Beastie Down, Part 2: I got the Ill Communication

Hey, hold up? Did you read Part 1? Okay then.

The Beastie Boys wrapped up their tour in support of Check Your Head in 1992 and got right back to work on a follow-up LP.  For the first time in their career, they were approaching a new record without the plight of reinventing themselves and their music. The B-boys had identities they were comfortable with, and set about expanding upon every sound they had mined during Check Your Head. 

Almost two months after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Ill Communication was released on May 31, 1994, a mere two years after Check Your Head (a nanosecond in Beastie terms). Opening track “Sure Shot” runs with the same self-assured shenanigans of “So What’Cha Want,” enlisting longtime band associate DJ Hurricane for the chorus hook. Yauch begins to close down the song by coming clean on his past, saying what he likely wanted to on Check Your Head. A confessional that would have felt like too much too soon after the debauchery of Paul’s Boutique and Licensed to Ill. With some distance from that identity, he confesses:

I wanna say a little something that’s long over due

The disrespect to women has got to be through

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I wanna offer my love and respect to the end

It’s hard to listen to Yauch’s verse and not have much of the band’s past life flash before one’s eyes. This verse officially turns the page on the band’s career, but not without a look at the past and a shake of the head. Yauch’s proclamation was the dawn of another Beastie-ism – devout, politically aware activism.

Yauch was the leading socially conscious Beastie, forever changed in 1992 when he was snow skiing in Nepal and saw Buddhist monks from Tibet fleeing to India for asylum. This spectacle changed his life, and everything he wished for in “A Year and a Day” came true in that moment. Yauch studied Buddhism for the next four years, officially converting to the religion in 1996. Upon his awakening, he became dedicated to freeing Tibet from four decades of Chinese occupation and oppression. Check Your Head felt like a walkabout — wandering spirits grasping for something just out of reach.

For Yauch, it was Buddhism.

Yauch led the band toward a deeper purpose on Ill Communication, ushering Buddhist monks to the studio to chant on two tracks toward the end of the record, “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow.” While these two meditative tracks are stashed toward the end of the record, the Beasties run amok elsewhere with a proven template of lo-fi hip hop, jazz, and thrash.

“Tough Guy” follows “Sure Shot” in the number two slot with a fifty-second hardcore seizure of Mike D dissing an opposing basketball player that crowds the lane: “Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, time for you to die.” The next song, “B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak” is a slow and plodding rap where the Beasties sample Mantan Moreland, diss Russell Simmons, and put every other rapper on notice. The track doesn’t hold a candle to any prior released album track, but “Root Down” follows two tracks later and stands as an immediate and essential Beastie joint flowing over a Jimmy Smith sample.

“Fight For Your Right” still casted a long shadow on the band from eight years prior, and the Beasties managed to produce another song mixed with rock and rap to stand at the pinnacle of their catalog with “Sabotage.” With Mike D on the drums, MCA on bass, and AdRock on guitar and lead vocals, the gas pedal goes down for three straight minutes. A booming beat and MCA’s wobbling low register form a rhythm for Horovitz to scream over and repeatedly pound a G# power chord. “Sabotage” sounded like nothing else on the radio or Mtv, and was a massive hit that minted the Beasties anew with the wide audience. 

Mosh pits in the summer of 1994 abided.

An accompanying video for “Sabotage” directed by Spike Jonze proved the Beasties still didn’t take themselves too seriously. They dressed up like undercover cops from the seventies eating donuts, sliding over the hoods of sedans, and jumping from roof-to-roof in a shitty apartment complex. The hapless bad guys were also played by the Beasties, etching one more iconic caricature of the band. The collective sounds and optics of “Sabotage” thrilled audiences and moved the three emcees toward the kind of chameleonic ubiquity only possessed by Madonna and Prince.

The B-boys continue shaking up the formula of their prior successes on Ill Communication with “Get it Together.” For the first time on a Beastie album, an outsider emcee joins the fray and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest matches every rhyme and reason of the Beasties over a moog beat. It’s fun, playful, and stuffed with the most illing-est rhymes from beginning to end. “Alright Hear This” and “Do It” are additional hip hop bangers on the back half of the record, which doesn’t carry the urgency or spontaneity of Check Your Head. 

Ill Communication is the first Beasties record that beckons a direct comparison to its predecessor. It feels like a sequel with many vital moments, with the rest unable to harness the momentary magic of the original. The record still carries the unflinching, incomparable sensibilities of the Beastie Boys, who seem more concerned with pleasing themselves before any other audience.

Mike D, AdRock, and MCA had reincarnated their existence with Check Your Head, then surfed to the top of the music zeitgeist once more with Ill Communication. With little else to prove, they toured for their new record and slipped away from the public eye as a band. They stayed busy in the studio and released the 1995 hardcore EP Aglio E Olio to little fan-fare. The Beasties then impacted pop culture once more by contributing their own word to the English language when describing an unfortunate haircut in the song “Mullet Head,” found on the Clueless motion picture soundtrack.

While the music on Ill Communication is mostly an expansion of what came before on Check Your Head, the outside world of the Beasties billowed outward. Mike D took the reins of Grand Royal Records, a Beastie-curated imprint of Capitol Records. The label included a fashion line, a magazine, and a swelling number of artists including Sean Lennon and Luscious Jackson. Two years later in 1996, the Beastie Boys co-hosted the first Tibetan Freedom Concert with MCA’s non-profit foundation, the Milarepa Fund. For the next five years, the Beasties and other bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam among others performed to raise money for the Tibetan cause. With Mike D and MCA busy with their own efforts, Ad-Rock branched out and released his own experimental project BS2000 in 1997 with frequent Beastie collaborator Eric “AWOL” Amery.

For the following three years after Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys were hardly seen together in public aside from performing at the annual Tibetan Freedom Concert. It wasn’t until 1998 that they returned with a fifth album. Each Beastie was now a married man, in their thirties, greying at the temples, and confronting the world at large once again as a brotherly unit. 

Elder statesmen by pop music standards.

On to Part 3.

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