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Beastie Boys 30 Year Tribute: To The 5 Boroughs Essays

Posted by March 12th, 2017 1 Comment »

Intro by Darren Selector, Grit Rock

Keyboard Money Mark, longtime auxiliary member of the Beastie Boys, once compared the group’s discography to The Beatles’. He was fan of pretty much everything the two bands did, noting that both groups released ONLY high quality material and both group continually expanded their sound through variety and innovation.

I’d take Mark’s comparison a step further and suggest a similar creative arc: Sgt. Pepper’s followed by The Beatles (The White Album) is analogous to Hello Nasty followed by To the 5 Boroughs. Sgt. Pepper and Hello Nasty saw both bands pushing their production abilities  as far as they could go, the same with instrumentation, genres, session players and guests. They were kitchen sink records where everything goes.

Whether your travels are psychedelic or intergalactic, it’s always nice to come back home, get back to basics, and remember where you came from. After the sudden death of Brian Epstein, The Beatles longtime manager and mentor, that meant The White Album. The Beatles returned to two guitars, bass, drums, a bunch of singing, and some of their heaviest and delicate material.

To the 5 the Boroughs was also the Beastie Boys first album since 9/11. For the Beastie Boys who are “No Sleep Till (Hello) Brooklyn,” that meant returning To the 5 Boroughs with little more than three mics, a beat, and Mixmaster Mike slicing the cuts. The record celebrates the sounds of New York’s past with old school golden era hip-hop samples and champion caliber scratching.

Of course, the lyrics reflected where they were coming from too. Their rhymes were still ill, but it was balanced by keeping it real. They upped their game on their inside jokes and nerd references, but they were also more overtly political and topical than they’ve ever been.

With the comparatively minimal sound, and a new appreciation for clean vocal production, the distinctive flows of the the MC’ss are brought to the forefront: MCA’s subtly tricky gruff speed raps, Adrock riding the beat with a manual stick shift, and Mike D’s pre-1985 cadence breaking into impersonations.

I was a Beastie Boys completest, trying to get my hands on every release… Singles… Import versions of albums with bonus tracks… EP’s, remixes, videos … all that shit. So the six year gap between Hello Nasty and To the 5 the Boroughs gave me lots of time to anticipate what the group would do next. I’d imagine an 808 drum machine, Mixmaster Mike ruining the Boys’ record collections and a bunch of rhymes; a return to the sounds of my youth and that is damn near what they delivered. Like Biz Markie said years before, with To the 5 Boroughs, “the Beastie Boys they are they comin’ home” and to me, it sounded like a reunion.

“Ch-check it Out” by Valarie Davis

“Ch-check it Out” by the Beastie Boys was the first song that really made me appreciate their artistic merit. With hip-hop music, there tends to be this looming socio-economic context that weighs down lyrical content. I love hip-hop with these political contexts, but I love hip-hop that goes beyond the barriers and has a sense of humor about the world. The Beastie Boys, for the most part, mastered the ability to have excellent imagery without compromising their content. They never had to prove themselves to fit in a box that didn’t suit them as artists and individuals. “Ch-check it Out” is a great song that meshes Star Trek with this booming beat that keeps you on your toes. It’s an abrasive, quick-witted package that never loses the serious effort put into the song. Arguably, it was the last hip-hop song that caught my attention.

“Time to Build” by Sean Jewell

“It Takes Time to Build” is the fourth track off the Beastie Boys 2004 album To the 5 Boroughs. The album was the first post-9/11 work by the group, themselves three 40 year old towers, and trademarks of New York City. To the 5 Boroughs is curiously credited as the ‘Boys first completely solo produced album (with a ton of help from DJ Mixmaster Mike). After the disbanding of Grand Royal records, the fall of the towers, the advent of the internet, and the resurgence of DIY music scenes, To the 5 felt like a carefully crafted homage to old school hip-hop and a return to the Beastie Boys’ punk roots in one.

Though the album debuted at number one on the billboard charts in the US and Canada, and birthed three charting singles out of four, “It Takes Time to Build” was not one. Major publications did not miss the opportunity to speak on the track based on its lyrics; however, Mike D opens the song with a gripe about the media “If you don’t like the news press eject,” a sentiment echoing American’s distrust of the media that brought us a new Iraq war under the premise of weapons of mass destruction. He then shouts out his son Davis (in the context that the song is about to dive into the kind of world we’re leaving our children), before calling for an end to ever larger and more popular suburban utility vehicles and a dependency on the organization of petroleum exporting countries. That’s admonishment of media, government, foreign relations, environmental conservation, and concern for future generations; all in a scant four bars – the first verse.

Ad Rock, the jovial, nasal voiced weirdo to Mike D’s sophisticated playboy, makes it through his four bars without a hint of his trademark silly surreal-ity, instead opting to give a motivational speech about sticking out your neck, and coming correct, including the sage advice “it’s easier to break things than build them correct.”

The third verse, a picture of MCA’s gruff sentimentalism, seems innocuous now, but was a surgical takedown of post 9/11 nationalism, anti-Muslim sentimentality, and offensive military aggression worldwide by America in one bar over a frenetic sequencer beat. “We’ve got a president we didn’t elect” was perhaps the most courageous thing uttered on record since GW Bush’s election, a presidency which will forever be marked with an asterisk, signaling potential voter fraud after a recount of votes in the state his brother governed, and then Supreme Court intervention gave him the presidency. MCA digs further, reminding us that the US had recently decided to neglect the Kyoto Protocol, something the world expressed disappointment with since Clinton had all but signed the US up in 1997 (the US later met with the protocol inadvertently in 2012 because of other environmental acts). MCA ends his verse with the caution that if the US continues to “flex” we’ll break our necks.

At the chorus the song samples two different phrases from two different golden era hip-hop classics: EPMD’s “Strictly Business” (“it takes a second to wreck it…”) and “You Gots to Chill”. While EPMD had sampled Bob Marley and Kool and the Gang for those songs, “It Takes Time to Build” minimizes those elements and instead uses frenetic 8-bit video game tones in a polyrhythmic pattern, an un-resting beat, a call to action. It’s likely that the beat was inspired by bleep-bloop of the arcade game “Defender” as at the end, the song samples Cutris Hoard’s instructions about avoiding alien landing craft. The record, ‘Conquer the Video Craze’, was a step by step guide (on vinyl!) to defeating the popular arcade games of the 80s.

MCA’s middle verses continue to protest, suggesting a shift toward the left, referring to world politics. After another chorus, MCA again opens with an anti-W sentiment, calling for the impeachment of “Tex”, as well as the withdrawal of the “military muscle he wants to flex.” What may seem benign, in hindsight, was extremely outspoken just three years after 9/11. This was a time when the Mayor of New York, the Governor of New York, and The President of The United States were all Republican (George Bush Jr. would be re-elected later that year in the smallest margin of victory in any presidential race); this was after the world trade center bombing, any idea questioning the government’s was met with jingoist disdain.

Mike D uses his next verse to question environmental destruction, and the size of the war chest compared to national debt. These are all extremely pointed political observations that belie the musician’s political leanings as well as critique others.

Since The Beasties 1994 album Ill Communication, a divide could be felt among fans about the celebrity’s right to use their platform as a soapbox for political and religious issues. Today there is still a few schools of Beastie Boys aficionado: there’s the Rick Rubin produced, N.W.A ripping off, misogynist, “time and money for girls covered in honey” approving fans. Their love is for the Beastie’s hedonist disregard, and it usually ends after the boys from New York find LSD and produce their generation’s Sgt Pepper’s with The Dust Brothers called Paul’s Boutique. Another set of fans is inspired by MCAs growth into Tibetan Buddhism, the group’s shift of priorities from fighting for the right to party to fighting for the rights of certain parties, their musical expansion to include South American Bossa Nova, Tibetan trance, and avant-garde electronic dance music.

Rarely the two shall meet, but somewhere in the middle there is also a fan-base of individuals who worked as hard at listening to hip-hop as the Beasties did to help build it. As hip-hop is the music of a people, the level of maturity, action, and worldview changed with their growth and experiences. Those who grow up in hip-hop provide us with a documentary in song of their human experience. To only listen to one end of a rappers hip-hop catalogue is to ignore part of their shared human experience. It’s not really the fans fault, though. Not even the best media outlets can be trusted to understand this.

In 2004 ascribed “Dean of Rock Critics” Robert Christgau called the album hackneyed and cliché, and Pitchfork called it “dark, steel, and dirty, like that unfinished Times Square station.” New York Times’ John Pareles called the song a “blunt partisan jab” while half-praising the album and moaning for the sounds of Licensed to Ill. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke praised the political dis-track and the album, citing its fidelity and old school rap sampling style as the needed ingredient to return to the glory days of 1986. Entertainment Weekly praised the album, but with problematic (read: racist) rhetoric, citing glee that some white hedonist rappers had made good, and “In Beastieland, it seems, positivism, self-respect, and clean living is the new style, while bling-blingin’, thuggin’, and quaffin’ Courvoisier is wack.”

“It Takes Time to Build” was probably not a planned single because a dying Capitol Records couldn’t afford the press related backlash. It turned out to be one of the more memorable tracks on an already solid album. Like the Beastie’s entire career, it’s anarchistic approach with a lean towards internal excellence makes it fun and enlightening, with a heaping helping of pop culture reference on the side.

“Triple Trouble” by Joe Carney

For those who don’t know, the five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. “Triple Trouble,” from the Beastie Boys album celebrating these five neighborhoods, is one of my favorites for three reasons. 1) The sample is Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang, which was the first hip-hop song to be played on radio. 2) The outstanding job of mixing and scratching by Mixmaster Mike, and 3) the lyrics are very clear. The Beastie Boys NEVER want their music to be in advertising. This song is a classic theme in many hip-hop recordings where the Boys are bragging about their rhyming skills; however, the Beastie Boys can back it up. For example, “We’re Originators you can’t feign, Ignorance or pass the blame, Nuff rhymes coming out the brain, Nuff beats to drive you insane, Nuff moves to make your neck crane, Nuff skill to make the rhymes ingrain, Nuff heat to leave you in flames, Nuff style that you can’t defame.” I think that sums it up nicely.

There is also a little something in the liner notes about this song. “1. Roses are beautiful to look at but their thorny thorns may cause them to be difficult to handle, thus, making their beauty a bit awkward.” The Boys mention in the song if you pick a rose you just might bleed. I know the Beasties Boys broke up after MCA’s passing; however I was wondering if it would be POSSIBLE if The Beasties and Mixmaster Mike teamed up with Run-DMC and became the Hip-Hop All Stars. Both of those groups I think still have a LOT in the tank left. That would be a beautiful thing if the fans can make that happen.

RIP MCA & JMJ! Gone but NEVER forgotten!

“Hey Fuck You” by Jen Orr

Braggadocio rap with a simple, pared down arrangement of beats and samples. The track doesn’t have the typical Beastie Boys bold hook melody or borderline screeching.

Best/worst rhyme:

“I’ve got billions and billions of rhymes to flex

‘Cause I got more rhymes than Carl Sagan’s got turtlenecks”

General message:

How am I superior to you? Let me count the ways, of which there are many. Please stand by as I reference your lack of skill and relay inflated metaphorical accounts of my own lyrical prowess. Allow me to express general contempt for you and invite you to leave should any of this information cause you displeasure.

Short and straightforward, it lacks the strain of much of their work – a refreshing departure.

“Shazam!” by Amber Love

This song was released in 2004 on To the 5 Boroughs album. By this time, the Beastie Boys had more than 20 years of song writing experience under their belt. Like much of their catalogue, the rhymes are simple with intention. While not taking itself seriously, this song manages to prove their skill through wholesome simplicity, wicked cool beats, and catchy hooks. Basically, it seems like they had the munchies while watching some Sunday afternoon TV and decided it was good enough subject matter to get people up and getting down. And it WAS. Hell, it still is! They are absolutely that good. And they know it. The video carries the theme. Dressed in costumes, playing with action figures and remote control cars, they look like they’re having a lot of fun, acting like a bunch of, you know, Boys.

Beastie Boys 30 Year Tribute: Licensed to Ill Essays

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