Ive loved the Beastie Boys as long as I can remember. Its kind of hard not to. I mean, theyre three white dudes with a sense of humor, uncanny rhyming abilities, a love for punk rock, samples from across the widest ranges of music, beliefs in the Jewish faith, and theyre all from New York City, the greatest cultural hub in North America. They have made some of the most fantastic hip-hop and rock singles of the past two decades, not to mention polished off several albums that are nothing short of spectacular. It is safe to say the Beastie Boys are one of the most unique and influential bands of our generation, and those who argue are either mods or fascists. However, it took me way too long to conclude this.
While Id known about the New York trio since I was about seven, my first Beastie Boys album experiences date back to fifth grade, when Hello Nasty was brand new and Licensed to Ill was becoming perceived as a classic. As a result, these were the first two albums I ever heard from them, introducing me to the Beasties’ rare breed of intellectual hardcore and hip-hop. On top of that, my neighbor was always bumping Ill Communication before school and during intense sessions of skateboarding. Also, VH1 was constantly babbling about how Pauls Boutique was the album that saved the Beastie Boys’ career, and To the Five Burroughs was released by the time I understood how rad these guys truly were. Hell, I even had Some Old Bullshit from my days as a punk rocker when I wore Misfits wristbands. But somehow, there was one album that I did not hear until much, much later.
Around the time I got into college and into trouble, I spent a lot of an isolated summer downloading infinite amounts of torrents. One day, I decided it was time to actually own every Beastie Boys album. Most of them I had heard at this point in time, but one I had not heard was Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys’ hidden masterpiece. This record would go on to become my favorite record by the posse, serve as the soundtrack to several college dance parties, and turn into the definitive Bible for what I thought was possible with music. There is probably a good reason its such an elusive record. For one, the album only contains one single that was widely accepted (So Whatcha Want), while the other two were sort of brushed aside from the charts and received little airplay. The album was also released in 1992, the height of grunge, alternative rock and Seattle, so people were probably not as stoked on the newest white hip-hop release (thanks, Vanilla Ice) as they were about a hip-hop record like The Chronic. Too bad, though, since this is by far the Beastie Boys’ most creative, innovative, and underrated album.
For one, just look at the cover of Check Your Head. In a truly punk rock depiction of the Three Wise Monkeys (see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil), the Beasties look their rawest: sitting on the curb with instruments, awaiting their next gig. The Beastie Boys returned to their more punk rock side on this album, but didnt abandon the hip-hop personas they had achieved on Licensed to Ill and Pauls Boutique.
Jimmy James starts off the album, with a classic Cheap Trick sample (This next song is the first song on our new album) from Live at Budokan. The song expresses the bands love for Jimi Hendrix, and the production on this track is some of the best on the album, while the Beastie Boys sound genuinely excited as they rap over the Hendrix-influenced beat. Funky Boss follows, which is, well, funky, even more so than the Seinfeld interludes. The classic bass opener into the chorus will always put a smile on my face and make me sing out, Funky boss, funky boss, get off my back! Pass the Mic follows and is possibly one of the most complex rap songs ever written. The beat changes up quite a few times, but the Beasties have no problem keeping the rhyming intelligent, the beat raw, and everything meshing together in a beautiful mess, including a clip from the boys heroes, Bad Brains.
Gratitude was where they started to bring out the rock and roll guns again, with a guitar riff so diabolically catchy, its no surprise that its now a highlight of their live repertoire (which kicked ass at Bonnaroo 2009). By far one of the best sampled tracks on the album is Finger Licking Good with its mythical flute loop and quick-paced bongos keeping the rhythm, as well as the beat dropping for a quick clip of Bob Dylans Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues to close things out. Then there is finally So Whatcha Want, the most acclaimed and possibly the finest track on the album. The Beasties say some of the best lines of their career (Im as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce and I got news for your crews, youll be sucking like a leech), all accompanied by one of their grittiest beats to date.
After that, though, the album gets really unique, and one can truly see why the Beastie Boys are so influential. Time for Living follows, a truly magnificent punk rock number that would later become the opener to their live shows, only to get the crowd into a mosh pit frenzy reminiscent of their early hardcore days. Its songs like this that show how hard this band really can rock. One of their trippiest numbers, Somethings Got to Give, shortly follows, complete with Peter Frampton-style vocals and spacey guitar progressions. Both Pow and In 3s, being funky instrumentals, really spaced out the last portion of the album and somehow wound up scoring a scene in the Larry Clark movie Kids. The album closes with a track Namaste, another funky instrumental to bring it all to a fantastic finale. In my mind though, Professor Booty is the perfect and true finale to the album, with the line that changed my life forever: Life aint nothing but a good groove/A good mix tape to put you in the right mood. It all says so much.
Id always known I loved the Beastie Boys, but Check Your Head made me truly appreciate them as a collective unit. The three MCs that are Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D. have been doing this game for almost 30 years, and along the way they have yet to truly disappoint their audience. Check Your Head was the point where they went from a bunch of lucky dudes to full-blown, talented musicians. On this album, they werent trying to be on the cutting edge of rap, or gather their old fan base back, or change the world. The Beastie Boys did what any group of talented people would do when making something: They enjoyed themselves. They had the money, the fame, and the talent, so for once they could make the record they truly wanted to do. Check Your Head might not change your life, but itll definitely make you realize that the Beastie Boys were important, are important, and will go down in history as one of hip-hop and punks most significant acts.