Re-Reviews: Beastie Boys’ ‘Ill Communication’

Our relationship with art changes over time. In our instantaneous iPhone age, we don’t live with albums or movies or TV shows or books like we used to. With Re-Reviews, we re-explore our relationship with a piece of pop culture — and how that relationship evolves over time. We dismiss some art unfairly — or prematurely. Perhaps certain songs or bits of dialogue didn’t resonate because of our mood or our position in life. On the other hand, perhaps our adoration of some childhood favorite is clouded by nostalgia. Does this even matter?

Dedicated to Kadie Jo Presley

In high school, more than any other age, your tastes define you. This nexus of pop culture, peer pressure, familial designs, and your own internal struggles — a warped compass of north, south, east, and west — creates the sense that you’re at a crossroads.

I was a high schooler in the early 1990s. Hip-hop, my preferred art form and tastemaker, was at its teenage crossroads, too, with all the acne scars, wet dreams, and unaccountable rage to prove it. By the point I’m talking about, let’s call it 1994, there was over a decade’s worth of rap, long enough so that MCs could rhyme (without irony) about the “old school” versus the “new school.” Grandmaster Flash, Kool Moe Dee, Sugarhill Gang, and even Run DMC were increasingly seen as parents of the genre, fit to be revered but also to be pushed against. Rap has even been forced by law to “grow up,” with Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., a landmark copyright case that redefined how sampling could be conducted, and thus separated post-1991 hip-hop from what came before. (That case represents a break as Freudian as any parent-child separation could possibly be.)

But hip-hop was hardly the only pop genre at the time that was undergoing uncomfortable growth spurts and accidental erections in public. The post-punk, New Wave, No Wave, experimental, and otherwise unclassifiable worlds of 1980s underground rock were jelling into what we’d call “alternative rock.” As a black boy raised on a diet of my mom’s oldies radio stations and hip-hop mixtapes passed to me in school halls between classes, I had not had much exposure to rock before freshman year. For reasons unknown, when I ran into rock, I ran right into the weird stuff. Nirvana meant more to me than Guns ‘N’ Roses — Nevermind and Use Your Illusion I & II both dropped in 1991, my freshman year — but Pavement and Hüsker Dü meant more to me than either of those juggernauts.

Still, I resisted embracing “white” music wholeheartedly. I had good reason. After all, I had seen what happened to rock after the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton got hold of it, and how much credit was subsequently denied to black folks for rock’s creation. We had seen Elvis Presley called the creator of rock and roll. We had heard Elvis Costello call two of rock’s primary (and primal) progenitors — James Brown and Ray Charles — respectively, “a jive-ass nigger” and a “blind, ignorant nigger,” and more-or-less get away with it. We had seen Kenny G steal the soul out of jazz — the sales, too, as his album sales eclipsed Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and the back catalogs of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk combined. We had seethed as Michael Bolton climbed the charts with his fake-ass version of an Otis Redding classic.

Hip-hop culture countered all of this. It felt like music that belonged to us. It drew a line in the sand that whites didn’t get to cross. Run DMC, Public Enemy, Melle Mel, Boogie Down Productions, Slick Rick — these were ours. Not only was hip-hop ours, it became ours by subverting them. With two turntables and a microphone, we had found a genre of resistance. By cutting-and-pasting bits of white pop, by using the instruments of recording playback (turntables, tape players, vinyl records, speakers, microphones) as recording instruments, rap subverted rock’s emphasis on live instrumentation and used white music’s airwave supremacy against itself. Everyone had a boombox, records, and tapes — the basic building blocks of the music. If that’s all that was needed to make the music, the thinking went, then anyone could figure out how to make hip-hop. That sense of democracy — from its construction to its technology to its working-class roots — was infectious, and revolutionary.

And then Licensed to Ill came along and fucked it all up. In 1986, three upper-class Jewish teenagers essentially aped Run DMC’s rock sampling and rhyme style, did it in whiteface, and made a fortune. The Beastie Boys were the first rappers to top the Billboard charts. We disgruntled black boys and girls all figured that, within a decade, the history of hip-hop — like the history of rock, of jazz, and of blues — would be written and defined by white people, and the motherfucking Beastie Boys would occupy a high place in rap’s canon.

So, while I guardedly engaged with “white” rock, I kept white encroachment into a “black” art form at arm’s length. Or, to put it more bluntly: “Fuck the Beastie Boys.”

In 1994, my junior year, I dissed the Beastie Boys every chance I got. To do so, though, I had to lie to myself, refusing to admit to anyone else how much I liked “Paul Revere.” I dismissed “Brass Monkey” publicly while bobbing my head to it privately. Two years earlier, I once pretended “So Whatcha Want” wasn’t a hard-as-fuck joint to avoid getting beat up by a guy who clearly liked it, too, but couldn’t say it without getting his ass kicked, too. In the midst of all this posturing, I was discovering how big an influence Rick Rubin — a genuine white guy — had on Def Jam’s artists, including Run DMC and my beloved Public Enemy, thereby blowing up my notions of hip-hop as a purely black art. I was falling hard for Talking Heads, especially Remain in Light (1980), a band heavily influenced by Afropop but made up decidedly by four white art-school kids. “Once in a Lifetime,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “Houses in Motion” felt like dance tracks made specifically for me.

So, like every teenager ever, I was a mass of contradictions and conflicting impulses. As an adult, now, I am still a mass of contradictions and conflicting impulses. Indeed, the transition from adolescence to adulthood comes when you accept all your paradoxes and warring behavior patterns as part of a singular whole, rather than trying to deny the contradictory aspects of yourself, rather than trying to insist that all of you makes sense. If I’m being honest with myself, one album made the most sense of the teenage crossroads for me and pointed the way forward to adulthood. And it was made by those same Jewish white hipsters that I pretended to detest.

The Beastie Boys’s Ill Communication might not be the best hip-hop record of the 1990s — though it is great — but the Beasties’ fourth album is probably the most emblematic and defining rap record album of the decade. Nearly every trend in pop music’s recording technology, aesthetics, and moral vision passes, in some way, through Ill Communication. The album is many things — a DIY manifesto, a call to social consciousness, a love letter to New York City, a long ode to African American musical culture — but mostly it’s a splendid fusion. The album brings together all of the seemingly disparate cultural elements that MCA, King Ad-Rock, and Mike D loved into an odd but perfect conglomeration of hip-hop and lo-fi indie rock. In doing so, it merged genres (rap, rock) in such a way that it effectively created its own genre, in much the same way that the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo collided country with rock but in a way that redefined both territories. Even though Ill Communication draws from seemingly everything under the sun, the album’s funky, abrasive, sometimes downright avant-garde aesthetic creates a singular world onto itself. Ill Communication throws everything it loves into the kitchen sink without insisting that some parts be less important than others.

Like the best and most lasting things in life, this album came to me obliquely rather than directly. During all of my adolescent cultural collisions and questionings, my stupid heart decided to go thumpa-thumpa-thumpa for a freckly redhead with tremendous curves, stormcloud-gray eyes, and a filthy, whip-smart mouth that took no shit from anyone. That white girl needed the crackerjack brains God gave her, because every boy of every race in my high school was trying to run game on her. Even the gay ones. She and I would never kiss, much less date, but for a few years we were good friends, and I’m grateful for it. Well, this girl was a devotee, a damn-near scholar of hip-hop. She could, and often did, school me in underground and mainstream stuff alike.

And she loved the Beastie Boys.

She kept trying to push Paul’s Boutique on me, and I would not accept it at all, even after she forced me to listen to “Shake Your Rump” and “Shadrach” (i.e., two of the best tracks the genre has ever produced), and cued up “High Plains Drifter” during a school dance party. Hey, I wasn’t alone. No one heard that album when it came out in 1989, as we had collectively dismissed the Beasties as a white-boy novelty act. We black kids were especially hard on Paul’s, the sophomore jinx that was actually far superior sonically and lyrically to the group’s debut. If Chuck D and Flavor Flav had ripped these rhyme schemes, if Terminator X and the Bomb Squad had rocked these riffs, we would have been cheering and cheering. Part of me acknowledged that inwardly but wouldn’t say so in public. Never mind that Run DMC had vetted them years ago, had even toured with them. Never mind that the Beasties put up Public Enemy as their opening act on their first big tour. Never mind that hip-hop had siphoned from white popular music — alongside copious amounts of James Brown and P-Funk samples — from its inception onward.

Ill Communication dropped at the end of our junior year. It was good — so good that it forced me into a turning point that every black American must eventually face: Was I going to be true to myself, or true to received notions of who I should or even could be? Ill Communication forced the question because it incorporated everything I loved in American culture into one big stew. Paul’s Boutique had foreshadowed this, four years ago, with “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” a twelve-minute patchwork quilt of sound collage and off-kilter rhymes that doubled as the Beasties’ statement of intent.

Ill Communication was the endgame. There was the jazz I was beginning to love (“Rickey’s Theme”); jazz-inflected rap, with upright acoustic bass (“The Scoop”); funk instrumentals (“Bobo on the Corner,” “Sabrosa”); bangin’ old-school rapping, complete with a battle-rap freestyle (“Get It Together”); noisy hardcore punk (“Tough Guy,” “Heart Attack Man”); and more-or-less straightforward hip-hop (“Sure Shot,” “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak,” “Flute Loop,” “Do It”).

Now, many of these songs could have anchored a genre-specific album. “Futterman’s Rule,” a distortion-heavy guitar instrumental featuring turntable cuts, could have been the lead song on an album of rock instrumentals. (In fact, the Beasties would release a Grammy-winning album of instrumentals — The Mix Up — in 2007.) “Sabotage,” a what-the-hell fusion of rock, rap, and hipster irony, could have fit in easily on an LP of hardcore rock, and indeed the Beasties did that, too — Aglio e Olio (1995) and Polly Wog Stew (1982).

The sample-heavy “Alright Hear This” could have been an A-side track on Paul’s Boutique. The trick with Ill Communication, though, is that all these elements exist on the same record, and somehow form a cohesive, coherent sound.

Sound, even more than songwriting, mattered here. Ill Communication is unquestionably a hip-hop album, but its production also makes it just as unquestionably a garage-rock album, veering right into the “white” music I was starting to love. The sound of the suburban garage, and the consumer-grade eight-track recorder that went with it, fuels the record alongside the beats. The Beasties fill the album with vinyl crackle, tape hiss, distorted vocals, feedback, and other detritus of the burgeoning lo-fi rock of Pavement and Guided By Voices along with the hardcore (Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat) of the band’s youth. This wasn’t rap-metal of Limp Bizkit, Korn, 311, or Rage Against the Machine’s variety — but a funkier, blacker variant that was effectively its own genre.

Before Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys may have not themselves known what they were. Sure, Paul’s Boutique is a masterpiece, but it’s a borderline schizophrenic one, in terms of sonics and vocal delivery. Check Your Head (1992) is a less mature, less focused test run of what they’d perfect two years later on Ill Communication. The former has its share of great cuts (“So Whatcha Want,” “Finger Lickin’ Good,” “Pass the Mic,” “The Maestro”) but also a lot of “live” tracks that go nowhere, limp collages, and heavy-metal rejects. The Beasties aren’t teens anymore on Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head, but they ain’t adults yet, either.

On Ill Communication, they ventured into adulthood, and dragged the rest of hip-hop — kicking and screaming — with it. Hip-hop culture is everywhere now, in our car commercials and movie soundtracks, on our fashion-show runways and in our corporate boardrooms, topping Billboard charts and wedding-reception playlists. So, it’s hard to remember that, in the early 1990s, there were still arguments over whether sampling was art or theft, whether rap was “legitimate” art, and, if it was art, if whites could participate in it. Though Public Enemy’s politics and N.W.A.’s lyrics were argued about furiously by pundits and critics alike, though Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and Sister Souljah’s commentary occupied news media cycles, hip-hop as music and aesthetics was still largely under the mainstream’s radar. This was changing, and the Beastie Boys were part of that change, for the frenetically adolescent Beasties of License to Ill were not the Beasties of Ill Communication.

Beastie Boys 1994

No, adulthood would come with Ill Communication, an album that generously brings together all of the Beasties’ loves without apologizing for any of them. Lee Dorsey, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Vaughn Bodé’s Cheech Wizard comics, Huggy Bear, basketball, Buddhism, second-wave feminism, 1980s hardcore, the Jewish musical scale, Timberland shoes, old African American comedy albums, Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie, New York City, graffiti — it’s all here, and much more. But, unlike Check Your Head, it all fits, largely because they had finally embraced the hybridity of hip-hop, the hybridity of their very selves, and really the hybridity of us all.

In The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray’s landmark debut collection of essays, the author-critic writes:

American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody so much as they resemble each other.

The Beastie go one further than Murray, extending the American pop vision beyond black/white divides. In “Sure Shot,” Ill Communication’s opener, Mike D shouts out: “I got more action than my man John Woo / and I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew.” “Sure Shot” also shows the band showing an adult’s grappling with mortality; MCA raps “I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got gray hairs / And that’s a lot because I’ve got my share,” which is a brave thing for a musician in a youth-oriented genre to announce on the first track. In the song’s third verse, MCA showcases an adult’s engagement with gender politics, specifically a big thorn in his given genre’s side:

I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end

Ill Communication showcases the band’s increasing interest in politics — MCA rocks Beastie politics on “The Update,” in which he’s the only MC; Ad-Rock praises do-it-yourself culture on “The Scoop” — but also its spirituality as well. “Bodhisattva Vow” is exactly that, MCA aligning himself with Buddhism explicitly.

On this record, the Beasties align themselves with lots of things, much of which hadn’t been consciously blended before. It all sounds and feels authentically theirs, rather than like the blackface costuming of Vanilla Ice. Ill Communication enters debates about authenticity, about “keeping it real,” head-on, from a variety of modes, genres, and directions. It became hugely popular, triple platinum, in part because it did so, because it thrilled multiple constituencies, because it engaged listeners that the media didn’t necessarily think belonged together.

It’s in the decade of Ill Communication — and in some ways because of Ill Communication — that hip-hop achieved cultural dominance in America, to the extent that a sizable chunk of American pop is now either hip-hop or a conscious response to (and sometimes against) hip-hop. You can see this in Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez’s collaborations with rappers; with the plethora of 1990s bands fusing rock with rap (terrible stuff like Limp Bizkit and Korn, sure, but there’s also Soul Coughing, Luscious Jackson, Rage Against the Machine, and Cake); and with the emergence of the hip-hop-inflected albums made by the ex-Mouseketeers (Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera) who would dominate American popular music for the next two decades.

The album brings together all of the seemingly disparate cultural elements that MCA, King Ad-Rock, and Mike D loved into a conglomeration that truly is something new, and something that furthered pop and made it more adult.

“Adult,” in the hands of Ill Communication, does not mean down-tempo, sedate, or less fun. Indeed, one of the lessons my 17-year-old self took from the album is how much fun adulthood could be, how freewheeling life could be if I accepted myself for who I was instead of trying to fit myself into pegs that didn’t quite match my shape. The best, most lasting pop is that which redefines its parameters by smudging them: Elvis Presley bringing together black blues with white country, Bob Dylan plugging in his electric guitar, Miles Davis adding electric keyboards to the mix, the Byrds’ colliding country with rock on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Run DMC riffing on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” In this same vein, Ill Communication expands the notions of what rap could be, what pop could be, and what pop could express and show about life, just by throwing out “common sense” ideas of what pop was supposed to be and what we as listeners and creators are supposed to be.

I finally, at age 17, had to face the fact that the Beastie Boys are not white boys in blackface, and never were to begin with. With this reckoning, I had to come to terms with the significance and potential of hip-hop, with its growing pains and its maturity, with its role within pop and as pop. By wrestling with many genres, by fistfighting openly about authenticity and whiteness and masculinity, by engaging with pop in all its diversity, Ill Communication is one of the quintessential pop albums of the 1990s. You could branch out from it to discover a world — indeed, whole worlds — of culture that expand and challenge your understanding of what it means to be an American, an adult, and a human. I know, because I did it. Ill Communication made me communicate with myself, made me learn to define myself instead of letting others do it for me, and to discover how complicated and neverending that process is.

If you want to understand what hip-hop learned from the 1990s, and what the 1990s meant musically from that point onward, hip-hop or not, Ill Communication is a good place to start — and to return.

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