Who knew? Who would have guessed that three bratty, Jewish wise-asses from New York would turn from a supposed novelty act into one of the most successful and influential pop groups of the past 12 years? But sure enough, the sales figures for Hello Nasty, the Beastie Boys’ first album of new material in over four years, have topped all other opening-week sales for the year so far. This triumph over highly anticipated records from heavyweights like Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, and Madonna cements the Beasties’ status as kings of the pop pantheon a remarkable achievement for three guys whose debut record pledged allegiance to White Castle.
It began way back in the early ’80s with three teenage pals MCA (Adam Yauch), King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), and Mike D (Michael Diamond). They started out as a hardcore band, but after one EP, they moved into hip-hop, eventually hooking up with rap mogul Rick Rubin in 1986 for the brat-rap classic Licensed to Ill. The record repelled critics, enthralled children, frightened parents, and became the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Everyone, from critics to the group’s fans, wrote it off as a fluke.
It took the group three years to resurface with the sampledelic rap masterpiece Paul’s Boutique which in its way was as much of a fluke as the first record. If no one expected Licensed to Ill to be such a huge hit, they never expected Paul’s Boutique to be so good. Funny thing, though. No one bought the record.
Once again considered down for the count, the Beasties disappeared for another three years. When they finally poked their heads out, they’d made another 180-degree turn. Check Your Head was a hodgepodge of rap, punk, reggae, and blaxploitation instrumentals, all played with overwhelming enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the follow-up, Ill Communication, turned out to be a virtual carbon copy of Check Your Head: 20 tracks covering exactly the same stylistic ground. After the jarring change-ups over the course of the group’s first three records, the familiarity was disappointing. It was like a big summer sequel: It had all your favorite characters, but it felt a little too formulaic.
It’s been more than four years since the Beastie Boys released Ill Communication. But if they need that much time to produce a great left-turn like Hello Nasty, I say let ’em have it. The new record finds the boys expanding their music to new sonic highs, bringing back some of the dense sample layering of Paul’s Boutique, but mixing it with the live musicianship of the last two records. Only this time, instead of simply recording jams and flavoring them with samples, they’ve sampled their own jams, then spliced them with other samples. Differentiating between the two is practically impossible even when the sound fragments come from such diverse sources as Stephen Sondheim, Rachmaninoff, and Tito Puente.
Like the best and most innovative bands, the Beasties manage to draw on the past while looking toward the future. For instance, the first things you’ll notice on Hello Nasty are the clunky keyboards and drum machine, which might suggest a throwback to rap’s glory days in the mid-’80s. But in the Beastie Boys’ hands, the electronic instrumentation represents a renewed energy and faith in their craft. A fuzzed out guitar riff here, a heavy kick drum there, the record doesn’t sound retro it sounds revived. When Ad-Rock boasts, “I’m the Benihana chef on the SP12,” he’s not trying to reclaim the glories of a past era it’s more like that era never ended for him.
On the basis of this alone, you might be inclined to write off the Beasties as the Black Crowes of the rap game, but Hello Nasty is too full of new ideas: The echo, the throbbing bass, and the Atari video-game samples are more evocative of space travel than of beat-box rockin’. It’s like hearing Afrika Bambaataa and Sun Ra duking it out in a series of three-minute matches with each song coming up a dizzying draw. And when you consider how lazy rap has gotten lately what with the popularity of ripping off entire melodies Hello Nasty is nothing short of ingenious. It puts Puffy in his place.
The Beasties are still doing their share of genre-dabbling, but this time, they stick with the groovier stuff. “Song for the Man” careens like drunken carnival music, “Flowin’ Prose” drones like a blissed-out Indian raga, and the loungey “Picture This” finds New York ingenue Brooke Williams contributing ethereal lead vocals. Elsewhere, Invisibl Skratch Piklz turntablist Mixmaster Mike freshens up the proceedings with some scratching, while longtime collaborators Mark Nishita and Eric Bobo respectively add soulful organ and Latin percussion. But thanks to the Beasties’ masterful skill at welding styles and sounds, all these far-reaching elements never sound out of place. The group’s verve and sense of fun keep the record from slipping into self-conscious eclecticism.
On the other hand, pushing stylistic boundaries so forcefully can result in self-indulgence. The Beasties are certainly guilty of this on Hello Nasty, and as a result, the record tends to bog down at times. Maybe the biggest problem is that the trio has succumbed to the ’90s CD disease of too many tracks. Hello Nasty clocks in at 67 minutes, with at least five tracks’ worth of detritus that should have been left off.
As it turns out, most of the filler tunes are instrumentals. “Song for Junior,” for instance, is yet another of the Beasties’ Latin porn-soundtrack jams. It’s likable enough, but it breeds the very familiarity that the rest of the record avoids. The other instrumentals have been stuck on at the end of the record, which only makes them feel even more like leftovers.
The worst offender in the filler department isn’t an instrumental, though; it’s a disastrous collaboration with reggae/dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry. It seems like the Beastie Boys got the idea all wrong: Perry’s a legendary producer, yet here all he does is mumble incoherently, while the trio churns out an aimless, five-minute groove. Maybe next time, they’ll let Perry produce a track on which they handle the rhyming chores.
My only other complaint is with the words: These days, the Beasties are having trouble generating anything in the way of catchy or compelling raps. They’re all married and in their early 30s, so lyrics about malt liquor, cheeba, and girls are pretty much out for good. Instead, they’ve compensated with what comes off as a bunch of amateur philosophizing. “And Me” and “Flowin’ Prose” dole out simplistic observations on spirituality and the state of mankind, while “Song for the Man” is a born-again feminist treatise from Ad-Rock. It’s an admirable turnaround, but the tradeoff is that the Beasties have lost their sense of looseness and irreverence. They still have their moments with lines like “Dogs love me cause I’m crazy sniffable” but on Hello Nasty, the lyrics serve more as background for the music rather than the other way around.
It’s a tribute to the Beasties’ musicianship, then, that the record isn’t too tarnished by these flaws. The grooves are just too inventive and fun to be brought down for long. Now that they’ve refined their musical ideas, the only thing the Beastie Boys have left to do is to make their sonic stew and their raps equally relevant. But Hello Nasty already hints in this direction with “I Don’t Know,” on which the boys’ philosophical ramblings actually result in a thoughtful statement.
In a sweetly cracking baritone, Adam Yauch ponders that peace of mind is never attainable, and that life is a constant, never-ending search. The man who transformed from loudmouth punk to Tibetan activist admits that he may not be any more spiritually enlightened than the next guy. I mean, really, who knew?
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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