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Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”

August 15, 1989

On the rap report card Kool Moe Dee stuck into How Ya Like Me Now back in ’87, the old-schooler proved an easy marker — only two of the 25 pupils fell below Public Enemy at 80 B. The token nonentity Boogie Boys got 7 or 8 in teach’s 10 categories for a 77 C+, and way below that were the perpetrators of history’s best-selling rap album, the Beastie Boys, with a 10 in sticking to themes, an 8 in records and stage presence, and a 6 or 7 in vocabulary, voice, versatility, articulation, creativity, originality, and innovating rhythms. Total: 70, barely a C.

You can laugh off these grades, but with Moe Dee’s archival L.L. Cool J tied for fifth at 90 A, they did represent his sincere attempt to formalize the values of his fading artistic generation — values upended by Public Enemy and the Beasties. A career nondropout who earned a communications B.A. while leading the Treacherous Three, Moe Dee idealized upright manliness; having come up in a vital performance community, he didn’t consider records important enough to mark for hooks, mixing, sampling, pacing, innovating textures, and what have you. Like most rock pioneers, he couldn’t comprehend the upheaval he’d helped instigate: a music composed in the studio by copycats so in love with rap that they thought nothing of stretching it, mocking it, wrecking it, exploiting it — going too far, taking it up and over and out and around, making it better.

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If Public Enemy was a threat — collegians with a radical program, arrogantly burying their pleasures deep — the Beasties were an insult; they dissed everything Moe Dee stood for. Sons of the artistic upper-middle class (architect, art dealer, playwright), they laughed at the education Chuck D made something of and Moe Dee strove for (two years at Bard, a term at Vassar, two hours at Manhattan Community). Like millions of bohos before them, they were anything but upright, boys not men for as long as they could get away with it. As born aesthetes, they grabbed onto rap’s musical quality and potential; as reflexive rebels, they celebrated its unacceptability in the punk subculture and the world outside. And of course, they were white in a genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large.

The way the Beasties tapped the hip-hop audience says plenty for the smarts and openness of their black manager and the black kids he steered them toward, but also testifies to their own instinct and flair. From Anthrax to Maroon, those few white imitators who aren’t merely horrendous don’t come close to the Beasties’ street credibility. We were probably right to credit Rick Rubin with all the what-have-you that as of late 1986 made Licensed To Ill history’s greatest rap album, but in retrospect one recalls the once-fashionable fallacy that George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Certainly the Beasties’ unduplicable personas and perfect timing were what Rubin’s expansive metal-rap was selling, and most likely a fair share of the music was their idea. We didn’t think they could top themselves not because they were stupid or untalented — except for a few cretins in the Brit tabloids, nobody really believed that — but because their achievement was untoppable by definition. Outrage gets old fast, and rap eats its kings like no pop subgenre ever.

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Lots of things have changed since late 1986. The Beasties’ street credibility dimmed as “Fight for Your Right” went pop and Public Enemy turned hip-hop to black nationalism. Due partly to the Beasties and mostly to how good the shit was, Yo! MTV Raps brought black rap to a white audience. History’s biggest-selling rap single (and first number-one black rap album) was recorded in L.A. by a former repo man. After feuding with his black partner, Rick Rubin transmuted into a metal producer, and after feuding with their black manager, the Beasties became Capitol’s first East Coast rap signing since the Boogie Boys. Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee undertook to mix up a since-aborted album of the Beasties’ Def Jam outtakes. And if the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique doesn’t top Licensed To Ill, though in some ways it does, it’s up there with De La Soul in a year when L.L. Cool J is holding his crown and Kool Moe Dee is showing his age.

Avant-garde rap, Licensed To Ill was pop metal, foregrounding riffs and attitude any hedonist could love while eliminating wack solos and dumb-ass posturing (just like Kool Moe Dee, metal fans think David Coverdale has more “voice” than Johnny Thunders). Paul’s Boutique isn’t user-friendly — I don’t hear a rock anthem like “Fight for Your Right,” or street beats like “Hold It, Now Hit It”’s either. But give it three plays and a half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere. It’s a generous tour de force — an absolutely unpretentious and unsententious affirmation of cultural diversity, of where they came from and where they went from there.

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For versatility, or at least variety, they drop names: check out the names they drop: Cezanne, Houdini, Newton, Salinger, Ponce de Leon, Sadaharu Oh, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Blow, Bob Dylan, Jelly Roll Morton, Jerry Lee Swaggart, Jerry Lee Falwell. Or the samples they exploit less as hooks than as tags: Funky Four Plus One (twice), Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Public Enemy, Wailers, Eek-a-Mouse (I think), Jean Knight, Ricky Skaggs (I think). For innovating rhythms, there are countless funk and metal artists I can’t ID even when I recognize them. For vocabulary, start with “I’m Adam and I’m adamant about living large,” or maybe “Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words” (rhymes with curse words), then ponder these pairings: snifter-shoplifter, selfish-shellfish, homeless-phoneless, cellular-hell you were, fuck this-Butkus. Not what Moe Dee had in mind, of course. But definitely what all avatars of information overload have in mind, or some of it: “If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.”

These Beasties aren’t as stoopid or stupid as the ones Rick Rubin gave the world (or as Rick Rubin). In fact, one of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil. Crack and cocaine and woman-beaters and stickup kids get theirs; one song goes out to a homeless rockabilly wino, another ends, “Racism is schism on the serious tip.” For violence in the street we have the amazing “Egg Man,” in which they pelt various straights, fall guys, and miscreants with “a symbol of life”: “Not like the crack that you put in a pipe/But the crack on your forehead here’s/A towel now wipe.” Hostile? Why not? Destructive? Not if they can help it without trying too hard. They’re not buying.

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Just to dis Def Jam — check “Car Thief,” which also takes on the presidency — the Beasties couldn’t have picked more apposite collaborators than L.A.’s Dust Brothers, one of whom co-produced the aforementioned number-one rap album. But where Loc-ed After Dark is simplistic, its beats and hooks marched out one at a time, Paul’s Boutique is jam-packed, frenetic, stark. It doesn’t groove with the affirmative swagger of Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, and its catholicity is very much in-your-face — as is its unspoken avowal that the music of a nascent Afrocentrism can still be stretched (mocked? wrecked?) by sons of the white artistic upper-middle class. Having gotten rich off rap, the Beasties now presume to adapt it to their roots, to make Paul’s Boutique a triumph of postmodern “art.” Their sampling comes down on the side of dissociation, not synthesis — of a subculture happily at the end of its tether rather than nascent anything. It impolitely demonstrates that privileged wise guys can repossess the media options Moe Dee was battling for back when they were still punks in prep school. After all, this deliberately difficult piece of product will outsell Knowledge Is King. One can only hope Moe Dee is race man enough to take satisfaction in its failure to overtake Walking With a Panther, or Loc-ed After Dark.

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Disinformation Society

At the heart of all the weirdness that comprises Beck is something stranger: his blankness. He’s made it the subject of his art (his attention-grabbing, ostensibly ironic “Loser”), covered it up (his crowd-pleasing, extroverted Odelay), and even temporarily transcended it (his critic-wowing, introverted Sea Change). Even sweet Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips—who briefly acted as Beck’s backing and opening band during the singer’s initial Sea Change trek—has bitched about his touring partner’s detachment, but Beck’s between-song banter then was much funnier than when he’d previously focused on funny music.

During his recent summer tour, Beck zoned out while his band and their puppet counterparts put on a far more animated performance. On the DVD that accompanies new album The Information—featuring blatantly improvised music videos for each of the CD’s 16 tracks—Beck’s wife, Marissa Ribisi; freak-folk icon Devendra Banhart; and various bandmates and friends dress up and strike suitably ridiculous poses while their aloof leader stares down the camera for most of the album’s hour-long duration, only fleetingly revealing recognizable emotions.

Despite its celebrated return of the Dust Brothers, last year’s
Guero
suffered from Beck’s lapse in connectivity—while its livelier grooves evoked Odelay‘s playfulness, he seemed to be having only a fraction of that album’s fun. Started before Guero but finished this year, The Information combats Beck’s tendency to absent himself with more forceful hooks on its catchiest tracks. On back-to-back high points “Cellphone’s Dead” and “Strange Apparition,” Sea Change Kid A producer Nigel Godrich creates dancefloor psychedelia that seems to sample Beck’s own band to greater effect than the Dust Brothers’ previous batch of vinyl-originated bits. Beck’s rapping adds little to the four-and-a-half tracks on which it appears, but the surrounding musicianship, arrangements, and sonics are so consistently compelling that there’s plenty to savor even as Beck drifts during the album’s largely sedate second half. Information ultimately suffers from the same hollowness that weakened Guero, but it’s bolder at its best and less derivative of previous victories. Beck’s still a space cadet, but this journey’s copilot steers him to a more picturesque planet.

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Goodfoot In The Grave

Midnight Vultures was Beck’s Controversy (or is it Young Americans?), sex-machine-tooled, pitiless, and exhausting; Sea Change was just as much a genre exercise, except that the genre was undercrafted, mask-dropping confessionalism. Both were commercial punts (though the latter is beloved by a significant cult), so it’s no shock that Guero is a retrenchment, with the Dust Brothers guiding the golden fluxchild through 11 of 13 succinct tracks, many coated in oil of Odelay. You’d call it a back-to-basics album, except Beck has no basics but bricolage: Opener “E-Pro” is a timbral Xerox of “Devil’s Haircut,” a few lines of near-sense (“hammer my bones on the anvil of daylight”) over a fuzz-groove chopped out of the Beastie Boys’ “So What’Cha Want.”

This time, Beck’s sampler-songwriter m.o. feels freshest on songs evoking some version, real or imaginary, of Southern California. Title-ish track “Que Onda Guero” extends the Spanglish introduced on “Loser,” observing the “TJ cowboys,” popsicle vendors, and churchgoing “abuelitas” of numberless Latino enclaves with the eye of a neighborly outsider. The title translates as “Where you going, white boy?” but the atmosphere is neither exotic nor threatening—no more so than the good-natured dude whose spoken riff about a Yanni cassette ends the cut. (The music resembles “The New Pollution,” though I can’t hear either one without flashing, not that I mind, on Urban Dance Squad’s “Deeper Shade of Soul.”) Next up, “Girl” drops an effortlessly harmonized Beach Boys chorus into a murderous love lyric (“I know I’m gonna steal her eyes. . . my summer girl”) to Manson-esque sunshine-and-noir effect. Three songs later, “Earthquake Weather”—a phrase Angelenos use to pretend they can predict the next big shake-up—captures the city’s uncertain topography, external and internal: “Something’s changing in the weather/like a riptide could rip us away.”

If more of Guero were as vivid as these state-of-the-state standouts, it would be Beck’s strongest set since Mutations. On musical grounds alone, it likely is anyway. “Broken Drum” (piano-threaded psych that quotes Big Star’s “Holocaust”) and “Missing” (with another of father David Campbell’s weeping string arrangements massaging a sample from Jobim arranger Claus Ogerman) are among his most fully formed ballads to date. Mike Simpson and Jon King’s beat construction is reliably sharp, and generally less crowded than on their ’80s-’90s work, perhaps because of the changed economics of sample clearances. The hooks hold out until “Go It Alone,” three-quarters in. But unfortunately, the verbal invention flags earlier. Take the ringtone-ready “Hell Yes”: “I’m cleaning the floor/My beat is correct” means to be this edition’s “two turntables and a microphone,” and Christina Ricci’s unbilled techno-geisha cameo (“please enjoy”) is, as Arthur Lubow put it in The New York Times Magazine, “droll.” But the verses are slack—”thought control/ghost written confessions/two dimensions/dumb your head down” sounds no better than it reads. Beck is too grown up for the jokey laundry lists that got him in the door, but he isn’t always sure what else to bring to the party.

Though his stormtrooper helmet doesn’t fit any longer, his new-Dylan getup does: The disc’s final third veers sharply backwards, toward the country blues of his pre-Geffen days. “Scarecrow” grafts “Billie Jean” glide to bottleneck slide as the singer twists in the wind: “All alone by a barren well/the scarecrow’s only scarin’ himself.” “Farewell Ride” and “Emergency Exit” are sparser, and equally doleful. One is a waitin’-round-to-die song, with imagery squarely in that tradition (“All I see is two white horses in the line”), the other a field holler (“Now hold your hand onto the plow/Work your body ’til the sun goes down”) carried on an electronic undercurrent. Whether they’re pure playacting or the veiled self-portraiture of a mid-career artist, these two songs seem beamed in from another album entirely. One foot on the dancefloor, the other in the grave. No wonder some of the steps are awkward.