Geography is hip-hop’s proudest fetish. Forget riches, bitches and snitches, it’s districts that get all the love in real hip-hop. While a million artists have repped their set in the 31 years since Kool Herc began cutting together breakbeats in the Bronx, few – make that none – have been monomaniacal enough to do it over a whole album. Enter the[a]Beastie Boys[/a], whose enduring love for New York resides at a pitch that some less tolerant societies would punish with knee in the bollocks.
Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch and Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond (both representing Brooklyn) and Adam ‘King Ad-Rock’ Horowitz (representing New Jersey, though an early power-move to Manhattan secured his Five Boroughs membership) have been active as a band for well over 20 years now, plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles and to perfect the formula. But there’s really no reason for them to sound as stupid, as cold and – forgive us – as fresh as this. In ancient hip-hop parlance, they sound truly ‘retarded’, so focused on their art it’s almost autistic, like the painfully detailed pencil drawing of the Manhattan skyline that adorns the cover.
Anyway, the music. Fuck me, the music! You’ll have heard ‘Ch-Check It Out’, but did you notice the references to hip-hop legend Einstein, Star Trek and Riunite wine, America’s own Blue Nun? Did you catch the tips for making a top-drawer Caprese salad (it’s in the freshness – naturally – of the basil)?
On ‘The Hard Way’ they squeeze in shouts to early-’70s board game Gnip Gnop (“I got shit to pop”), traditional Jewish breads and Edward R Murrow, the most distinguished figure in the history of American broadcast journalism. All over a three-note bassline, moronically funky Roland electronic drums and synth moans straight from John Carpenter’s horror movie scores. ET’s instructed to “phone home and get the fuck out of my face”, which seems entirely reasonable – that fucker was getting way too close to Drew Barrymore.
‘Hey Fuck You’ (great title) throbs like Schoolly D’s hernia scars, more brilliantly basic Roland beats and nods to Carl Sagan and kugel, the King of Jewish puddings. Like [a]Missy Elliott[/a], the Beasties are reimagining hip-hop – what it was, what it is, what it can be. But unlike Elliott, there’s no sense this is an attempt to shift demographics. When, on ‘Oh Word?’, Yauch calls out Manhattan deli Murray’s Cheese Shop and Mike D recalls early-’80s proto-gay sitcom character Mr Furley, while insisting it wasn’t him in Bear magazine (clue: it was), you know you’re riding the night train inside their brain, not day-tripping on the market-friendly freeway.
Then there’s the politics. Over ‘Right Right Now Now”s chopped-up harpsichords, Yauch hollers “I’m getting tired of the situation/The US attacking other nations”, while King Ad-Rock complains of “Columbine bowling, childhood stolen/We need more gun controlling”. On ‘That’s It That’s All’ they demand that “George W’s got nothing on me/We’ve got to take back the power from he”. In present-day America this is tantamount to suggesting Superman was a brie-eating nonce.
Above all, though, there’s the Beasties’ incredible love for New York, as seen on no-wave, punk-funk, guitar-driven centrepiece ‘An Open Letter To NYC’, a eulogy to the place where “black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin” can make it happen.
The place where there’s “two towers down but you’re still in the game”. And we even didn’t mention Keebler Elf, Lefrak or EPMD, or ‘The Brouhaha’ or “drunken mantis”, “spazzes”, “freaks”, “BVDs”, or the way the album is brutally, beautifully stripped down to the essentials of beats and rhymes and, most importantly, a sense of place, of belonging, of peace.
Culturally and stylistically the real Five Boroughs are
a million miles from our lives. [a]Beastie Boys[/a]’ true genius
is that they make them sound just like home.