By Brian Ives
Friday (April 21) the Beastie Boys’ third album, ‘Check Your Head,’ turned 25. Following the insane success of the Run-D.M.C.-styled album of 1986’s ‘Licensed to Ill‘ and 1989’s mind-blowing sample-packed ‘Paul’s Boutique,’ ‘Check Your Head’ saw the trio picking their instruments back up and creating an entirely new kind of album, encompassing different genres, often within the same song.
Genre boundaries in music don’t matter nearly as much as they used to. These days, country stars are influenced by boy bands, hip-hop MCs are also singers, and rock bands use drum loops. The lines are blurred and they have been for a long time.
In 1992, though, things were much more cut and dried. Rock, pop, and hip-hop each had their own sections in record stores (remember those?). Back then, to listen to music “on demand” usually meant plunking down $15 for a CD, and “sharing” an album meant borrowing a CD from a friend (or transferring it, in real time, to a cassette tape).
But even then, the Beastie Boys were ignoring any borders between genres. Or, more likely, they were laughing at them. Their world had room for Pink Floyd and the Meters, Bad Brains and EPMD, the Biz and the Nuge.
Even on the Beastie Boys’ mind-blowing 1989 classic, Paul’s Boutique, they were mixing samples and references faster than most humans could keep up with. Rose Royce, the Funky 4+1, the Sugarhill Gang, the Beatles (!), Pink Floyd, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, the theme from Jaws, the Eagles, the Band, the Ramones, Loggins & Messina, James Brown, Mountain, the Jackson 5, Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash, among many others, were sampled, while The Flintstones, The Brady Bunch, Kangol hats, Bob Dylan, Bootsy Collins, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Wonder Bread, Cheech and Chong, Dr. Seuss, Dolomite, Taxi Driver, Yosemite Sam and even Donald Trump were name-dropped or referenced. But the album was straight-up hip-hop, albeit hip-hop that seemed to exist in an alternate universe.
The Beastie Boys evolved a lot between 1986’s Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique; the leap from Paul’s to Check Your Head was even larger, and more daring. But the album is the reason why they remained relevant for nearly two decades after that – a dog’s age for a hip-hop group from the mid-’80s. They also had a huge impact on pop culture.
The change was evident just from looking the album cover. Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “MCA” Yauch were photographed sitting on the curb… with guitar cases.
In the video for Licensed to Ill‘s No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” they seemed to make fun of the idea of rock bands (or at least the metal bands of that era). But it turned out that the Beasties played instruments, and were pretty good at it too. Today, most fans know that the Beasties started as a hardcore punk band (the 1994 Some Old Bulls— EP collects a lot of their seven inch singles from that time), but it wasn’t common knowledge back then. Were they kidding with the guitar cases?
It turned out, they weren’t kidding. They got back to their hardcore roots on “Time For Livin'” and created a new kind of psychedelic hip-hop/hard rock hybrid with “Gratitude.” That song saw Horovitz on guitar and shouty, rapped vocals, backed by the surprisingly solid rhythm section of Yauch on bass and Diamond on drums; they were accompanied by a percussionist and “Money” Mark Nishita, who would be their keyboardist for the rest of their career. In the video, which was a sort of homage to Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, they weren’t going for laughs. They were showing off that they were a real live band.
Which isn’t to say that they’d left hip-hop behind; far from it. Their first single, “Pass the Mic,” was classic Beastie Boys, where Yauch led “the musical masterpiece” off, passing the mic to Mike D, who then passed it to Ad-Rock in classic hip-hop group style. 1992 was still the “golden era” of hip-hop, and some of the B-Boys’ peers were still scoring hits, including EPMD, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy, but hip-hop would soon move in a much more pop direction. With Check Your Head, the Beasties learned to be a hip-hop group that remains relevant without having to follow hip-hop’s trends. Still, they kept an eye on what was going on on the charts: the Soul Assassins, who produced Cypress Hill, remixed “So What’cha Want,” and B-Real dropped a verse on the remix.
But besides doing hip-hop, punk and hard rock, they introduced another new flavor: their spacey, funky, instrumental (or mostly instrumental) jams.
“Something’s Got To Give” (as well as “Pow” and “In 3’s”) showed a completely different side, it turned out that they were a hip-hop group that didn’t need MCs on every track; they were a band that didn’t need a singer. They’d explore being a Meters-like funk band a few times on each album; 2007’s The Mix-Up saw them go full-on instrumental (fittingly, it followed 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, a full-on hip-hop album).
And they hadn’t lost their sense of humor, either, as evidenced by “Funky Boss,” “Professor Booty” and “The Biz Vs. the Nuge,” which, featured Biz Markie warbling over a Ted Nugent sample. Again, it showed that the Beastie Boys had no use for boundaries.
Of course, those boundaries were melting away before Check Your Head; the inaugural Lollapalooza festival in 1991 saw Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour, Ice-T, Siouxie and the Banshees and Nine Inch Nails sharing stages across the country. A few months after the release of Check Your Head, the second Lolla launched with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Ministry. But concert promoters required a number of different artists to hit different genres; the Beastie Boys could switch it up on their own.
Check Your Head ends on another surprising note, with “Namaste,” a mellow jam featuring Yauch doing spoken word vocals. It wasn’t apparent at the time, but this would be a crucial song in the band’s discography; it’s the first hint of the spiritual quest Yauch would embark on for the rest of his life. Buddhism (and the plight of Tibet) would be major influences on everything the band did from here on in; along with their musical ambition, it was what allowed this trio of jokers to grow up, without losing their sense of humor.
The Beastie Boys still had a career that lasted nearly two more decades, and they were relevant the entire time; a big part of that was because of what they became on Check Your Head. And that’s cool, historically. But the great thing about Check Your Head is that it still sounds as amazing as it did back in 1992. So stream it, play it from your mp3 library, pop in the CD, or best of all, spin the LP on your turntable and listen to it once again. It’s a musical masterpiece.