Before I say anything more, you might want to check out our Beastie Boys EINthology before heading into this article, at least if you want an introduction to this legendary group that goes beyond what I could possibly touch on here.
With that out of the way, I would like to yield the stage to my colleagues David, Billie, and Charles to talk about today’s topic, Ill Communication, which turns 27 at the end of this month – reason enough to dedicate this episode to it, right? Well, to be honest, there’s a different reason for me placing this album in this specific spot on my schedule. You see, four days ago was the ninth anniversary of founding member and vocalist/bassist Adam Yauch (aka MCA)’s untimely death, so I felt like this would be a good opportunity to pay tribute to a beloved figure whose work has touched some of us here at EIN in significant ways.
RIP Adam “MCA” Yauch (August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012)
When I was in high school, we were socially divided into groups that were largely defined by the genres of music we listened to. There were the grunge kids, the hip hop heads, the skater/punk kids, and the mainstream pop/r’n’b crowd. There wasn’t much animosity in it, but it was very divided – who you hung out with, your fashion, what you did during lunch break, were all largely divided along these lines. Wack!
The Beastie Boys, along with Run DMC, had played a major part in exposing hip hop to a greater audience beginning with their punk-hip hop debut Licensed to Ill in 1986. But with the rise of gangster rap, G-Funk, and even the Afrocentricity of the more accessible Native Tongues movement, hip-hop, at least in my experience, remained marginal. In my high school, hip hop was really only acceptable to us hip hop heads, who had to look and dress and speak a certain way. It was usually frowned upon by the grunge and skater kids and was too extreme for the r’n’b crowd. That all changed in 1994 with Ill Communication. Suddenly we were partying (often to a Beastie Boys soundtrack) with the grunge kids, and the skater kids were coming to our Sunday basketball afternoons, blaring the Beasties or even A Tribe Called Quest from the boot of their cars.
The Beastie Boys had changed their sound from album to album with their first three releases. Licensed to Ill was a hard, crude, juvenile party record. Paul’s Boutique will forever be etched into hip hop folklore as one of the greatest sampling records of all time. And Check Your Head was an experimental blend of live instrumentation, funk, jazz, and pop-culture referencing rap. Ill Communication combined all of these influences into a dizzying collection of funk-rock-punk-jazz-rap. And yet, through all of this, the Beasties managed to sound like the Beasties and nobody else.
But when Ill Communication came out, the ‘boys’ were closer to 30 than 20, and while they still obviously knew how to enjoy themselves, this was their most mature album to date. Gone is the misogyny and party-at-all-cost naivety of their early work, for which they apologise on opener “Sure Shot”. MCA had recently discovered Buddhism and dedicates himself entirely to his new moral philosophy on “Boddhisatva Vow” and tackles environmental issues on “Update” – remember, this was hip hop in 1994, nobody else was doing this. But they never sounded preachy. The Beastie Boys made party music, and they never took themselves too seriously.
There are too many highlights to name. “Sabotage” was a phenomenon. It was a return to their punk roots and was so infectiously fun, but it was a sonic outlier on the record. Opener “Sure Shot”, the funky “Root Down” with its looped sample from Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down”, and standout “Get it Together” were some of the best cuts the Beastie Boys ever made, all featuring their signature funky instrumentals and relentless back-and-forth MCing. “Get it Together” in particular, with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, is a classic. The story goes that Tip was hanging out with the Beastie Boys at their Tin Pan Alley studio in New York, playing basketball as he often did, along with Biz Markie and others. When he heard the instrumental for “Get it Together”, which the Beasties had recorded earlier, he asked for a mic and spit a verse off the cuff. The Beastie Boys later chopped it up and rhymed their verses around Tip‘s. And that’s exactly how it sounds – it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and itss so much spontaneous fun!
But much of the album’s success lies in its deep cuts. Tracks like “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak”, “Alright Hear This”, and “Flute Loop” feature their trademark muted vocals, funky basslines (courtesy of MCA) and chopped and looped samples. The previously mentioned “Update” and “Boddhisatva Vow” showcase their new-found dedication to positivity. They improved on the live-band instrumentals that they had introduced on Check Your Head with the percussion-heavy “Bobo On the Corner”, featuring their long-time collaborator Eric ‘Bobo’ Correa; the laid-back groovy sounds of “Sabrosa” and “Ricky’s Theme”; and the experimentation of the stunning “Eugene’s Lament”.
Ill Communication covers a lot of ground musically, and yet it’s a remarkably coherent record. The Beastie Boys were able to make a statement while still being light-hearted and true to themselves. MCA was the mature, newly socially-conscious one, Mike-D was the hip hop nerd who wore his quirkiness on his sleeve, and Ad-Rock was the relentless party animal. It couldn’t have been easy being the quirky white-Jewish kids experimenting with hip hop at a time when that wasn’t done, but the Beastie Boys realized that hip hop wasn’t about imitating what others were doing; it was about using the artform to express yourself honestly. Keeping it real. While they were breaking down barriers in the hip hop industry, they were also breaking down barriers everywhere else, whether they meant to or not. It taught us that not all hip hop heads had to look or dress a certain way. It no longer mattered so much to us what kind of music you listened to, and it was ok to be different.
What can be said about the iconic Beastie Boys that hasn’t been said multiple times at this point (especially by David)? I think most people born in my generation and even a few years before have some kind of personal connection to this group, and that’s enough for me to say my piece regardless. I grew up in a fairly normal midwest household of white people, meaning I had very little exposure to hip hop early in my life. One exception to this was when listening to my local rock station, which regularly played the Beastie Boys.
Both of my older sisters were very much so into hip hop but neither of them lived at home by the time I was old enough to start exploring music on my own and forming my own tastes. I remember hearing “Sabotage” on the radio and thinking it sounded so cool, and more importantly, different. This was in 2001 or 2002, almost a decade after the release of Ill Communication. The staying power of that particular song was, and still is, staggering. I think my local rock/alternative station still regularly plays “Sabotage” to this day.
Ill Communication was one of, if not the first, album I ever owned. For Christmas I asked for ‘the Beastie Boys CD with “Sabotage”’ and I received it. I spent many afternoons listening to this album in regular rotation in my player. There was such a diversity to it that I never got bored of it, and there were a ton of things I had never really heard in music present. It was a great exposure to hip hop for someone who had really only been exposed to rock and country music. The constant use of drums and guitar was a great backbone to my first dose of lyrical bliss through bars. I liked the way they sang, and quickly realized that there was a lot more music with more of that. In a lot of ways, Ill Communication held my hand and led me to the wider world of hip hop.
I know I am certainly not the only person the Beastie Boys helped discover the joys of hip hop. They are absolutely revolutionary, and easily one of the most important groups to emerge at the end of the century. They paved the way for a lot of other iconic bands, and really carved out a niche by making music in a whole new and unexplored way. The mix of hard rock, rap, and punk meshes so well and really shows how similar different genres can be instead of dividing them by their differences. Ill Communication was another stellar release in the legacy of one of the greatest groups ever formed.
Soooooo, if y’all are turbo fans of Everything Is Noise or at least Beastie Boys, you’ve probably seen me wax max poetic about the group and this album with what was our first official EINthology feature (more of those on the way, I promise). The more I thought about it, I wasn’t sure why I signed up for this ASIR because I said plenty in that article, but going back to re-read it, there’s a couple things I’d like to expound on, and even a little thing I technically got wrong in my assessment of Ill Communication.
Before, I pegged Ill Communication as a ‘kitchen sink’ album; one that had all known aspects of the Beastie Boys flavor up to that point. You got the hippity-hop, the jazzy-jazz, and a dash of the punkity-punk (‘Step inside the motherfucker and I get my flow on/Amalgamating styles so I’ve got something to grow on‘). The trifecta of the Beastie Boys turning into Beastie Men that would continue on to pretty much the rest of their career with a little hiatus with To the 5 Boroughs with its rap focus.
Anyway, damn, there’s a lot to like here. My favorite album of theirs will forever be Hello Nasty, but I’m telling you each time I throw Ill Communication on, I interrogate myself as to why I don’t hold this in higher regard. ‘I do hold it in high regard,’ I tell myself. ‘I like all Beastie Boys albums, perhaps not equally high, but high equally. You know? You know – you’re me.’
I wish I would have talked about “Get It Together” more in my EINthology. It’s one of my favorite songs of theirs; a super fun and also a very generous one since esteemed guest Q-Tip gets ample time with the mic to talk his shit.
‘I go “One Two” like my name was Biz Mark
But I had to do the shit, just let me embark
On the lyric and the noun and the verb
Let me kick the shit off ‘cause, yo, I’m not the herb’
That ain’t Tip’s best mini verse on the song, but I chose it for a reason. He references Biz Markie, a rapper that by most any account is underrated as hell, and later on he actually features on “Do It”. This is part of my admission here – before, I insinuated that Tip, along with Nas and Santigold on Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, were the only rappers/vocalists to join the Boys on a track in a featured capacity. I kind of, somehow, forgot that Biz shared a track with them seven tracks later in Ill Communication where he provided a chorus (he also has a short, candid cameo at the end of Hello Nasty’s “Intergalactic” before “Sneakin’ Out the Hospital” begins – ‘tellin’ you, with the echo?’). Oops.
Back to “Get It Together”, it really just sounds like the four rappers are having a ball, as peers and as friends. They’re all trading off around four bars each, playing off each other, bridging lyrics with connecting reference, or rhyming off each other. It’s great. The beat, produced in part by Mario C as was the norm at the time, is darkly sparse and really lets the vocals breathe between samples and looped drums. The raps – probably some of the most profane on a record for Beastie Boys – reference anything from famous porn star John Holmes to New York Knicks shooting guard John Starks to Timberland boots.
Among other things, this is exactly what I go to the Beastie Boys for: fun. As such, “Get It Together” is one of my favorite tracks of theirs ever. But the fun doesn’t end there of course. You also get “Tough Guy”, which is a punk rocker about contending with an overly aggressive and rotund dude on the basketball court. A pastime for many New Yorkers, I’m sure the trio have encountered many a man looking to show off or be straight up violent toward other players in pick-up games at local courts – it’s all vented here in lightning-fast punk heat, calling back to their early days before they rapped.
To complete the trifecta, I’ll mention “Sabrosa”, which is a much funkier jam than the Beastie Boys usually put out. Assisted by Eric Bobo on the drums and ‘Money’ Mark Nishita (the ‘fourth Beastie Boy’, because he was pretty involved with the group when it came to live shows and some writing), it wastes no time putting some pep in your step. The guitars have twang and the (upright?) bass reverberates through the speakers so warmly and organically. Keys contribute little accent waves or strikes of sound to color in space between. I’ll admit, I don’t tend to let the instrumental tracks play through all the time when I’m on a Beastie binge, but this is one that always gets full play treatment.
Ill Communication really became a stylistic apex for Beastie Boys, representing their past and foreshadowing their future, fully encompassing what they were all about more or less. This now makes around 6,000 words I’ve written on the group, and you know I wouldn’t spend that amount of time on just any band. They encompassed so much of what music fun and special at a young age for me, and if haven’t been touched by them in similar ways, it’s never too late to try – Ill Communication is a wonderful introduction to one of the most important, well-loved groups in music. After that, then you go to Hello Nasty, and Check Your Head, then Paul’s Boutique, some To the 5 Boroughs, Licensed to Ill, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, The Mix-Up…
See, me? I do like all Beastie Boys albums.