Monday, July 16, 2012

Album Reviews: a Beastie trilogy - Licensed To Ill (1986), Paul’s Boutique (1989), The In Sound From Way Out! (1996)

As something of a belated tribute to recently deceased Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, and ultimately the demise of the group, I have decided to post a short compilation of album reviews – featuring three key Beastie releases from 1986 to 1996 … all albums being landmarks in their own peculiar way ... and each one being a firm personal fave.

Licensed To Ill (1986)

Snotty nosed NYC punks turned snotty nosed metallic rap merchants – this is the sound of pubescent white-boy Hip hop crossing over, the sound of raging teenage hormones committed to vinyl, and the soundtrack for one particular rodent infested excuse for accommodation I endured in late 1986, early 1987. The Beasties’ full-length debut, Licensed To Ill, is in fact one of the most enduring and critically acclaimed Hip hop albums of its era. With good reason.

By blatantly ripping up the Dummies Guide To Political Correctness handbook and by embracing the write-about-what-you-know template to lyric (and rhyme) construction, the Beastie Boys unrepentantly provide us with a set of tunes about rebellion, sex, partying, and about adolescent life in mid-Eighties downtown NYC in general. You’d think this sort of stuff would appeal to only a niche (debauched) few, but the sales charts would tend to tell a very different story – this being the best selling Hip hop album of the Eighties and the genre’s first No.1 on the Billboard album charts.

Part of its crossover appeal, I suspect, is the way Licensed To Ill throws a whole raft of different musical influences into the mix, before blending it all together to come up with something fresh, exciting, and genuinely innovative for its time. Of course, producer Rick Rubin and the Def Jam crew deserve immense credit in that regard; Rubin’s recruitment of Slayer guitarist Kerry King and sampling of the likes of Led Zeppelin went a long way towards giving the album its trademark heavy/Metal feel. Something that was also a feature of Run DMC’s output during the same era (Run DMC being Def Jam’s other major player and onetime tour-buddies of the Beasties. See also – LL Cool J).

 So yeah, when you consider the plethora of decidedly average rap/rock try-hards and imitators we’ve been lumbered with today, Rick Rubin and the Beasties certainly have a lot to answer for.

If even just a couple of these newer bands/acts could produce lyrics and rhymes half as clever as those found on Licensed To Ill we’d have much less to complain about. I think that was another key ingredient in the Rubin/Beastie Boys formula – they actually composed well-structured, frequently funny, and invariably intelligent raps. It sounded like these guys were skipping school, yet based on the sick-notes they were able to compose, you had to question the need for them to be there in the first place.

Highlights include … ‘The New Style’, ‘She's Crafty’, ‘Posse In Effect’, ‘Fight For Your Right’, and ‘No Sleep 'Till Brooklyn’.


Paul’s Boutique (1989)

It is difficult to believe that the Beastie Boys’ second album, Paul’s Boutique, is nearly 25 years old.

One of the main problems with reviewing older albums – for argument’s sake let’s say anything with a release date of over a decade ago – is how to place the work in its correct context. How did it relate to its time? Where did it fit in alongside everything else going on around it? … etc. With a genre like Hip Hop, which has advanced considerably since taking its first tentative steps not so very long ago, the speed of its evolution means the task of providing context becomes all the more difficult. If a decade in Hip Hop terms is a long time, and it most certainly is, once you’ve added advances in technology and an enormous swing towards the mainstream to the equation, a period of 20 years must be considered a veritable lifetime.

I’ve read and heard this album being described as “timeless”, but clearly that is a misnomer. To me, “timeless” implies something that can’t become dated. How can this album be timeless when it couldn’t possibly be made today, or made ten years ago even, due to major changes in recording industry copyright law? Far from being timeless, its content ensures it will always be associated with an incredibly creative, less restrictive, and far more innocent age. This was essentially (but not quite) free-for-all sampling’s last great hurrah.

After the success, not to mention novelty, of merging Rap with Metal on their 1986 debut Licensed To Ill, the Beastie Boys took things a step further on Paul’s Boutique, swapping New York, Def Jam, Rick Rubin, and Rock (temporarily, at least), for a little bit of LA technicolor, and something approaching a genuine kaleidoscope of sound.

The last part was achieved by convincing the (soon to be) legendary Dust Brothers to lay down the grooves for some clever, occasionally pubescent, but always highly entertaining lyrics/raps. The production was certainly ahead of its time with the duo piecing together more than 100 different samples to effectively transport the listener on a whirlwind journey through time, and vast swathes of popular culture itself.

Somewhat ironically, it was not rated upon initial release; critics struggled with it (as I myself did at the time, after being a fan of Licensed To Ill) and record stores failed to shift it in any great quantity given that it was so different to what Beastie fans were expecting, even after the long sabbatical, and the small matter that its own label was evidently happy to see it sink. However the album has blossomed in subsequent years to be seen these days as one of ‘the’ pivotal early Hip Hop releases. It is a testimony to its quality that it should eventually overcome those early setbacks and the reputation that preceded it.

Perhaps time has provided its own context after all. If Hip Hop is art, and the Eighties effectively a blank canvas, then Paul’s Boutique – thanks to three MC’s, a couple of brilliant producers, and a supporting cast of hundreds – is about as close to a Jackson Pollock as popular music gets. But then not everyone appreciated him either.

Highlights: ‘Shake Your Rump’, ‘High Plains Drifter’, ‘The Sounds of Science’ (“I’m kicking with the Kii-nowledge” – priceless), ‘Hey Ladies’, ‘Car Thief’ and ‘Shadrack’; I’m not so sure about the 13-minute finale which can come across as a series of incomplete ideas if you’re not suitably zoned.

Non credited contributors include, but are not limited to: everything from The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix; to the obligatory James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Sly & The Family Stone, Cameo et al; then right on through Hip Hop’s formative years with the Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kurtis Blow; to second wave contemporaries like Run DMC and Public Enemy; Nobody is spared. So far as iconic cultural reference points go, add Johnny Cash and Bob Marley to the mix (literally). Hell, the Dust Bros even got to sample the Beasties.

Paul’s Boutique was listed among Rolling Stone’s 500 all-time Greatest albums, The Source had it as one of Rap’s all-time 100, TIME magazine had it as one of its 100 Greatest of all TIME (see what they did there?), while those shrewd old dogs over at Pitchfork rated it the No.3 album of The Eighties.


The In Sound From Way Out! (1996)

Wow. The In Sound From Way Out features 13 tracks of premium quality minimalist instrumental Jazz-Funk from the self-proclaimed original party boys of Hip Hop. Abandon all preconceptions; let your mind and body groove.

Something of a one-off from the Beasties, and unlike any other album they’ve done. Well, I suppose this is essentially a compilation, but it’s one that showcases their talents as musicians and composers - as opposed to their rather more obvious skills as lyricists and rap artists.
Not a rhyme nor heavy guitar riff (ala Slayer providing the backing to their initial run of “hits”) in sight, and a major departure from their Rap/Metal roots.

Here they sound like they’ve set out to provide an audition to become James Brown’s backing band – or at least a softcore variation thereof. Move over the JB’s!

Highlights include: ‘Groove Holmes’, ‘Pow’, ‘Eugene’s Lament’, and ‘Lighten Up’.

Very Smoooove work fellas, you got me hooked.


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