To a boy growing up in the south of England, somewhere just off what would soon enough become part of an ever-elongating commuter belt, New York was more dream than reality for many years.
It came to me in different ways at different times: as the backdrop to the adventures of the Ghostbusters, both on VHS and ZX Spectrum. Later, as a cardboard skyline, a busy array of alien towers, popped out of an issue of Quest. (Remember Quest? With the binders? Great stuff.) Eventually I would set foot in the city, at the age of 27. But for a period between pre-teen science swotting and university alcoholism, New York was defined in my mind by one band’s music: that of the Beastie Boys, aka Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA.
What qualifies as the Beasties’ best album of the man-down then-trio’s eight official studio efforts depends on what juncture of their career the listener in question most effortlessly connected with. There’s a strong argument for ‘Paul’s Boutique’, a set celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer. The Beasties’ 1989 collection, a sprawling-with-samples affair of neon-licks and irresistible lyrical tics, is spectacularly important to hip-hop as a movement, as a document illustrating that standard tropes could be twisted into dazzling delights anew. It still plays most excellently today.
1998’s Grammy-winning ‘Hello Nasty’ is a slick selection of slip-sliding production underpinning some of the rappers’ finest interplay, evidenced on the band’s biggest UK single, the evergreen ‘Intergalactic’. But it’s ‘Ill Communication’, May 1994’s rap-rocking, ‘Sabotage’-fronted, triple-platinum triumph, that really had me tumble into love with these three rhyme-punks from the Big Apple. It’s an album that serves as a tourist guide to its makers’ hometown: references to the city’s superstructure, to its side attractions, to its transit infrastructure, pepper proceedings. Listen closely and draw your own map – it’ll serve you well enough for a daydreaming cruise around Manhattan.
The importance of ‘Ill Communication’ in the Beasties’ catalogue is absolute. It returned the rappers to commercial successes after a couple of LPs – ‘Paul’s Boutique’ included – which failed to match the runaway mainstream appeal of 1986’s grotty and snotty ‘Licensed To Ill’. Said debut was the sole Beasties set issued by Def Jam, a label they’d soon fall out with, a fact alluded to on the ‘Ill Communication’ track ‘B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak’, with the lyric, “Got fat basslines like (Def Jam co-founder) Russell Simmons steals money.” Told. Peaking at one on the Billboard chart, ‘Ill Communication’ marked the moment the Beasties graduated from prankster princes to kings amongst their peers.
A multifaceted album that pulls the listener from the jazz flutes of opener ‘Sure Shot’ – a largely freestyled number that owes its chorus to a late-night telephone conversation with key collaborator DJ Hurricane (which is why it sounds how it does) – to the Dali Lama-indebted, MCA-on-fire ‘Bodhisattva Vow’, ‘Ill Communication’ doesn’t sit still for a second. There’s hardcore with ‘Heart Attack Man’ and ‘Tough Guy’, spit-and-venom brawlers that showcase the core trio’s competency with live instrumentation – they’d actually tour as a hardcore band, under the name Quasar, between ‘Ill Communication’ and ‘Hello Nasty’, supporting the albums-bridging EP ‘Aglio E Olio’.
Then there’s the true hip-hop of the sampler-born ‘Get It Together’, on which the Beasties had to fit their own rhymes around the dizzying skills of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, who’d become a regular visitor to the Beasties’ camp when in town but until that point hadn’t committed his talents to one of their songs. ‘Root Down’ would detach itself from its parent LP to form an EP of its own, released in 1995 – but as much as it’s a favourite amongst Beasties fans, the track’s foundations aren’t theirs at all, riding as it does a quite prominent loop from jazz artist Jimmy Smith’s own song ‘Root Down (And Get It)’, as sampled from 1972’s ‘Root Down’ live LP.
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Beastie Boys, 'Root Down'
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Beastie Boys, 'Sabotage'
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The strongest memory from the ‘Ill Communication’ era has to be ‘Sabotage’, though, what with the song’s furious melding of the Beasties’ rap and rock capabilities and the visually unforgettable Spike Jonze-directed video that accompanied its single release four months prior to the album’s release. The cop-show parody clip, playing out as the intro credits to a fictional series called Sabotage, is so ingrained into the grey matter of anyone who let music hit them hardest in the 1990s that no promo the Beasties worked on afterwards could shift it from its perch at the top of the band’s videography. And they certainly tried: ‘Intergalactic’, ‘Body Movin’’, the all-star flashback scenes (DeLorean and all) of ‘Make Some Noise’, they’re all terrific.
And yet ‘Sabotage’ so nearly didn’t happen: a “hippie jam” in the words of Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), writing in the notes to 1999’s ‘The Sounds Of Science’ compilation, the song’s foundations were laid early on in the recording process. But it wasn’t until late on in the ‘Ill Communication’ sessions that it found what had been missing from the fuzzy bass and the slamming percussion: those urgent vocals. Horovitz laid them down on engineer Mario Caldato, Jr’s home 8-Track, and finally a title emerged. It’s not the only Beasties classic that could have never been – ‘Intergalactic’ dates back to 1993, and missed the ‘Ill Communication’ cut only to come back onto the agenda ahead of ‘Hello Nasty’ when a friend of the band asked after “that intergalactic thing you made”. Nice one, Penelope.
With its drop-a-pin navigation of New York – seeing the Knicks at Madison Square Garden; riding the I.R.T. right up to Penn Station; just chilling off Farmer’s Boulevard – ‘Ill Communication’ painted a picture of a city I’d never seen in my mind’s eye more brilliantly then ever before, warts and all. Landing there several years later, seeing the steam venting and bumping over broken tarmac in the back of a yellow cab, it was words from this set that swam around my head as I gazed out onto a landscape of rising greys and gleaming glass. I DJed briefly at the Mercury Longue on that trip. Of course I played a Beastie Boys track.
Their best album? For me, probably. It’s an age thing. A little older, it’d be ‘Paul’s Boutique’. A pinch younger, ‘Hello Nasty’. But in 1994, music was Radiohead, Soundgarden’s ‘Superunknown’, a dirty dalliance with Britpop and the beginning of a proper love affair with these New Yorkers, who in turn got me into so much amazing hip-hop that I’d previously missed (as in, that my grunge-loving tendencies had steered me away from). Stick ‘Ill Communication’ on today, 20 years later, and it’s still the funky shit.
RIP Adam Yauch, MCA: August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012.
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Words: Mike Diver
Related: the author in conversation with the Beastie Boys, from 2009 (+ audio)
Related: more Spotlight features