On their first record, the Beatnuts said all they wanted to do was “fuck, drink beer, and smoke some shit.” This was a decade ago, though all available evidence suggests they haven’t strayed considerably from that m.o. in the years since: 2001’s excellent Take It or Squeeze It, for instance, found Psycho Les and Junkyard JuJu hyping their sexual exploits and gangsta escapades and dishing out such nuggets of wisdom as “Don’t think about work, don’t think about shit/Don’t drink just two shots, drink about six.“
The Beatnuts are underground rappers, at least insofar as they don’t get played on Hot 97 or MTV, though obviously their debauched boasting has more to do with big-time thug MCs than with Mos Def, and the only “higher” learning you’ll glean from their words involves killing brain cells. But in addition to their talent for over-the-top hooliganism, Les and JuJu happen to be top-notch beat scientists, and as such also inhabit a space occupied by producers-first-rappers-second like the Neptunes, who speak much louder with their knob-twirling than they ever could with their voices. So suffice it to say that if the Beatnuts don’t get by solely on the strength of their beats (which can keep it up even when it sounds like they’ve smoked too much shit, which sound better when you’ve smoked too much shit, and which, compared with those laid down by most undie hip-hoppers, are the shit), then their beats are at least the main attraction.
Classic Nuts Vol. 1, a new best-of that draws from four albums, several singles, and a handful of remixes, doesn’t have as much meat and melange per track as Take It or Squeeze It—which was also more consistently funky than similarly thugged-out 2001 releases by Trick Daddy and Juvenile (and had better guest spots, too). Like all Beatnuts albums, Classic Nuts shuffles between breezy, jet-setting grooves and East Coast Hard, though whereas the gritty atmospherics of fellow New Yorkers Cannibal Ox evoke urban bleakness almost as well as Taxi Driver, the Beatnuts’ posturing functions more or less as an opportune medium for studio auteurs. And so you get “Off the Books,” a set of generic gangsta-life conceits bookended on one side by the lighthearted “Get Funky” and on the other by “No Escapin’ This,” easily the most inyaface track here, yoking typical machismo to a spare pulse with scat-style backup and all kinds of disconnected yelps. You also get old-school samples and clever loops (witness “Turn It Out” ‘s insistent clip-clop vamp), and aside from refrains shouted by their homeboy Greg Nice, the hooks are less singsongy than deftly percussive.
One thing you don’t get, though, is much of a sense of Psycho and JuJu’s Dominican and Colombian roots, which (never mind that they grew up in Queens) prompted Allmusic.com to classify them as “Latin Rap.” Considering that this “genre” more or less reached its commercial apex with Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain,” you’d think the Beatnuts would have plenty of room to take the bong and run wild with it. But usually there’s only the odd Latin sample, the occasional Spanglish phrase, the muchachas razzing back every now and then. Mostly the Beatnuts’ heritage takes a backseat to egos and drugs and sex talk.
Which actually works just fine, since their words are usually at least sonically smart. Whenever they loop an old jazz riff, they’ll stick to insouciant my-name-is boasting; whenever they delve into minimalist boom-boom-bap they play up the posturing. Whatever they’re talking about, they never let themselves get caught up in the rap reality game—there’s never a dis on a specific enemy MC, never a mention of a youth spent selling crack, no reason to believe “Nigga, try to change my plans?/I’m gonna beat you till I break my hands” should be taken literally. They’ll never match Jay-Z as rhymers, because Jay-Z’s boasting comes out in chants and phrases and swatches of slanguage that are memorable, if not bursting with juicy social detail. For the Beatnuts it’s usually enough that such stuff keeps up with the boom-bap.
As with lots of other thugs’, the Beatnuts’ boasting is sometimes funny because it’s so over-the-top and undifferentiated, but you also sense there’s a particular kind of comic self-consciousness the ‘Nuts tap into that most thugs don’t. Unlike Greg Nice (who name-drops kiddie-TV stars Keenan and Kel in one guest spot), it’s not always easy to tell when Les and JuJu are just joking around, and you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh at or feel threatened by lines like “It’s the Beatnuts, we don’t have to prove shit/Anything we drop is the shit.” That awkward couplet is rife with bravado, true, but there’s also the deliberately stoopid end-rhyme of “shit,” indicating not ineptness but a kind of “meta-gangsta” jocularity: acting hard because it sounds good, and also because there’s fun to be had and hackneyed hip-hop tropes to be lampooned. Props are due these drunken nihilists for carving out a space within an otherwise over-brainy underground, and for forging an aesthetic of their own: thug-ism for the sake of convenience, yuks, sonic currency.