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Beastie Boys 30 Year Tribute: Check Your Head Essays

Posted by January 4th, 2017 1 Comment »

Introduction by Darren Selector, Grit Rock

When I bragged to my friend that I bought Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head and The Cure’s Wish on the day they were both released, the kids that overheard us talking turned their heads.

“The Beastie Boys? Aren’t they some hip-hop Menudo has-beens?” I could hear them wondering.

Their skepticism was perhaps understandable, because, from the group’s platinum debut Licensed To Ill to their initially-ignored follow up, Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys went from one of the fastest, largest selling debuts to the biggest sophomore flop of all time. They were all but forgotten.

The Beastie Boys were more than knuckleheads, though,  and more than a flash-in-the-pan found in a thrift store dustbin. So when Paul’s Boutique went wood, they went woodshedding.

If the Beastie Boys’ next record, 1992’s Check Your Head, is any indication, sometimes being forgotten is a good thing. Sometimes you gotta burn the image Russell Simmons created for you, check yourself, and have a brand new morning.

When I purchased new albums from the Beastie Boys and The Cure the same spring day of 1992 it may have seemed like a hilarious combination, but hey, besides the same release date, they were two of my all-time favorite bands. And in a post Nirvana world, the Beasties were now considered an “alternative band.”

Sure they did hip-hop, but on Check Your Head it was a mashup of live instrumentation (gasp!), sampling, sampling of live instrumentation, and playing along with samples. They brought back their punk origins too, and they started dabbling in their brand of live instrumental funk.  The album was a microcosm of what the young alternative nation was:  everything that didn’t fit in, but still felt like some cool, different shit. (Additionally, in content and variety, it was very similar to those old bootleg mixtapes of NYC DJ’s. They played whatever record they liked as long as it moved the crowd.)

When they did radio and television promotion for Check Your Head as they toured (something they hadn’t done in years), they encouraged listeners to come early to their shows with their vintage music gear and classic sneakers and work out a backstage deal with the band.  The Beasties kept their side of the bargain and the heads were hearing what the Beasties were feeling.

“Jimmy James” by Justin Devine

After saving enough money to buy a pair of turntables and a mixer when I was 17, I immediately went to Record Castle (my local vinyl haunt in NE Philly) and purchased two copies of ‘Are You Experienced?’.  I then proceeded to spend the next four hours attempting in earnest to recreate Adam Yauch’s frenetic scratch solo from ‘Jimmy James’, although my rendition didn’t even hold a candle to the original.  At that time, and even still 17 years later, I consider it to be one of the best scratch routines.  It also serves as a great example of how the Beastie Boys gleefully wore their samples on their sleeves.  (They even named the song after Hendrix, paying tribute to the original creators, while still taking found sounds and fusing them in to something wholly original. )

The first time I popped my recently purchased cassette of ‘Check Your Head’ into my Walkman, it was akin to the musical equivalent of dropping LSD for the first time.  The minute that guitar sample fades in over the bass and drums, I could tell these guys were on to something new.  It was the purest fusion of genres, and maybe still is.  It took post-modernism to a whole new level.  My generation was essentially listening to the music of our parents’ generation reinterpreted.  Yet, as innovative and ahead of the curve as it was, the Beastie Boys always made it look easy.  They took their craft seriously, but didn’t take themselves seriously at all.  They made it ok for dorks to be in to hip-hop without needing to adopt a gangsta affectation.  They could rap about the mundane without it sounding mundane.  In a year dominated by Seattle grunge and SoCal gangster rap, they reminded us that it was ok to have fun and enjoy life.  And if you tried to dis them, they couldn’t give a damn.

“Pass the Mic” by Dale Coleman

Whenever I hear the flute sample at the beginning of “Pass the Mic”, it triggers in me a very distinct memory.  I am 12-years old, sitting 6 inches away from our family television set, with my finger on the record button of a shitpiece Radio Shack VCR.  After suffering through endless hours of “Baby-Baby-Baby” and “Constant Craving” and “This Used to Be My Playground”, I hear that sample, and it’s go time.  I press record before the drums kick in.  Nailed it.

Goodness gracious!

I studied that video like it was the Zapruder film.  In the spring of 1992, it represented the entirety of my Beastie Boys collection.  Later that summer, my Uncle Jimmy would take me under his wing and introduce me to the manifold glories of ‘Licensed to Ill’ and ‘Paul’s Boutique’, via a series of manic car stereo demonstrations, but that spring, that video was it.  I spent hours watching and rewatching it, memorizing the lyrics and the hand gestures and facial expressions, while jumping in slow-motion on my parents couch.  “D. A. L. E.  to the C! You come and see me and you pay a fee!” In the waxing hours before grunge rock fully sunk her heroin-addled claws into my impressionable young mind, the Beastie Boys taught me how to be “exactly what I want to be. ”

“Pass the Mic” was the first single from ‘Check Your Head’, and it represented the kickoff of the Mario C.  era of Beastie Boys tunes that I still identify with most viscerally.  I know Rick Rubin is a genius, and the Dust Brothers were psychedelic shamans, and ‘Paul’s Boutique’ is objectively and incontestably the best Beastie Boys record. Nonetheless, those early production collaborations with Brazilian producer Mario Caldato, Jr.  created a sound that was, at the same time, soulful and punk rock, old school and fresh, and everything I knew about being cool.  When the track kicks in, Mike D’s Bonzo drum loop collides with Johnny Hammond bass licks, Bad Brains samples, flute loops and live instrumentation, creating a lumbering Frankenstein beat, full of driving urgency and cool confidence.  The lyrics are brash and boastful, but there is a hint of that burgeoning introspection that marked the transition from the days of “three idiots create a masterpiece” (actual Rolling Stone headline) to the “chillin’ with His Holiness the Dalai Lama” stage in Beastie evolution.

With its call-and-response and tradeoff dynamics “Pass the Mic” was an homage to the old-school.  The skill with which the B-Boys deliver wildstyle tradeoff raps is often criminally underrated by hip-hop pundits who choose to focus on their lack of technical lyrical prowess.  While I’m willing to concede that, “I’m on ’til the crack of dawn, mowing down emcees like I’m mowing a lawn” isn’t exactly Rakim-level wordplay, the magic is all in the delivery.  The transition between Ad-Rock’s screechy cartoon whine and MCA’s iconic Brooklyn rasp is one of my favorite things in all of music.  If you were ever lucky enough to see the Beastie Boys perform live (and I was, six times) you would know that the magic was as much in the group dynamic, as it was in the lyrics.  The complex interplay, the distinctive delivery, the obscure (to me) ‘70s basketball references, all front and center on this track, are why the Beastie Boys were great rappers.

“Pass the Mic” is one of those songs that marks a clear inflection point in my life.  It would be hard for me to overstate the influence that the Beastie Boys had on my young mind and burgeoning creative impulse.  I could write another 5,000 words on the depth of my gratitude, but that’s an essay for another song.

RIP MCA.  RIP Uncle Jimmy.

“Gratitude” by Blake Madden

Some kids lock themselves in their bedrooms practicing the solos of their heroes all night.  I was the other kid- too lazy or too unfocused or too much of both to want to do all that ‘practicing’ stuff.  And when you want to say things musically, even when you don’t feel you have all the talent , and you’re already burning out on the limits of punk rock, you find effects pedals.  I found effects pedals in my face for the first time on “Gratitude”- that horror fuzz chorus MCA has on his bass.  “What the fuck is that? You can do that???” There was freedom there, especially because people love to crap on the bass and how (wrongly) irrelevant they think it is.  HERE, ASSHOLES- not only is it front and center but it’s cutting through everything like an electric razor.  I ran out to a Guitar Center and bought a Zoom 506 pedal for my bass, and messed around with it until I got something like that tone on “Gratitude”.  And that Zoom was my baby for years, my security blanket that turned my small voice into something big and scary, or distant and echoey- just something else entirely.  Effects have gotten less important as I’ve become a better musician over the years, but I still remember that “what the fuck” feeling of hearing the intro to “Gratitude” for the first, and knowing definitively that there were other sonic worlds out there, that you could reach out and stretch and sound different.  And so I am grateful for the gift of “Gratitude.”

“Lighten Up” by Ben Hudgins

What a whirlwind early career for the Beastie Boys.  After their raw punk beginnings (Remember when they toured with Bad Brains? Remember “Cooky Puss”?), the brilliantly crass fratboy schtick of ‘Licensed To Ill’ (may I borrow your whiffle ball bat?), and the ecstatic sonic blur of ‘Paul’s Boutique’ (never has the art of sampling had a better showing), they finally came to rest at ‘Check Your Head’ and my love for this record is as long as this run-on sentence.

One could never say that the elements of their previous outings had disappeared off this minor miracle of a release, as everything good that had come before was melted down, distilled, and then folded back into this masterpiece of early 1990s hip-hop.  And I call it hip-hop because it was.  Sure, there’s live instrumentation that barrels through 70s funk, late 80s punk, and a myriad of other styles, but at its core, this is still a hip-hop record.

That said, there are a lot of glorious curveballs here and amongst my favorites is “Lighten Up”.

The piece begins with a swaying groove powered by congas and shaker.  These are soon joined by a steady, rolling bassline and Money Mark’s wonderful Hammond organ lines.  More and more interesting facets are slowly introduced, including some marvelous talking drum work.  Funky wah guitar couples with the Hammond and suddenly we could be on some 70s jazz fusion record; I still expect to hear Miles’s trumpet join in at any moment.  There’s also a prog rock feel to the entire affair, something reminiscent of the shorter pieces of King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’.  The vocals are all but a repeated manta, again adding to the psychedelic, hazy feel.  With all its subtle complexities, this ranks amongst my favorite tracks on this, my favorite Beastie Boys album.

“Something’s Got to Give” by Darren Sampson

Those who aren’t familiar with the Beastie Boys might be mildly surprised to find out that the band started out as a punk group and on occasion throughout their discography the Boys get their hardcore on. What might be a bigger secret to those outside the Beastie Boys’ listening circle is that they are also a jazz-funk-fusion group. The story goes that while crate digging looking for obscure grooves to sample into their next hip-hop breakbeat, the Boys had an aha! moment and decided to lay down their own Stax Trax. Yauch on bass, Adrock on guitar, Mike D on drums, and the posse in effect on keys, percussion, and dj. They played grooves like those that inspired them to make hip-hop in the first place.

Being a lifelong fan of the Beastie Boys, I wanted to share this side of their music with some of my music loving family elders. I made a mixtape filled with their live instrumentals. Thinking that they might be biased against listening to the Beastie Boys and never giving the cassette a chance, I labeled the mix “A. B. A.  Allstars” (a little known pseudonym of theirs). Months later on a visit at their home “Something’s Got to Give” played on the house soundsystem. “Oh, the Beastie Boys, I love them,” a young relative said.  Our host quickly corrected, “No, it’s the A. B. A.  Allstars. ”

If you had been paying attention to the Beastie Boys’ career up to that point every record was a brilliant new surprise, so fans were ready for anything, but with 1992’s ‘Check Your Head’ they revealed an entire new dimension of their sound, “Something’s Got to Give”.  A song based around an ominously paced bassline, keyboards provided by newcomer Money Mark, and a whole thrift store worth of studio effects.  Released a week before the LA Riots, the Beastie called for “peace between the races” and warned that “something’s got to give” in tin can voices dubbed in echoes like some distant god or maybe just another unheard prayer floating off into the void. But before it all falls away into choruses on “nah nah nahs,” the Boys reassure us that, “someday we shall all be one. ”

“Stand Together” by Vikki Nyborg Peltomaa

(The saga continues.)

Another Beastie song that came almost 6 years after ‘Licensed to Ill’, “Stand Together” is a song that is a song that truly inspires me. The words “I turn and look within to see what I should do” are very powerful. They are extremely successful in the entertainment world, but they are now looking into their souls to see what more they can than entertain. Music is important, but “love vibe”. In fact, they are sending “the vibrations of the music [b]ringing light to your mind”. And they end with a call for action.

“Stand together (people come together now)
It’s about time (we’ve get together now)”

The sounds are unique: a sample for Blue Nun wine, riff of saxophone, industrial sounds throughout, drums, horns. Lyrics are difficult to understand until end of first verse, and then the power erupts. The song gives me a love vibe for the Beastie Boys.

“Professor Booty” by Brenna Cavanaugh

The Beastie Boys hold a special place in many indie music lovers’ hearts.  Yes, they were inducted in the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, but their sound and music went so much further than that with songs that ranged from using elements of jazz and punk, skater thrash, and trip-hop.  They made full, complete albums that had something for everyone and more pop culture references than any Chuck Klosterman write up could hope to offer. From the start, ‘License to Ill’ somehow made “Fight for your Right” and “Paul Revere” fit on the same album, and made an annoying misogynistic song that was backed by nothing but a Casio keyboard hook somehow endearing. The band grew in scope and really came into what fans would know as the signature format for B-Boy albums with ‘Paul’s Boutique’.  This heavily narrated and sampled work of art just narrowly takes second place to my favorite of their albums.  “Shake your Rump”, “Eggman”, “Shadrach”, “Looking down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Hey Ladies” all are stand out tracks, while the short instrumentals, “To all the Girl” and “5 Piece Chicken Dinner” shine just as brightly, yet in a different manner.

But I digress; this write up isn’t about ‘Paul’s Boutique’.  It’s about a song from the album that followed it, ‘Check your Head’.  Without the sketches in ‘Paul’s Boutique’, ‘Check your Head’ could have never been, or, at least, it wouldn’t have been as polished.  This album still holds the spot in my heart for what I feel is the Beastie Boys best.  And my favorite track on this masterwork is “Professor Booty”.  This track offers everything I love about MCA, Adrock, and Mike D.  There is a ridiculous spoken intro that is then paired with an equally ridiculous sample to set up the song that is then followed by the “Pass the Mic” style of verses that we’ve now come to know and love from our boys.

Just a few highlights here:

Adrock – “Cause I’m the Master Blaster, drinkin’ up the Shasta.  My voice sounds sweet cause it hasta. ”

“Don’t touch me, cause I’m electric.  And if you touch me, you’ll get shocked!”

Mike D- “You got the booming system but it’s sloshing out doo-doo.  You think it’s chocolate milk, but it’s watered down Yoo Hoo. ”

“I’ve been through many times in which I thought I might lose it, the only thing that saved me has always been music. ”

Now, I won’t give up my favorite parts of the last verses here, because the entire piece is one of my all-time favorite pieces of hip-hop that has ever been put to wax.  MCA showed his mastery of the art here.  Off rhymes, stop and starts, and some absolute blistering speed for its time, and for clarity as well.  (Yes, I admit there have been much, much faster rappers, but can you tell what they are saying? Really?)  If you or anyone you know is a hip-hop fan, please listen or relisten to this piece and really take the time to re-evaluate just how well done this verse is.  I bet you won’t be disappointed.

The song ends after MCA’s verses, as it should.  It would be tough to do follow that up with anything.  “Professor Booty” builds and ends perfectly, and shows off the skills of three white dudes from the various boroughs of New York, who just wanted to be taken seriously in the hip-hop community without compromising who they were.  They did just that, and won the hearts of music lovers across several genres, all while creating their very own.

Beastie Boys 30 Year Tribute: Paul’s Boutique Essays

Beastie Boys 30 Year Tribute: Licensed to Ill Essays

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