit to deliver as funny a line as any they’ve ever cracked: “I’m the king of Boggle, there is none higher/I get eleven points off the word ‘quagmire.’ ” The Beasties had drifted, Beatles-style, into solo tracks, with MCA as George Harrison, looping Gregorian chants to praise “the awakening mind” on “Bodhisattva Vow,” and Mike D hardcore-ranting against blacktop hacks on “Tough Guy.” Now, once again, they pass it like the ’69 Knicks, and stack their braying voices into beautiful, unlikely harmonies that will stir old fans. They pop the old lingo like ESPN’s Stuart Scott. They couldn’t get more ’80s if they were VH1. Who’s better qualified, or more justified, to invent B-boy nostalgia?
To get all the jokes, you have to know what the Beasties know, which might seem chokingly hermetic. After all, the album title is an in(die)side joke that will fully tickle only those people who have Shelby Meade’s number in their Rolodexes. But for the Beasties, the question has long been, How big can a small world grow? Together or separately, they have a label (Grand Royal), a zine (ibid), a cause (Tibetan freedom), a clothing line (X-Large), and probably, by now, the penny for their thoughts they once wanted. They know enthusiasms should be spread like cream cheese, whether for a pal’s band or for a cool T-shirt. The Beasties believe in the ideal of a crew; that’s how we know they’re hip-hop.
After five albums, plus enough EP’s to fill a Stussy backpack, they still have a vibrant career; that’s how we know they’re not hip-hop. Like other Beastie fans who prefer cartoon gunplay to devout nonviolence, I wasn’t surprised when sales and critical reception both fell off for Ill Communication. On Hello Nasty, it’s only when I read the lyric sheet that I notice MCA tossing a shout-out to Uma Thurman’s brother, and railing against “filthy cash” like he’s T-Bone Burnett standing outside the entrance of a Niketown. Well, that’s what I deserve for reading lyric sheets. The larger problem on the previous two records was musical, not lyrical. Instruments were the first things the Beasties had taken seriously, and their desire to pay tribute to the Meters and the Ohio Players was estimable, except that neither band ever made an album as good as the Beasties already had. Great funk riffs are as rare as steak tartare, and though some of the Beasties’ instrumentals bobbed like a B-movie pimp, many more were as flat as a new pair of Vans.
Even this wholesale agnostic knows that Tibetan Buddhism counsels the middle path, and on Hello Nasty, finally, the Beasties merge spirituality with nonsense like Allen Ginsberg was at the mixing desk. They haven’t sounded this exciting and determined since Paul’s Boutique because they’ve learned to hide the splice marks in their meticulous digital edit of live instruments, samples, loops, scratches, F/X, asides, and blasts of common noise from baby voices to police sirens. Where Licensed To Ill had the populist metal ballast of suburban-bred Rick Rubin, this record looses the Beasties’ middlebrow urbanism: there’s no punk rock and only one instrumental, so after the ill flashbacks, they indulge their tastes and curiosities. For one thing, they sing; that’s how we know they’re not punk. MCA chases wisdom and ends up rewriting Boston lyrics (“I Don’t Know,” a bastardized Brazilian number), while Ad-Rock contemplates narcissism (“And Me,” where Kraftwerk meets drum’n’bass) and mortality (“Instant Death,” a spare denouement). And then there’s the sunstroked cameo by Lee Perry, which will make you dizzy if you’re standing up, and “Song for Junior,” which adds keys, percussion, flute, and vibes, and sounds like the Doors trying to imitate Santana.
Look, their influence is everywhere, from Bran Van 3000 to the great WNB-Ay promos running on ESPN, and like smart bourgies, they’re thinking career. The act Courtney Love once sneered at as “lotsa testosterone running rampant” isn’t quite ready for the second stage at Lilith Fair yet, but throughout Hello Nasty, they integrate friends and salute family, and reach to accept the full, weird sprawl of adulthood.
Even back in 1986, they weren’t the horrors the PMRC and tabloids saw. Yeah, at that Ritz show, a girl in black underwear go-go danced in a locked cage. (No wonder they’re worried about karma.) But it’s hard to imagine another hometown act that could have played a peaceful show for a mixed-races audience only a few days after Michael Griffith, a black man, was chased by a mob of whites in Howard Beach, and killed by a car as he tried to flee. Their evilness was a cartoon, and 12 years later, cartoons are the prevalent medium in our culture, even where animation isn’t immediately evident. Cartoon TV shows, cartoon summer action films, cartoon partisan politics. Warren Beatty is the new M.C. Serch, and the country-headbanger lyrics Tom Wolfe wrote for his recent Rolling Stone story read like Licensed To Ill outtakes. The Beasties began as brilliant relief from Howard Jones and other devout plagues, and now that cartoonishness is the plague, they know to move along, city to city, stage to stage, rhyme to rhyme. Call them the Yeastie Boys, because they’re trying to rise.