Buckle up, I have a lot to say about the Beastie Boys.
And about Jazz music.
They’re related, just read the post. Or don’t, this is a long and wordy monologue full of many opinions and few facts, so I don’t blame anyone for wanting to skip it.
To be totally honest, I hated the Beastie Boys for a long time. Most of the songs I had heard by them were not something I could appreciate, and I just couldn’t listen past the nasal voice of Ad-rock or what I considered stupid lyrics to get to the good musicianship and instrumentation which is remarkably quite excellent. Also, I wasn’t a fan of the repetitive phrase-shout-phrase-shout style of many of their songs (I’m looking at you, “Intergalactic Planetary”, even if it is a good song)
I specifically remember when I was very young and hearing the song “Girls” which, now that I’ve heard all their music, is likely the worst representation of them that I could possibly get. That one song, which I still hate today and will probably always hate, stained my opinion of them for nearly all my life. “Brass Monkey”, while not bad in general, also gets annoying really fast.
Keep in mind I was a little girl growing up in Seattle at the time, and the a-tonal dissonant stylings of a white boy rap band from New York called the Beastie Boys was not going to impress me. Imagine tiny me, hearing her older cousins (boys) music which was by a group called the Beastie Boys? No thanks. I was predisposed to dislike it.
I remember as a child my first love in life was jazz music. I remember fourth grade me, allowed to join the elementary school orchestra for the first time (I’m sure we were awful, kudos to all parents of elementary-aged musicians for sticking around at those screechy concerts) and I knew then that I wanted to learn to play the big bass so I could one day be the bass player in a jazz band. For reasons I can’t quite remember, I picked up the violin instead and didn’t get onto the bass for 3 years after that.
But Jazz has many intricate syncopated rhythms and moving or jumping melodies. It’s a genre of music that fares just as well with singing as it does instrumental. And I loved it. No wonder I disliked the Beastie Boys with their quarter note rhythms and shouted lyrics that I didn’t really understand, right? They’re completely different. Right?
But back to jazz for a minute; what is it? In the words of something I heard on my favorite Jazz podcast, Riffin On Jazz, “Jazz music is sounds that are pleasing to the ears”. And in the words of Robert Glasper, noted pianist and producer,
“Jazz is the mother and father of Hip Hop. They’re both musics that were born out of oppression, they’re both kind of like protest music, you know, going against the grain. If you’re a hip-hop producer that wants a lot of melodic stuff happening, you’re probably going to go to jazz first.”
In fact, Jazz as a quintessentially American art form was the progenitor of most popular music since it’s incorporation into our mainstream culture. Especially music such as R&B and hip-hop. If you listen to a lot of hip-hop there is a ton of Jazz sampled into it. You might hear it in such songs as “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, which samples “Ode To Billie Joe” by Lou Donaldson, or Mary J. Blige’s “My Life” which sampled “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” by Roy Ayers.
It’s also in the Beastie Boys. As you might know, the Beastie Boys are master samplers. Their album “Paul’s Boutique” was critically acclaimed for its intense sampling. It really is masterful the way they assembled it all together. It has some really interesting bits added from all sorts of other bands. The Eagles, The Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, The Commodores, even the soundtracks for Jaws and (if my ears don’t deceive me) Psycho. The first track samples an amazing Jazz tune called “Loran’s Dance” by Idris Muhammad, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If you are interested in more detail about everything sampled in Paul’s Boutique, definitely check out this complete radio show by Seattle radio station KEXP. This is a seriously in-depth look at the history behind that album as well as most of the identifiable songs sampled into the entire album, track by track. They literally spent an hour on “Johnny Ryall” alone. I really recommend it, it’s got some amazing insight and great tracks played. Turns out the Beastie Boys have great taste.
Aside from vocals, the album is almost entirely sampled. In fact, I heard someone counted up to anywhere between 100 and 300 individual samples. That’s absolutely crazy, especially at the time. In 1989, when the album came out, sampling was a far different beast than it is today when we have much simpler digital methods. Here’s a little article on the history of sampling if you’d like to know more.
Paul’s Boutique saved the Beastie Boys from being one-hit wonders or frat boy hip-hop. Most of the stuff on their first album, Licensed to Ill, is firmly in that camp with songs like “Fight For Your Right” “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” “Girls” and “Brass Monkey”. But like many things, The Beastie Boys got better with age. Paul’s Boutique was so different in its content it really cemented them as a quality group and changed the face of Hip-hop at the time. Impressive for three guys that were originally punk.
After Paul’s Boutique came Check Your Head which had a few tracks I especially liked such as “Pass The Mic” and “Lighten Up” as well as “So What’cha Want” which I knew before I started in on this. Thank you, RockBand
Next came my favorite* (more on that later) album by the Beastie Boys. Ill Communication has so many great tracks, I’ll just list my top picks from that album: “Sure Shot” along with the European B-Boy mix on disc 2 of the deluxe version, “Root Down” also with the Free Zone mix in the deluxe version, “Get It Together” again the Buck-Wild remix from the deluxe set, “Sabotage” which has always been amazing and is maybe the sole reason I ever gave them a chance, “Alright Hear This”, “Flute Loop”, and a bunch of instrumental tracks that are kind of transitionary, which I will be addressing later.
Hello Nasty came out next with more innovation from the band. Seriously, I feel like these guys never let themselves get pinned down, I can’t believe I used to think they were one-dimensional musicians. Hello Nasty includes a song called “I Don’t Know” which is vastly different from the rest of their stuff; the main instrumentation is an acoustic guitar for crying out loud and it doesn’t have any rap in it, it’s much more melodic. The album also features some great instrumental tracks. Again, I’ll touch on those later.
To The 5 Boroughs called back to some of what made people love them in the first place. The only tracks that really stuck out to me were “Check It Out” and “Rhyme The Rhyme Well” which for me gets a little old after a couple listens.
Their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, was again full of fantastic music. They really knocked it out of the park right from track one, “Make Some Noise” and the rest of the album is pretty great as well. However, I consider it more of an album that you listen to all at once without paying too much attention. This album had a lot of publicity surrounding it I’m not gonna get into. Suffice to say there was originally a part 1 that never got released and the group disbanded with the death of MCA aka Adam Yauch, so it never will be released.
Here’s the video for “Make Some Noise” it’s pretty fun and has a lot of celebrity cameos.
And now we’ll start to get into those things I mentioned I’d come back to.
In 2007 the Beastie Boys released an all-instrumental album called The Mix-Up. This is what really caught my attention when I was listening through their music. It finally pulled my attention to the absolute mastery these guys have over music.
I mentioned to someone how this album really helped me see their musicianship, and their response was to point out that much of it is likely sampled. I stand by my statement. These guys show just as much musicianship with their skill at playing music as with arranging all of those samples into amazing and intriguing songs. It’s just as good as any skilled jazz trio I’ve ever heard.
And on that note. The reason I brought up Jazz music earlier was this: I believe this music is the natural evolution of Jazz.
Now, a lot of people who don’t know Jazz say they don’t like it. And that’s fair; everyone has different tastes, though I wish they’d give it a shot. A lot of people who love Jazz are purists, and those people need to open their minds. For me and many others, Jazz has always been about experimentation and creating music that makes you feel something. It doesn’t have just one definable shape as it’s ever-changing.
Is “Jazz” always the Big band style? Or always the smokey bar lounge singer? How about Bebop? No. Don’t work in absolutes if you can help it, especially in music. And what about sub-genres? There are too many Jazz sub-genres to count. From acid to electro swing to gypsy to straight-ahead to fusion, there’s just too much music in too many different styles.
One analogy I heard once was that music genres are like family reunions. You have a ton of different people/songs who are all related, but maybe they aren’t all that similar. One person has Great Uncle Stan’s wide nose and Aunt Crissy’s curly hair, but someone else might have grandma’s button nose and Uncle Vic’s receding hairline and so they look nothing alike. And some people go from one reunion right to another one on the other side of their family. Make sense? Maybe not, but I tried.
So did the Beastie Boys write jazz music for their album The Mix-Up? No. It’s instrumental hip-hop. But it’s one thing among many that Jazz has evolved into and been incorporated into, and I love it. It’s intricate and intriguing, and it makes me happy to listen to it. It inspires the same kind of feelings in me that listening to Jazz does.
And it’s not their only instrumental albums either. Many Beastie Boys albums contain a bunch of tracks that may be transitionary in nature, but I find them all to be fantastic on their own. And I must not be the only one, because there was a compilation album released comprising entirely of those tracks.
The In Sound From Way Out! is my true favorite album by this group, but since it’s a compilation I included my love for Ill Communication earlier. It kind of sounds like the soundtrack to an Ocean’s 11 type movie.
So to conclude my rambles about the Beastie Boys and Jazz I want to leave you with this. I created a Spotify playlist of the Beastie Boys instrumental tracks (and a few select others). If you like “lo-fi hip-hop beats” you’ll probably like this. If you like the Beastie Boys for more than “Fight For Your Right” or “Sure Shot” then you might like this. If you like jazz and aren’t a purist, you’ll probably like this. If your main jam is top 40 you might want to stay away. I was told by one person it gets boring and repetitive. I don’t think so at all, but we all have different tastes.
Here’s my favorite track if you just want an example. Check out that funky bass line mixed with precision drums and killer guitar tones. Beautiful. I couldn’t find a good Youtube video, so here’s the Spotify song link.
I know this has been a bit of a weird post, I probably should have formatted it more like an essay with a thesis and conclusion and a nice linear thought process, but I’ve been out of school for years now and I’ve already spent so much time on this one. I’m ready for the next artist.
So give the Beastie Boys a shot if you haven’t yet. And if you have, try out their instrumental tracks. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I certainly was, and now I have 70 tracks by them in my music library.
Rest in peace, Adam Yauch aka MCA 1964-2012