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The Boston Phoenix Now and Zen

The Beastie Boys' aim is true

By Jon Garelick

JULY 13, 1998:  By now it's become cliché to talk about how good the Beastie Boys are, to chart their rise from teenage punks to rap giants, from bratty, beer-swilling sexist novelty act to hip-hop visionaries. But there you have it. The rise and the transformation are real, and on their new Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol; out July 14), they show themselves not only mastering their domain but also going for the universe. In a way, it's where they've been headed all along.

The Beasties (Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz, and Adam Yauch) used to get called out for their hermetic in-joke references, but their inside moves have long been more inclusive than exclusive. As they've traveled from New York to LA and become more and more international jet-setters, the world really has become their community, and hip-hop its lingua franca. After the anthem "Fight for Your Right (To Party") broke history by making Licensed to Ill (1986) the first #1 rap album, the Boys retreated to Paul's Boutique, recording in Hollywood with the Dust Brothers but looking back toward New York. It established their signature style: a joky, free-associational romp that takes in all manner of '70s bric-a-brac, from obscure or not-so-obscure R&B and jazz samples to sampled classic rock guitar riffs, inside name checks, and such left-field pop-cult signifiers as Kojak and, on the new album, Toucan Sam.

Paul's Boutique, of course, was a real place, pictured in wide angle on the album cover, name-checked with a sampled radio ad. It was a fitting metaphor -- one of the "little stores" that the critic Dave Hickey likes to talk about, neighborhoody, apart from the mainstream, where there's just all this stuff. Hickey identifies these as places where the shop owners "were going to talk to you, not because you were going to buy something, but because they loved the stuff they had to sell."

That may account for the high that the Beastie Boys have been sharing now through five albums, their own record label, and even a clothing line and magazine. If the Beasties have been able to maintain their credibility, and their artistic focus, that's in part because they've always shown less interest in selling than in the stuff they have to sell. On Check Your Head, they ranted about "Gratitude," the importance of sidestepping envy in favor of self-realization ("I am exactly what I want to be"). On their last three albums, their gratitude has become a form of generosity. Over an answering-machine tape, you hear one Mix Master Mike call from Sacramento to share his latest shit -- a wah-wah pedal hooked up to his turntables. The Beasties return the favor with an old-school, pass-the-mike homage to Mike, "Three MC's and One DJ." And throughout the album, there are short (bong-induced?) snippets of studio chatter, the passing of ideas back and forth, a communal jam.

None of which would matter if the sound weren't there to back up the feeling. In its way, Hello Nasty is more stripped down and old-school than either Check Your Head or 1994's Ill Communication. "Three MC's and One DJ" is just that. That old-school feeling -- the two-turntables-and-microphone style that emerged from New York house parties and predated the Beastie Boys -- gives much of Hello Nasty a minimalist vibe, but it enhances the communal spirit of the rhymes and reasserts the music's implicit DIY connections with punk. The outlandish sampling and juxtapositions of, say, "Jimmy James" and "So Watcha' Want," from Check Your Head, have been peeled back to beats and rhymes, and the hardcore elements of that album are mostly gone. A party anthem like "The Move" creeps along on little more than some crushing beats and a scratchy, subsonic bass line; it holds you with the shout-along hook celebrating BBoys and BGirls rockin' "on and on to the break of dawn."

And yet in its own way Hello Nasty continues the musical expansiveness of the previous two albums. The hardcore guitar riffs don't come out of nowhere to sideswipe you, but the impressive jazz jamming interludes still abet the overall flow. What's more, when the Beasties get down with a jazz-lounge deal like "Song for Junior," its steady-vamp groove cuts the lounge schmaltz that's being sold these days. They have the savvy to get real jazz guys like vibist Joe Locke and flutist Steve Slagle to work with indispensable Beasties collaborator Mark Nishita (a/k/a Money Mark) on funky organ.

Also distributed among the beat-heavy rhyming are a few short acoustic pop ditties, which recall the nursery-rhyme simplicity of the first album's "Girls" but without that track's effusive silliness -- and they're sung rather than rapped. "And Me" is a sing-songy meditation on technologically encouraged self-involvement ("My life line's run by AT&T . . . Once again I'm all wrapped up in me and me"). "I Don't Know" sounds like Thurston Moore singing Beck (Beasties fellow travelers indeed). The impressionistic "Picture This" gets a female vocal (by Brooke Williams) with some horror-movie Theremin-like breaks.

The subject matter is similarly expansive, moving beyond previous Beastie albums. In a lot of ways, the party jams take the traditional boasting rap to the Beasties' typical art-for-arts sake epiphany ("I don't mean to brag/I don't mean to boast/But I'm intercontinental when I eat French toast"). But the Beasties have also incorporated Adam Yauch's interest in Buddhism (they sponsor the annual Tibetan Freedom Festivals, as you might remember from our June 26 Styles spread) without getting sentimental. The raps throughout the album grapple in subtle rhyme play with the lures and dangers of technology, and even serious considerations of mortality.

Which isn't to say that hip-hop's supreme jokesters have lost their sense of humor, only that they're more serious (it would be hard not to be more serious than "Girls"). On the party tunes, the rhymes still fizz with knuckleheaded wit (one of my favorite couplets rhymes "rap" with "Châteauneuf du Pape"). More than a style, hip-hop for the Beasties is a way of hearing, a way of being, a genre that can appropriate all others (metal, indie pop, funk, jazz, hardcore) without losing its identity (i.e., its integrity). It's a way to hear across genres and so enhance personal freedom ("Sometimes I like to brag/Sometimes I'm soft spoken/When I'm in Holland I eat the pannekoeken"). It's a world without limits. On "Flowin' Prose," one of the Beasties (Yauch?) raps in an insinuating near-whisper: "I'm flowin' prose to cons and cons to pros/I'm scheming rhyme against reason like it was flow against know." It's a kind of dream -- rap as a language beyond pros and cons, beyond all opposites, a zen for loudmouths.

But even Joseph Campbell knew that Buddhas are boring, and the Beasties' rap lives very much in the world. Technology is seen as a tool for creating better jams, but also as a tool for greed. On "Just a Test," the Beasties ponder how to use technology without becoming its prisoner. "Remote Control" suggests the illusion offered by media distractions, and by extension media overload and corporate globalization. It recalls Williams S. Burroughs's view of control as the ultimate addiction.

The more you listen to it, the more Hello Nasty suggests that the elemental procedures of hip-hop (the flash juxtapositions of sampling and rhyming) can indeed accommodate all contradictions, whether that means yoking samples of Stravinsky and Sondheim or, on the ecstatic, organ-driven dance track "Body Movin,' " Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" stepping high to an instructional exercise tape. The 67-minute album closes with three of its most zenlike tracks. To a dubby beat, "Dedication" goes out to all the world's neighborhoods, growing more and more grandiose with each juxtaposition: "South Harlem . . . the whole Bay area and all the galaxies. . . . " The list goes on and on: Bangkok, Bombay, "Espagna," "Upper Tasmania," Scandinavia, and "to all the people in the Dead Sea." Legendary dub master Lee "Scratch" Perry follows, offering a serene-if-giggly, Yoda-like benediction, and then "Instant Death," where one of the Beasties confronts death and loss and the need for trust. The lyrics seem to point to the death of Horovitz's mother when he was a teenager, and a friend a few years ago from a drug overdose. But the brief, ghostly lyric works its effect even without this "inside" view.

You could say that all the great artists in popular music share the Beasties' tendency to appropriate other styles: the Beatles mixing old English dancehall and American rock and roll, punks playing country and ska, Dizzy Gillespie playing Cuban music. The great ones can do it and enhance rather than dilute their individual character. Music as a model for personal and cultural growth? "I can give you all you need," the Beasties boast in the album opener, "Super Disco Breakin'," "a little beat for the rhythm and some words to read." On Hello Nasty, hip-hop is indeed manna.

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