Beastie Down, Part 1: Check Your Head

With the impending release of Beastie Boys Book, now is good a time as any to look back at the long, winding road of the three bad brothers you know so well: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, and the dearly departed MCA, Adam Yauch. Before Mike D and King Adrock come correct with the official word this month, I will try to make a little sense of what we already know, and grasp for what this band has meant to me over the last two-plus decades.

In May of 1992, the Beastie Boys released their third album, Check Your Head. The record was a culmination of everything the band had released, destroyed, and survived since the band began as a hardcore punk group in New York City, eleven years prior. What started as a lark at Yauch’s seventeenth birthday party in 1981 had lived and died nine lives. Instead of grief (and there was plenty to wallow in), the end of each creative life brought resurrection. 

Their sophomore album from three years prior, Paul’s Boutique, remained ahead of its time. Still considered a dud, not yet heralded by many as the greatest hip hop record ever made. It was a miracle Capitol Records hadn’t dropped them in 1989. Grunge had broken through in 1991, West Coast gangsta rap was taking over, and the Beastie Boys sat in the middle of this musical, cultural divide, forsaking any pre-conceived notion that had made them famous.

Would the memory of the Beastie Boys die along with the eighties? It was a veritable possibility.

With nothing to lose except their record deal with Capitol, the band had built their own G-Son Studio in Glendale, California, determined to reinvent themselves after Paul’s Boutique was a non-starter. The studio was a utopian playground where they played basketball, skateboarded, and rebooted the Beastie Boys once more. The widespread audience knew nothing of the band’s pre-Licensed to Ill era where they were teenagers playing hardcore music in shitty Manhattan clubs. To begin again, they picked up their instruments and jammed, bro. 

Apple Music or Spotify allow you to listen to Check Your Head on demand, but the gatefold double LP reveals a look behind the curtain. Adrock on guitar, MCA on bass, and Mike D on the drums; bongos and guitar pedals scattered about. A carpenter remodeling the studio, “Money” Mark Nishita, had been drafted for keyboard duty to stretch the sonic pallette. The Beastie Boys’ self-mythology alludes to thousands of hours of recordings from this time, in search of more than the perfect beat or their own loops to sample, but their very souls.

The results were profound, totally removed from anything the Beasties had produced before. Blues, jazz fusion, spaced-out ballads, and punk rock abounded. The three crafty bozos hanging out in front of 7-11 at midnight years before were now cultured grown-ups who had seen it all, yet looking for whatever is next.

Three years prior, MCA was rolling through a solo verse on “3-Minute Rule,” claiming he was making records before “you were sucking your mother’s dick.” By the end of Check Your Head, Yauch fronts the mic on a breezy, low-key funk meditation, crooning an opening line of “Yeah. A butterfly floats on the breeze of a sun lit day.”

The inverse of “Fight For Your Right” and its adolescent call-to-arms. A devout “take it or leave it” to any old fans or curious onlookers.

One can’t help but try and imagine the conversations between Diamond, Horovitz, and Yauch behind the scenes, tracing the transcendence of three party animals into worldly sages. (This is a vital moment in the evolution of the band that is hopefully, fully covered in their upcoming autobiography.) The Beasties were actively disowning any character traits that made them household names in 1986. The beer, the girls, the homophobia, the violence, and the drug references melted away with Check Your Head. 

In efforts to outrun the caricatures they had previously inhabited, the Beastie Boys forsook everything with this record. Except the identity of three snotty, self-realized poets.

Toward the end of recording the album, longtime Beastie engineer Mario Caldato Jr. (Mario C in the place to be!) gently nudged the band to make a few hip hop joints. The band obliged, and delivered. Out of twenty tracks on the record, only seven are marked with trademarked ping-ponging rhymes from the band. “So What’Cha Want” was the dangling carrot for the masses — an anthemic proclamation that could close any future arena gig — reminding everyone they were still three emcees absolutely never to be fucked with. 

The song starts with a quick namedrop of Mario C, and Money Mark’s keyboard lays down a squiggly loop that underpins the song. A crusty, two-note guitar riff rides atop a trap kit, and the three emcees rise again from the grave. Their voices are fuzzy and garbled, channeling through bullshit microphones made out of plastic. When the chorus hits, Biz Markie jumps in for reinforcement: “You can’t front on that.” As defiant as any moment on Licensed to Ill or Paul’s Boutique, the Boys place themselves on a pedestal, mark their territory, and double down on pop culture references. 

The accompanying video for “So What’Cha Want” puts slightly aged faces to their familiar names. The B-boys are romping and stomping through the woods, adorned in t-shirts and toboggans, rapping down at the camera with some of the most furious, fun verses in the entire Beastieography. The trees and the sky are overexposed in the film, causing a psychedelic oyster shell to short circuit above their heads. The Beasties look like giants, shouting and trampling over anything in their way. For all of the experimentation that pervades the record, “So What’Cha Want” sits firmly in the middle of the chaos, harnessing all the surrounding kinetic energy into one delicious track.

With all the debauchery of the band white washed, the Beastie Boys manage to have just as much sober fun entertaining themselves throughout Check Your Head. They picture themselves headlining a tiny juke joint in “Live at P.J.’s”, return to their hardcore roots with a thrash cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Time for Livin’,” let Biz Markie adlib over a Ted Nugent track (“The Biz vs. The Nuge”), and offer a straight-up rock song about literally running out of words to say on “Gratitude.”

A virtual impossibility in Beastie Land, fully realized.

Over their three decade run, the Beasties are never as prolific, experimental, and surprising than during the Check Your Head era. Even the B-sides relay genius overflowing onto the parquet floor of G-Son Studio. “Netty’s Girl” is an absurd doo-wop ditty with Mike D falsetto-pining over his current crush, “The Skills to Pay the Bills” is probably the best Beastie track to never make it on an album, and “Honky Rink” is a goofy, funky skit indicting Fly-Over country racism.

The catalyst for change in Check Your Head might be found forty-eight minutes deep into Paul’s Boutique. Early in the ten-part movement of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” MCA grabs the mic and throws down a skewering solo verse on “A Year and a Day.” Instead of physically assaulting a fellow member of the human race or busting with a whip-it, Yauch searches for salvation for two solid minutes. A higher self. He prays and hopes that a message is sent, and heads to the mountains every weekend to ski down black diamonds and get high. If you are familiar with Beastie lore, Yauch etches a self-realized prophecy for his own spiritual being, and his band’s future with these rhymes. From the ashes of Paul’s Boutique’s failure, the B-boys crawled away, and Yauch’s riveting face turn in “A Year and a Day” is one of the few vibes they held on to as they began anew.

For the first time in their career, Check Your Head finds the Beasties assuming an identity and sticking with it, holding the mantle of the most wise of wise asses in pop music for the next twenty years, up until MCA’s passing in 2012. More than an album title, I consider Check Your Head a mantra for the Beastie Boys. An affirmation that it’s just fine to second-guess everything you’ve come to believe and assume. 

To press pause, look inside, then take that next step into the unknown.

The saga continues in Part 2: I got the Ill Communication