Seven years ago to this very day, Adam Yauch died. Known as MCA, the rapper, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and director was one-third of world-renowned hip-hop staple Beastie Boys. This was one of the only celebrity deaths that has ever made me cry. Diehard fans mourned worldwide with his family and friends. The group was absolutely imperative in starting my musical discovery process and introducing me to the world of hip-hop. Their prolific, influential catalog is rife with treasures just begging to be discussed, so I figured now’s an appropriate time to cover their full-length discography and, for those that missed out or are curious, provide a guide through it with our new EINthology series, which unofficially started with our look at the Coheed and Cambria catalog.
With Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horowitz and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond completing the core trio, Beastie Boys had spent the last three-plus decades making some of the coolest, interesting music I had ever heard, combining rap with punk rock, jazz, easy listening lounge stylings, funk, and much more. But more importantly, they were three lifelong friends having the time of their lives. It wasn’t until after MCA died that Ad-Rock and Mike D opened up about the dynamic of their group; about how MCA was the idea man and primary motivator between the three. In every respect, without MCA, Beastie Boys didn’t exist.
Did you know they actually formed as a hardcore punk band after getting into bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, going as far as producing an EP before moving onto primarily rap-focused music? It’s a fact that’s corroborated by some of their more intense offerings that feature on almost every album of theirs. Don’t worry, we’ll go over it! So, exactly how did three Jewish kids from New York become one of the biggest, most revered groups in all of hip-hop, garnering undying respect and props from genre legends like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Eminem, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and more? Well, I guess we can start at the beginning to see how their legacy began.
‘You gotta fight for your right to party!’ – “Fight For Your Right”
The one Beastie Boys album everyone knows, or at least is most familiar with. It’s highly unlikely I’m the first to tell you about slappers like “Fight For Your Right”, “Paul Revere”, and “Brass Monkey”. Legendary producer Rick Rubin was instrumental (ha) in forming the over-the-top frat rap sound of this album, making the boys take a hiatus from their punk rock roots. Plus, he samples the Green Acres and Mr. Ed theme songs in the same track, which is probably the most def thing anyone could do. I also have some weird associations with some of this album, like every time I heard the sped-up horn melody sampled from War’s “Low Rider” in “Slow Ride”, I think of a dancing otter.
Speaking of samples, the first thing you hear on Licensed to Ill is a brolic drum sample of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, as well as the guitar melody from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”. Honestly, that pretty much encapsulates the spirit of this album from a production standpoint – an easter egg-heavy endeavor that feeds off of the sex and drugs of rock and roll’s most notorious. Recognizable samples aside, the real hero of the record is the mighty Roland 808 drum machine. This album has a trunk-knocking quality that other Beastie Boys albums just simply don’t have thanks to its liberal use. Songs like “Slow and Low”, “Hold it Now, Hit It”, and “Time to Get Ill” are really snappy bangers that would probably still see a club pop the hell off to this day.
Although it’s often billed as satire – and it’s so absolutely rambunctious in its execution that it’s a fair enough assessment – the thing with this album is that it shows the boys at their most ignorant. I love ignorant rap as much as the next dude, but it’s rough to listen to the blatant, over-the-top misogyny of “Girls” and not cringe so hard, you dislocate your jaw. It’s something the group never shied away from addressing in their more atonement-focused future that came with maturity and age, but regardless it’s a bit of a blight on the band’s discography, especially in a post-#MeToo landscape.
If you can overlook its shortcomings, Licensed to Ill is without a doubt the party album in this discography. It’s a beer-soaked, debaucherous romp that stands the test of time. “Fight For Your Right” will always be a top choice for store-brand teenage rebellion; “Brass Monkey” will always be a drinking anthem; “Paul Revere” will always be the best song that…mentions a Wiffle Ball™ bat. Those are the rules. There’s not much to think about outside of shocked thoughts of ‘wow, did he really just say that?’ Yes, yes he did, Brittany. Now get on the dance floor.
‘There never was a city kid truer and bluer
There’s more to me than you’ll ever know
And I got more hits than Sadaharu Oh’ – “Hey Ladies”
Many would say that Paul’s Boutique is the jewel of the Beastie Boys catalog, and there’s a lot of reasons for why that is. One of the biggest is the production, handled by the boys and the Dust Brothers (John King aka King Gizmo and Mike Simpson aka E.Z. Mike), with Mario C engineering it all. The beats retained their sample-focused architecture, but gained a lot more nuance in their execution. Say goodbye to the 808 – it rarely makes an appearance – and say hello to sampled drums. Although the boys would still find ample opportunity to have their fun and act a fool, this was seen as a veritable step toward maturity in terms of artistic and legitimate hip-hop credibility. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this album saved Beastie Boys from being a one-note novelty act.
For an album that’s literally just five days older than me, it sure did age pretty well. Here, we see the best of the boys when it comes to storytelling. “High Plains Drifter” is a gritty crime story with a little ease in its step that only this group could provide, sort of like a Coen Brothers film if it was written by three roguish dudes in their early 20s…because it was. “Shake Your Rump” is classic Beasties – self-referential and self-aggrandizing in the lighthearted way that only they’re capable of. My favorite will always be “The Sounds of Science” for its daring beat change that really ramps up the energy halfway through carried by a sample of the guitar riff and drums from The Beatles’ “The End” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, respectively.
The crown atop Paul’s Boutique’s head is the 12-and-a-half-minute, nine-song suite at the end by the name of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. It’s a circus filled with attractions of rapid-fire beats and strung-out rhymes, all baked into an ending that was a lot more brave than people give it credit for. The third section, subtitled “Stop That Train”, stands out for being a true-life account of riding the trains of New York City and all the unpredictability and grittiness that entails over a groovy, soulful beat.
It’s hard to say exactly who Paul’s Boutique is for. It walks (or saunters) along a wobbly tightrope between their brash origins and, well, whatever awaited them in their future. What’s crystal clear is if you’re a fan of sampling in hip-hop, this album is a veritable candy store when it comes to the art of sampling and gives you a lot to dig into. Hours can be spent on WhoSampled, just dissecting each memorable drum beat or guitar riff that sounds just familiar enough to bother you into wanted to find its origin. It’s as if each song is an elaborate Lego fixture, just as interesting to reverse engineer and see how it came together as it is to enjoy in its final form. In some ways, if you’ll excuse the gatekeeping-esque language, it’s a true hip-hop fan’s album, showcasing a lot of what the genre has to offer as an art.
‘If you can feel what I’m feeling, then it’s a musical masterpiece
Hear what I’m dealing, well then that’s cool at least’ – “Pass the Mic”
Ah, now we’re getting into the underrated stuff. This is where Beastie Boys more clearly than ever projected their future and intent as musicians. As they entered their late twenties, the boys perhaps started maturing, and it shows in both their lyrics and approach to music in general. Most notably, you see the profound return of live instrumentation here, and also the introduction of the instrumental track (interludes on Paul’s Boutique notwithstanding, but those hardly count and were still sample-based anyway). I imagine this alone divided the group’s fanbase – the frat boy irreverence and party-centric lifestyle was all but fully quashed. Less notably, but still notable, is this also started their love affair with the vocal effects that would appear on nearly every future album, something I wasn’t particularly a fan of myself.
Straight up, though, you hear the easy listening that “Something’s Got to Give” or “Lighten Up” offer and you may think the Beasties have gone soft…and they have. The theme for Check Your Head to me was unity or togetherness, and this showed in the fact that the trio were much more of a band here than on any other record. Although it’s more correlative than causal, this was around the time MCA was travelling to Tibet and India, taking a keen spiritual interest in Buddhism. It’s an influence acutely felt in much of the music here, more overt in some songs like “Stand Together”, where the lyrics directly reference spirituality, inner reflection and unity, and it’s a real beautiful thing. You can hear something otherworldly in the more nuanced recordings found on here, incorporating other performers like ‘Money’ Mark Nishita (organ, clavinet, Wurlitzer, etc.) and James Bradley, Jr. (percussion), along with Biz Markie who has a little harmonic vocal cameo on “The Biz vs. The Nuge”. He’ll show up a couple more times throughout the Beastie Boys catalog as well.
It’s not like the trio lost their edge, though! In fact, it’s arguable that this album contains some of their hardest material ever. The highlight of Check Your Head is surely the single “So What’Cha Want”, which is the perfect meeting of classic rap-your-asses-off Beasties with their then-new sound of incorporating more of their roots as a band. It can also be seen as a bit of a precursor to nu-metal and rap metal that became so prevalent just years later at the turn of the century. This record also houses a very serviceable cover of a New York underground punk jam “Time for Livin’” by Frontline. My go-to is “The Maestro”, just to hear Ad-Rock yell out ‘yeah, you motherfuckers, I’m all that!’
This record really has it all. You get rappity-raps, hard rock instrumentals, jazzy and soulful arrangements; you get levity, spirituality, and, most importantly, you get a couple new sides to the Beastie Boys that you simply couldn’t get elsewhere. It’s growth in motion put to tape, immortalizing the all-important curbing of hubris while still recognizing their own skill at making music that really no one else was doing, or has since to this degree. Therefore, this is the Beastie Boys record for those that want it all, or maybe just favor live instrumentation over samples and synthetic production.
‘I’m walking down your block and you say ‘that’s him
There goes the guy with the funky sound’
The Beastie Boys, you know we come to get down’ – “Root Down”
Oh boy, this is peak 90s, in a good way. If Check Your Head was the blueprint and prototype for a new era of Beastie Boys music, then Ill Communication is the first production model, fresh off the factory floor, polished to a sheen. More Martin than Charlie, it’s here that we see the boys become men making some statements that were downright unprecedented in hip-hop or any popular music. The opening song, “Sure Shot”, lays things down from the get-go with an earnest verse from MCA laid down over a sultry flute loop:
‘I wanna 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 wanna offer my love and respect to the end’
This was monumental to me when I was younger, and by younger, I mean in my late teens and early 20s, after I had already been exploring the Beastie Boys’ catalog. But to see this amount of personal growth and atonement for past bad behavior was something that really meant a lot to me as someone that was also trying to grow into a better person without any male role model to follow.
The very next song from “Sure Shot” is punk firecracker “Tough Guy”, and not much later is “Bobo on the Corner”, a funky jazz instrumental shout-out to drummer and collaborator Eric Bobo (who also features on this song). This shows the intent that the trio had behind this album – threaten listeners with tonal whiplash just as they did with Check Your Head, although there’s a bit more of a balance here between the many sides of the Beastie Boys.
For one, sampling is a more prominent fixture than it was on Check Your Head, imbuing Ill Communication with a more hip-hop footing. Look no further than the aforementioned “Sure Shot”, “Root Down”, or “Get it Together”, on which A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip has the esteemed pleasure of being one of three popular artists to lay a verse or chorus down on a Beastie Boys album (the other two being rapper Nas and singer Santigold – more on them later). The rock-rap mix returns with one of the band’s best singles ever, “Sabotage”, which also has one of the best music videos ever, or at least from the 90s.
The boys also double down on the spirituality with two complementary tracks, “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow”. The former, an instrumental, leads into the other, an MCA-led vocal track. Both utilize Tibetan monk chanting, which isn’t something you’d hear just anywhere within hip-hop or popular music. “Bodhisattva Vow” is just that, a vow that MCA takes as a budding Buddhist to himself and others to exhibit patience with those that would try to give him trouble, understand that love will always conquer hate, and there is a greater good that we can all work toward to benefit all people, just as former Buddhas have understood on their life’s journey. Among other things, it’s a sentiment I can greatly appreciate, even if I lack spirituality myself. We couldn’t be any further from the Beastie Boys’ comically violent and crass beginnings at this point, but that’s nothing but a net positive.
Ill Communication is a ‘kitchen sink’ album, meaning it’s got just about everything you could want (much like Check Your Head), but this album just does things a bit better. It shows the boys as a unifying force. They’re more in tune with themselves, with each other, and with the art they create. They are amassing a tightly-knit roster of collaborative artists and musicians by now, and after almost a decade of working in the music industry, we’re starting to see what these three men will become known for above all. If you’re not overwhelmed by multiple stylistic choices and approaches in an album, you’d do well to check out Ill Communication.
‘Well, I’m the Benihana chef on the SP12
Chop the fuck out the beats left on the shelf
You be like ‘Hello Nasty, where you been?
It’s time you brought the grimy beats out the dungeon’ – “Putting Shame in Your Game”
I’m biased – not only was this the first Beastie Boys album I ever had, it was the first album I ever bought with my own money, period. It was integral in my understanding of music, and birthed a great love for hip-hop. As such, it’s my favorite album of theirs, and one of my favorites of all time. If the trio had a black sheep album, it was either this or The Mix-Up. Even with the two-time Grammy award-winning international smash single “Intergalactic”, this album was different. It was a largely hip-hop sound, setting aside their punk rock roots yet again in favor of unabashed sampling, turntablism, and…uh, lounge music? I don’t know; “Song for Junior” and “Picture This” are outliers for sure, but I guess the boys had already conditioned us to expect the unexpected with the involvement of Buddhist monk chanting and funk-jazz hybrids.
Anyway, this album slaps. It’s just banger after banger; really strong production with the help of Mario C and Mix Master Mike, who was an (un)official addition to the Beastie Boys line-up for this album only. ‘Three MC’s and One DJ’ illustrates the cohesive relationship between the three rappers and talented turntablist – an ode to the foundations of hip-hop if there ever was one by the boys. The first nine tracks of this record are perfect in both individual execution and pacing, and no, I can’t pick a favorite among them. “Remote Control” has instrumental performances, mashing up a catchy guitar lick with ticks, clicks, and beeps that sound out of this world. “The Move” glitches and pumps all over the place while the boys play off each other’s bars in their trademark fashion. “Intergalactic” is so good – it’s the definitive Beastie Boys song, full stop. They bring so much energy on the track, it shows their personalities, the beat is wild, it’s all absolutely perfect.
From the subway ambiance and synth hums of the intro to “Super Disco Breakin’” to the repeated somber xylophone in the end of “Instant Death”, Hello Nasty is a busy musical playground with more tricks and treats than Halloween. My favorite instrumental of theirs across all albums is here with “Sneakin’ Out the Hospital”. A ‘skiterlude’ with Biz Markie intro’s the tense, playful song that marries live instrumentation with DJ scratching. People may hold up the production of Paul’s Boutique as the be-all-end-all of Beastie Boys production, but this album was just more varied and inspired. Can’t beat that!
Lyrically, the boys show that even after confronting their younger selves and past transgressions, they hadn’t lost their sense of humor or quirkiness. They still have deep references to New York City culture, random baseball factoids, Star Trek, French impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and disrespectful lines aimed at all lesser rappers. In other words, a Beastie Boys album, just them at their most quirky. There’s also a washed-out electric circus of a track that calls out leering, chauvinistic men called “Song for the Man”.
Even after a decade-plus of releasing extraordinary music, I still contend that this shows them at their most artistically confident. They transition from style to style without batting an eye expecting fans to follow along or get left behind. It’s not for everyone, but it’s clear from the structure alone that they weren’t adherent to anyone’s rules, popularity and mainstream appeal be damned. The Beastie Boys became their own commanding force of nature here, like watching a folklore hero ascend to demigod status.
If you like your rap just a little bit weird, Hello Nasty is for you. You won’t find any far-reaching Tibetan influence here, but you’ll get some off-kilter samples, Latin and Calypso flavor, spoken word from dub legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, liberal vocal pitch shifting, and more fun. It’s a poised and progressive rule-breaker that stands the test of time, fit for a good time as much as it is for easy listening on your day off. I cannot recommend this album any higher.
‘With the sound delight, we rock all night
And yes, we’re gonna party for the right to fight’ – “Right Right Now Now”
I deliberately pick these little intro lyric quotes that personify the album they’re for. It’s harder than it looks sometimes, but this one was a no-brainer, as it not only embodies the protesting spirit of the album, but it’s also a meaningful flip of the hedonistic hook of their smash hit “Fight For Your Right”. Nearly 20 years after Licensed to Ill, To the 5 Boroughs sees the boys contend with politics in a post-9/11 world. The 90s eschewed any indication that Beastie Boys were an apolitical band, even if their music itself rarely addressed the sociopolitical climate, but there was no mistaking it anymore. The boys are New York City to the core, and seeing their city shattered in the way it was in 2001, as well as the ensuing international aftermath was all the motivation they needed to make their views known. Given their individual journeys just a decade ago, it’s probably not hard to come to terms with their anti-war, anti-imperialist, peace-prioritizing stances as they spit lyrical takedowns of then-US president George W. Bush, the now almost universally agreed-upon useless, fruitless, and destructive war on terror in the Middle East, OPEC, and more.
To this day, “An Open Letter to NYC” is the only 9/11-oriented song I’ve ever heard that isn’t exceedingly corny or jingoistic to its detriment. The track was a declaration of love and unity with the city they cherished and all the people that make it the delightful convergence of culture that it is. Using a sample of Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer”, Beastie Boys rap bar after bar of affection for the place that birthed them as artists, referencing the MTA, Ellis Island, and just about every corner of the city’s 300+ square miles and five boroughs. The hook says it all:
‘Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten
From the Battery to the top of Manhattan
Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Latin
Black, white – New York, you make it happen’
Even if all that isn’t your bag, we have classic braggadocio and silly tracks like “Triple Trouble”, which uses a “Rapper’s Delight” sample for the trio to express their group dynamic the best while silencing sucker MCs. We also have the more blunt “Hey Fuck You”, which has some straight-up battle bars – Mike D says one of his meanest lines in their history here: ‘But I’m walkin’ on water while you’re stepping in shit/So put your sewer boots on before your ass gets lit’.
To The 5 Boroughs stands out as being the first Beastie Boys album where the trio were the sole credited producers, and in the whole picture it definitely shows. It’s appropriately sample-heavy, a little less obscure, and one of the most lovingly built hip-hop albums of the 2000s. Super underrated, this album is for people that don’t mind – or prefer – a political edge in their music. It’s also for the less seasoned easter egg hunter that likes to go ‘hey, I know where that’s from!’ when they hear a fire sample. This was a time when the group walked yet another different artistic path, and it paid off in full.
Without a doubt, the true black sheep of the Beastie Boys catalog. With a kindly middle finger to expectations, the trio decided to put out a fully instrumental album of original works (this stands out from 1996’s The In Sound from Way Out!, as that album was a compilation of vocal-less tracks from other albums). Fans of the instrumentals from Check Your Head and Ill Communication will love these tracks, as this is a natural progression from that funky, jazzy sound.
I got this far without even introducing Beastie Boys as a band, so this is a good time to recitfy that: Ad-Rock is the guitarist, MCA is bass, and Mike D is drums. Joining them on this album specifically is Money Mark again, who contributes more clavinet and Rhodes piano, along with a little synthesizer work, and Alfredo Ortiz, who provides additional percussion (he was also on Check Your Head). The result is a loungey, chill affair that’s a nice listen on a lazy day.
It’s here that you really see the boys’ penchant for simplicity in music, even though tracks can get pretty complex with the breadth of sound on display. “Suco De Tangerina” is gentle and spacey, leaving lots of room for keys and burly bass (I do believe MCA utilizes an upright bass here). “The Rat Cage” is a busier, post-punkish interpretation of that sound with a higher tempo. No matter what song you’re listening to, you’re not inundated with heavy-handed sampling, there’s no DJ cuts, and, of course, there’s no vocals. It’s as pure a sonic experience that you can have with Beastie Boys, and it’s a beautiful thing when you’re in the mood for it. As such, The Mix-Up is for purists, and maybe those of you that like jazz arrangements with a lot of extras, and don’t particularly care for all the rapping and singing.
‘See, this rap thing is all about the braggadocio
I check my rear view, MCs ain’t gettin’ closer‘ – “Long Burn the Fire”
If you’re wondering where Part One is, well…it doesn’t exist. Odd story, but basically they just finished Part Two first and planned it for a 2011 release. Part One was still being worked on as far as a final tracklist, and then MCA was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his parotid gland, effectively halting all planned live shows and work on music. Only Hot Sauce Committee Part Two was released, with most of the planned tracklist for Part One, and as bittersweet as it was, it was actually quite a fitting end to the boys’ work.
I’d like to make a novel, but ultimately meaningless observation. If you listen to the Beastie Boys catalog in order, you’ll notice something interesting: the older they get, the less restrained they get both in terms of tone and language. While they may not be as outright vulgar or offensive as they were in their early years, they’re definitely not above dropping a few F-bombs per album or being particularly venomous toward wack rappers. They also show their budding curmudgeon side with songs like “OK”. It’s this kind of flippant attitude that inspired Ad-Rock to rap ‘I got grace, class, style, finesse, and debonair / Murdalize motherfuckers ‘cause I just don’t care’ on “Nonstop Disco Powerpack”. It even got MCA to step up in a big way on “Long Burn the Fire”:
‘Burn like fire when I step on the scene
I’ve got shark’s teeth so I can bite your head
I’ve got tiger’s claws that’ll scratch you dead
I’ve got wings like a dragon when I’m flying above
Shoot venom from my eyes when it’s time to get rough
So step back and check yourself
This MC’s got weapons that’ll ruin your health’
These aren’t exactly bars that would send hardened battle rappers reeling back, but it’s a moment that shows them on an almost stately yet crass position and enjoying it. They just. Didn’t. Give. A. Fuck. They were the Beastie Boys, and nothing was going to slow them down.
Once again, the production is a myriad of elements, but largely band-based and credited fully to the trio, with contributions from Money Mark, Mix Master Mike, and DJ Hurricane. You know, the usual suspects. What is surprising is two vocal features on here: one from singer Santigold on “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, which is a lofty jazz-inspired number with some reggae-ish bounce to it, and the other from Nas, who joins the trio on “Too Many Rappers”. Calling back to “Get It Together” with Q-Tip, it’s a relatively simple, warped joint that sees each rapper playing off each other and showing up their competition. For me, standouts include “Long Burn the Fire”, “Funky Donkey”, and “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament”.
Each song on here has some instrumental contribution from the boys or someone else, which makes it a pretty organic album despite all the spacey and borderline psychedelic tones that some of the songs have. Even eight years later, it’s hard to pinpoint the sound of this album. It’s very, very unique in the greater picture of the Beastie Boys catalog, and this decade’s rap in general. I do have a pretty sizeable negative with this album, and that’s its very prominent use of vocal effects that only really serve to drown out the voices. Wasn’t really a fan back then, hasn’t really grown on me since, but it doesn’t ruin the album. But hey, we still get one last cleaner produced punk track with “Lee Majors Come Again”.
The last words heard on this album, and therefore the last words ever rapped by the Beastie Boys on a record together, are ‘New York City’, which is poignant. When it comes down to it, the boys always recognize that it’s bigger than them. It’s the city that brought them together, that fostered them as artists and people, despite being lovingly hosted all around the world. Who is this record for? For those that like bittersweet endings, don’t mind vocal effects, and prefer the live band sound of the trio.
I love the Beastie Boys. It’s hard to quantify how much, but I do know why: they stayed profoundly independent and in control as artists for three decades, were a shining example of how to grow up and contend with your past self, and their camaraderie always came through in their music. If only we were all as lucky to have true ride-or-die friends as they did. They never weren’t having fun, and that fun was always passed onto us as fans.
Perhaps more importantly for this feature, they were exceptional musicians and producers that seemed to be permanently a step ahead of everyone else, to the point where I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say they were in a league of their own. As Mike D and Ad-Rock continue to open up the secrets of their lives by writing books and doing two-man stage performances about the band’s history, more comes to light that further enamors people like me that really fell in love with their brand of artistry and found a lot of refuge in their innovation. I won’t fool myself into thinking these men were perfect, but they were just what I needed growing up, and even as I near 30 years old, they serve as a reminder on how to handle adulthood in a graceful, compassionate manner while sticking to your guns and being yourself no matter the cost. The music ain’t half bad either.
Beastie Boys were a lot of things – progressive, enigmatic, explosive – but to me, they’re one thing above all: legendary.