Music History

Beastie Boys' Check Your Head turns twenty

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When the '80s became the '90s, everyone stepped up their game. Rap matured lyrically and became more sonically sophisticated, while rock became more intelligent and emotionally rich. Politics became younger while fashion became older. If a band was to survive this cultural revolution, it had to prove itself. U2 had to abandon its pretentious cowboy boots and make with the irony; Madonna had to stop with the ditzy Betty-Boop act and become a dominatrix; and the Beastie Boys picked up some instruments.


Thankfully, picking up drums and guitars was nothing new for the Beastie Boys. Long before they were causing teenage girls to cry (for fear, not lust) as mothers booed them off the stage while supporting a Madonna tour, Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA were establishing themselves as a New York hardcore band.

After goofing around with a hip-hop track called "Cooky Puss," the act garnered the attention of Rick Rubin's newly formed Def Jam Recordings. For their debut album, License to Ill, the Beasties briefly modeled themselves into meat-head party beasts, spraying beer on women in cages while rapping next to a giant inflatable penis. They'd keep the juvenile irreverence throughout their career, but would later maintain that their disregard for female worth was just an act.

"We switched from beer to weed, then we made Paul's Boutique," Ad-Rock told NPR's Terry Gross in a 2006 Fresh Air interview. It was this second album that kept the boys in the game, proving to the hip-hop community (which was venturing into a renaissance of its own) that the Beastie Boys weren't just a novelty act. After parting with Def Jam and losing Rick Rubin, critics were ready to be done with the outfit even before it began to record its follow-up album; but teaming up with the Dust Brothers, the band delivered a sample-heavy opus that floored musicians and critics yet didn't do much for a radio-saturated public waiting to hear the next "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)."

After the infamous Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. court battle -- where Biz Markie got slammed with criminal prosecutions for sampling Gilbert O' Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" -- changed hip-hop forever, it would be impossible for the Beastie Boys to replicate Paul's Boutique even if they wanted to (though repeating themselves was far from what these guys were up to).

"There was talk of making it an instrumental record for a while," said Mike D on the 2009 Check Your Head re-release album commentary. "For the first year and a half where we just came into the studio and played our instruments every day, we didn't even mess with vocals for a long time."

Several of the songs remained instrumentals, a few sounding like they could easily be the soundtrack to films like Superfly or Blackula ("Lighten Up;" "In 3's;" "Groove Holmes"), others showing off the band's previously unseen hippie side ("POW" and "Namaste").

The band recorded in its newly built G-Son Studios, spending three years on the album. "Yeah, but like two years of that were spent playing basketball," argued Mike D on the album's commentary. "Yeah, and probably another half a year playing dominoes," added MCA. After spending so much time on instrumentals, the band briefly abandoned the distractions of their L.A. studio, renting a mini-van and taking a road trip up to a beach house in Mendocino County with the hope of writing some lyrics.

For the most part, though, Check Your Head is not an album for lyrics. Really only songs like "Jimmy James," "Finger Licking Good" and "So What'cha Want" have memorable lines to stand up next to the Beastie Boys catalogue. After returning to its roots by recording with the unknown hardcore band Frontline, the band simply went to its record collection and pulled out a random album (Small Talk, by Sly and the Family Stone), and Mike D gritted out the lyrics to "Time for Livin'" atop the instrumental.

Despite the hip-hop industry's new found position of walking on legal eggshells, Check Your Head does have a fair amount of samples. Richard Pryor, Bad Brains, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Funkadelic and Cheap Trick -- Check Your Head is not only loaded with instrumental tributes to musical greats, but it's also peppered with an array of pop-culture references, teasing encyclopedic nerds with slivers of memory-provoking clips. (It's worth noting here that CYH is only "peppered" with pop-culture references, whereas Paul's Boutique has the equivalent of mixing Pop Rocks with Coke.)

For lead track "Jimmy James," the band had recorded an entire song made up primarily of Jimi Hendrix samples -- yet when the band tried to clear the samples from the Hendrix estate, the request was denied. The band re-recorded the song for the album, later releasing the Hendrix-heavy sample recording as a twelve-inch single after the estate changed hands.

Check Your Head established the Beastie Boys as sophisticated musicians -- even if they were smirking all the while like juvenile toads who just told a fart joke. Avoiding becoming a one-hit wonder, as many had predicted, the Beastie Boys carved out the perfect level of fame for themselves. Like the Pixies or Nick Cave, they were widely respected by those who bought their albums, yet could walk down the street unmolested.

Delivering an intergenerational, culturally expansive kitchen-sink album like Check Your Head ended any references to the band's previous frat-boy image. And after the two albums that followed -- Ill Communications and Hello Nasty -- the debut hit that many assumed would be its last, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)," would become a minor footnote in the band's legacy.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse