The Spry Spirit of the Beastie Boys’ ‘Ill Communication’
Even 25 years after the song’s release, “Sabotage” still makes fans want to throw elbows with reckless abandon and put fists to drywall. There’s an elegance to the mania that the Beastie Boys — MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D — spin on their rap-rock opus, Ill Communication. And “Sabotage” is the perfect example of how spry and timeless the Beasties are.
Despite driving the album to critical and cultural acclaim, “Sabotage” is not the only song worth talking about on the Beasties’ fourth album. From flute jaunts to genreless jam sessions, Ill Communication was a quintessential “something for everyone” record. That’s the magic of the album, what keeps it sounding fresh and expansive: the Beasties were speaking a universal language. By merging punk sensibilities and aesthetics with hip-hop foundations and a penchant for instrumental explorations, the Beastie Boys began to articulate a genre-bending voice that worked just as well in 1994 as it does in 2019.
Going through the cycles of critical acclaim and commercial failure, label disputes, and a vent-session-turned-jam-session titled 1992’s Check Your Head, it’s not that the Beastie Boys needed a win with Ill Communication — rather that they were in the perfect position to make a statement completely outside the scope of what defined East Coast rap.
For 20 tracks, the Beastie Boys threw everything they had at the wall, and somehow, everything stuck. It also helps that after three albums the Beasties had nothing to prove. Licensed to Ill, which went Diamond in 2015, had earned a coveted five mics from The Source. The trio had already shown they were hip-hop, rock, party rap — for the kids and for the critics. The boys sound like they are making music to satisfy themselves, and satisfy themselves they do.
The great fun of Ill Communication is that no one song represents the whole of the project. The album stands for the album and no less. But, really, we should have seen this coming once Capitol released the group’s third studio album, Check Your Head, a largely instrumental project that was nothing if not the Beasties finding their way in a dark room with instruments all over the floor. It was masterful in its wondering approach and its musical integrity. So much of Ill is rooted in Check Your Head, but with the added caveat of: “Let’s make it hip-hop, and everything else in the utility drawer.”
Press “play” and the universal appeal of Ill Communication is obvious — from the offshoot Native Tongues-esque tracks (“Get it Together”) to the hardcore bangers (“Tough Guy,” “Sabotage”); we traverse so much in the way of genre mash-ups. There’s the jazzy dressage of “Sure Shot” and the groove of “Sabrosa.” But there’s also the head-bashing “Heart Attack Man.” The Beasties laughed at genre before it became the norm to be genreless. For them, divisions were inconceivable. Instead, flute loops found a home next to orchestral laments, which found a home alongside punk band cosplays.
The Beastie Boys took 1994 hip-hop and wove it into their distorted instrumental language — a language that was unexpected and lively. And instead of the good word of the Beastie Boys aging into the haggard psalms of rap’s past, the boys sound revived on Ill Communication — even in 2019.
While the album is not “Sabotage” in sound, it is “Sabotage” in spirit. The explosive and sprightly quality of the track informs the record and gives it that fever-dream-like quality. Plus, we have a collection of instrumental interludes gluing together the record. Even though the interludes hold the musicality of the album together, nothing about the album is self-serious. Even landing the venerable Q-Tip still produced a nice measure of comedy (“Get It Together”).
The playful trading of bars between Tip and the Beasties underscored the subtle whimsy of the record. As lighthearted as ever, the Beasties were playing to all genres and allowing themselves to become all things to all people.
It is the “everything else” spirit of the album that makes it sound so ready to wade into today’s sonic waters. Had Ill Communication dropped in 2019, it would enter the conversation as a fresh take on the noise craze that so permeated SoundCloud rap’s breakthrough stars in the South Florida scene, with a tinge of lo-fi.
An artist like Denzel Curry and the quiet storm that is Def Jam’s Maxo are both indebted to the Beasties, who opened up hip-hop to make room for raucous energy and their lo-fi jazz experimentations, respectively. It would also be seen as a bite of the jam band apple presently nurtured by the Internet. It would be seen as slapdash, and it would be seen as exciting. It would be everything — a critical dream and nightmare.
Ill Communication might not be your traditional 1994 rap record, but its eclecticism makes it easy to root for. No rhymin’ and stealin’, but all group chemistry and universal conversation. Twenty-five years on, Ill Communication still feels so lithe. Twenty-five years later, Ill Communication stands as the breakout moment for the Beastie Boys. From jam sessions to punk impressions to straight raps, the album stands as a beacon to all those musicians who want to do things their way.
(Photo credit: Catherine McGann – Getty Images)
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