The Beastie Boys burst onto the UK music scene with their 1986 hit single, (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party). The single was a commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic and their debut album Licensed To Ill was released later the same year to critical acclaim.
The album sat firmly in the hip hop camp but the Beastie Boys had started life in 1981 as a hardcore punk thrash band. The original line-up included Adam Yauch (MCA) and Michael Diamond (Mike D), along with John Berry and Kate Schellenbach (who later became a member of Luscious Jackson). They supported the likes of Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys and released a debut EP Pollywog Stew. But in 1983 John Berry had left to be replaced by Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and they released a second EP, Cooky Puss which saw the band change music direction from thrash punk to an experimental punk hip-hop.
Following License To Ill they released the critically acclaimed second album Paul’s Boutique (1988) though the album wasn’t as commerciallyl successful as their debut and with no hit singles from either this or their third album, Check Your Head (1992) any mention of the Beastie Boys and most people would remember three young arrogant American brats in a video for Fight For Your Right wearing baseball caps with VW signs hanging around their necks.
The Beastie Boys third album, Ill Communication was released in 1994. Before hearing the album I remember watching an amazing performance at Glastonbury in the pouring rain to a small but dedicated crowd. The TV performance started with the opening track from the album, Sure Shot. A great groove complete with a flute loop and MCA, Ad-Rock & Mike D taking turns rapping; a great opening track that has all the power of their earlier hip hop complimented by a maturity in both sound and delivery.
But what makes Ill Communication a classic album is its depth and scope of music. Without a breath-taking gap between tracks, as Sure Shot fades the opening thrash guitar of Tough Guy bursts from the speakers. Beastie Boys not only return to their punk thrash roots but they play it as well as they play hip hop! And less than one minute later we swiftly move onto the third track, B-Boys Makin With The Freak Freak (“Shit, if this is gonna be that kinda party, I’m gonna stick my dick in the mash potato!”) a dub infested jazz grooving hip hop tune with distorted rapping giving the track a garage feel.
Bobo On The Corner is a percussion-heavy funky instrumental. Four tracks into Ill Communication and the listener has been pulled every which way through an audible jungle of sounds including rap, hip hop, jazz, funk and punk hardcore thrash. And the reason it works is that every musical direction I am pulled, the Beastie Boys nail perfectly. I don’t know of any other album that does this so well.
Root Down offers more funky jazz complete with Hammond organ, and all this is followed by the awesome Sabotage which has the three Beasties playing guitar, bass and drums and merging hard throbbing rock with DJ scratching to deliver what is possibly their most perfect track to this day.
Get It Together is a welcome relief from the heavy vibe of Sabotage and takes us back to square one with another funky beat and the three rapping over a more traditional sounding hip hop track.
While other hip hop artists were busy sampling ‘genre standards’ like James Brown grooves and Led Zeppelin beats the Beastie Boys have always shown the scope of their influences. Here they use the likes of Jimmy Smith, Kurtis Blow, Lee Scratch Perry, Doug E Fresh and The World Famous Supreme Team.
And there’s more… the instrumental Sabrosa with its lazy funky Latin style, the return of hardcore thrash with Heart Attack Man and another groovy beat and flute loop in a similar vein to Sure Shot, with the wonderful yet short and sweet, Flute Loop.
The album jumps all over the place with so many genres and styles that it’s hard to understand why it works. But the reason it does is down to the sincerity and perfection of the Beastie Boys; and if not for any other reason, that alone in my opinion is enough to consider Ill Communication as a classic album. An album that sees the Beastie Boys, in many ways one of the most underrated groups of all time, at the peak of their powers.
Ill Communication has 20 songs that stand alone as great tracks and collectively become a pick-n-mix assortment worthy of any Woolworth’s sweet counter.
And if that’s not enough, Spike Jonz directed one of the best music promo videos ever for the single, Sabotage.