With the sad passing of Adam Yauch (aka MCA), Beastiemania has struck and last week Billboard magazine in the US reported a 1,235 per cent increase in Beastie Boys album sales. They deserve their props – however belated – but if everyone’s going to rush out and buy their back catalogue we need to agree where to start. So this is how we rank the Beastie Boys’ eight studio albums – but what about you?
Only ever one, er, winner here. I mean, bless them for their funk-outfit chops, but we get on the Beastie bandwagon for barrel laughs, inventive flow and extra-smart cut-ups from Mixmaster Mike – not extended jams from Jamiroquai encores. You see, The Mix-Up is entirely instrumental (except for the odd ‘spontaneous’ cheer) and while stuff like ‘Electric Worm’ rides a phat (yes, phat) groove and there’s some terrific Stevie Wonderesque organ playing on ‘Off The Grid’, your average sharp-suited funk-up was done way better on ‘Check Your Head’.
Pushed back after MCA was diagnosed with cancer, ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ turned up last year with one stark message: the Beastie Boys were still bossing our asses. You know, in a manner of speaking. There’s a warped electro sound to ‘Say It’, ‘Nonstop Disco Powerpack’ and the finger-clickin’ ‘Funky Donkey’, but the Boys’ rhymes are as spry as ever. They do get all modern though when Santigold turns up on ‘Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win’. That’s no good. We want the Beasties old skool.
“KICK IT”. On the surface a numbskulled Run-D.M.C.-pastiche-ing tribute to teen idiocy, delve a bit deeper and you’ll find ‘Licensed To Ill’ is a numbskulled Run-D.M.C.-pastiche-ing tribute to teen idiocy with funny lyrics. It’s a crucial distinction, because it was the bludgeoning wit of ‘Paul Revere’ and ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ that broke the Boys on both sides of the Atlantic. Yeah, the coy nods to heavy metal helped, but the fact these three were clearly berks really spoke to all the, uh, berks. ‘Licensed To Ill’ is a bit one-dimensional now. Then again, so were you.
The Beastie Boys’ only UK No.1 album feels a touch too polished to challenge the upper order. ‘Intergalactic’’s a cracking first single, built around some Mussorgsky chords and dunderheaded rhymes, but ‘Body Movin’’s throwaway and ‘I Don’t Know’ – a Yauch ballad! – is a way-too-early hint at maturity. Luckily, they get to yell about “Sucker MCs” on ‘The Negotiation Limerick File’ and div around wildstyle on ‘Three MC’s And One DJ’, restoring everyone’s faith in the simple power of, well, three MCs and one DJ.
Unsung hero of the Beastie oeuvre, ‘To The 5 Boroughs’ is an open letter to New York City. Coincidentally it even includes a track called ‘An Open Letter To NYC’ – what are the chances? It’s a rougher animal than ‘Hello Nasty’ and shows signs of more acceptable maturity as the “Boys” head into their 40s. There’s even political commentary, for pity’s sake, on ‘It Takes Time To Build’ as they squeal, “We’ve got a president we didn’t ELECT”. The beats feel fresh, the rhymes are tight, but there’s no need for the ‘Good Times’ sample on ‘Triple Trouble’ – they should’ve been way past that.
This was where the Beasties spread their wings and decided that – no – they weren’t just a bunch of squawky-voiced rhymers, they were actually the Family Stone. Picking up guitar, bass and drums (well, picking up sticks for drums, anyway) Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D prove shockingly dextrous at the whole funk band thang and turn out wacka-chacka-ing masterstrokes like ‘Groove Holmes’ and ‘Funky Boss’. They’re ably assisted by Money Mark Ramos-Nishita on whatever Fender Rhodes/clavinet hybrid he’d managed to splice together, and still find time for freestylin’ on ‘So What’Cha Want’, ‘Pass The Mic’ and all that.
Back in hitmaking shape for the first time since ‘Licensed To Ill’ Horovitz, Yauch and Diamond carve out some of their fiercest cuts here, shouting themselves hoarse on ‘Sabotage’, making ‘Paul’s Boutique’-a-like sample smorgasbords on ‘Root Down’ and even getting a bit lithe on the dancefloor with Q-Tip on ‘Get It Together’. It slips a bit when Yauch gets a little too Buddhist on ‘Shambala’ and ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ but the larks of ‘Heart Attack Man’ and belting opener ‘Sure Shot’ keep this right near the top of the Beastie pile.
After the VW badge-snapping galactic success of ‘Licensed To Ill’, ‘Paul’s Boutique’ was a commercial lead balloon, shedding fans by the arena-load and turning off critics who hadn’t even cared all that much in the first place. Everyone is a buffoon. As we all know now – and as the more discerning listener cried in vain at the time – this is a sampladelic meisterwerk and a bug-eyed lesson in the dynamics of rhyming while merry mayhem gets sliced, diced and rewound all around you. The Dust Brothers make the bewildering collages, the Boys make ‘Hey Ladies’, ‘Shake Your Rump’ and ‘The Sounds Of Science’ so damned irresistible.
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Read our full tribute to Adam Yauch in the new issue of NME
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