Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side
June 14, 1994
From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?
Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”
“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.
Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hellin 1987: Together Forever.
Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.
Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.
Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”
You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.
The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.
And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.