In 1987, I was living in the aesthetically challenged community of Blytheville, Arkansas, surviving the final stages of my four year prison sentence in the United States Air Force. I was a regular at the downtown mom and pop record store, purchasing albums by XTC and New Order and R.E.M. One of the records I vividly remember buying that year was “Licensed to Ill” by the Beastie Boys. After I ripped off the shrink wrap, nothing in my music listening database had prepared me for the vinyl assault. “Licensed to Ill” was jarring – a shock to the system; lyrically and musically breaking boundaries with unfathomable swagger.
Producer Rick Rubin wedded classic rock riffs with deafening sampled beats and the Beasties bragged about sex and drug abuse and carrying weapons and chowing at White Castle. Their stage act, viewed as hopelessly amateurish for critics weaned on traditional rock music, included bikini clad women dancing in cages that was viewed as misogynistic/obscene. While some critics loved their shocking rock ‘n’ roll attitude, there were also detractors that considered the trio a weak novelty act. The hosts of MTV Raps dismissed the group as inauthentic, which may have been a pseudonym for white.
“Fight for Your Right to Party,” which wasn’t terribly representative of the album, became a Top Ten pop hit, becoming a frat boy anthem for the beer blowout bash crowd, who really didn’t get the joke. After moving millions of units, the Beasties had a falling out with Rick Rubin. In 1989, they teamed up with an even more creative and sympathetic production team – the Dust Brothers. “Paul’s Boutique,” the resulting album, audaciously featured over 100 samples, some jumping out of the mix and some lurking in the dense undertow. For me, “Paul’s Boutique” isn’t an album, it’s a love affair. It’s easily in my Top Five albums of all time as the boys boast with impeccable timing and confidence while the Chemical Brothers work like mad scientists creating a thrilling musical kaleidoscope. I listen to the album today with undiminished pleasure. Loudly.
After the “Check Your Head” album, the Beasties made their Monkees’ “Headquarters” move and ACTUALLY PLAYED INSTRUMENTS on “Ill Communication.” The album doesn’t work for me as a whole, but “Sabotage” is one of the most propulsive and thrilling rock ‘n’ roll moments ever recorded. MTV heavily played the endlessly droll Spike Jonze directed video and everything was right in the world.
I never connected emotionally with the group’s later releases, although I continued to admire their talent and root for their success in pop music’s fickle, disposable world. As the Boys once stated, “It’s not how you play the game it’s how you win it.” The Beastie Boys were pioneers that fearlessly popularized a new style of music and continuously explored new avenues of creative expression. For 47 years, Adam Yauch won in spades.