Beastie Boys’ ‘Ill Communication’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
Even Ken Jennings looked stumped. On May 14, Jeopardy! featured a category titled “The 1990s Rap Song.” And to the surprise of no one, Jennings nearly swept it. A decade prior, the Seattle native won a record-breaking 74 games and $2.52 million on the show. He completed the title of Notorious B.I.G.‘s 1997 anthem (“What is ‘Mo Problems’?”), named the Digital Underground‘s “Humpty Dance” and rattled off MC Hammer‘s “U Can’t Touch This.” But no one buzzed in when host Alex Trebek recited the lyrics to a 1994 Beastie Boys song: “I can’t stand it, I know you planned it … listen y’all, it’s a – ”. Jennings gazed to his left, trying his best to recall, while the other contestants were silent.
To be fair, Trebek’s delivery was all wrong. He was jittery, while the Beasties (Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock) practically barreled through the defiant, thrashing hit “Sabotage,” the song in question off the group’s fourth album Ill Communication. As that record turns 20 today (May 23), it’s worth examining why exactly it’s a must-hear album, and how it helped shape the era even though it often gets overshadowed by other landmark releases from that year.
Before it was re-released in 2009, critics often wrote about Ill Communication as a do-over of the sort of grab-bag experimentation from 1992’s Check Your Head (which marked the first time the guys played their own instruments on a Beastie Boys record). Music histories would regard it as a relatively small blip in the group’s career that happened to bring the world “Sabotage,” the song that had to be the album’s lead single. Of all the tracks featured, this punk-nostalgia hit came closest to recalling how the rap trio sounded in Licensed to Ill‘s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” – bratty, obnoxious.
Beastie Boys, “Sabotage”
And yet in the latter’s video, they were no-good scumbags who ogled at girls, thrust pies into people’s faces and lit a copy of Popular Science on fire. For the Spike Jonze-directed “Sabotage,” they were sleazy cops. Their fake mustaches are goofy, but the stunts they pull (throwing a life-sized doll off a bridge, pushing another out of a moving car) was still-cheeky proof that they cared about this more than they once let on. It’s fitting that the song was initially named “Chris Rock” (after a Chris at the studio), of course a name now associated with a shrewd comedian who offers social commentary but also isn’t afraid to be silly.
At the time, “Sabotage” was a reason why the Beastie Boys had crossover appeal. The group was the most cited in a 1994 Billboard article, “Modern Rock Opens Door to Rap Tracks.” These radio stations were selective. They leaned toward songs with heavy rock sensibilities. Some gravitated toward the sort of anti-establishment lyrics that punk also championed. They only played hip-hop at night and “tend[ed] to focus on white rappers.” One Boston station was playing both “Sabotage” and “Get It Together” featuring A Tribe Called Quest‘s Q-Tip, or shoot-the-shit, mic-passing rap at its finest.
Beastie Boys, “Get It Together” (ft. Q-Tip)
Ill Communication was cut at a time when rappers actually addressed one another if they appeared on the same song. When MCA asks about Q-Tip’s boots, Q-Tip raps, “Got the Timbos on my toes, and this is how it goes,” and then go “One-two, oh my god” in unison like valley girls. It’s a small gesture, but it also best reveals their camaraderie. (Six months prior to Ill Communication‘s release, all three Beastie Boys were featured on A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders album artwork, along with 60-plus other hip-hop artists and DJs.)
It’s with those same good intentions that Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock would tangle throughout Ill Communication with warped rap (“B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak”), riotous punk (“Heart Attack”) and funk jams that are spirited (“Root Down”), vibrant (“Futterman’s Rule”) and meditative (“Ricky’s Theme”). It’s with that same respect that the trio boasts of having more Soul on this Train than Don Cornelius (wildly inventive highlight “Flute Loop”) and sample the first-ever hip-hop TV show (“Alright Hear This”) while reassuring “I know this music comes from African descent.” And some of these influences would even coalesce in a single manifesto.
Earlier this month, men dressed as Tibetan monks were break dancing in New York City, to the confusion of some. The list of reasons why begins with Ill Communication‘s “Bodhisattva Vow.” After seeing the Dalai Lama at a 1993 conference, MCA wrote an English-language riff off of traditional Mahayana Buddhist vows. In this song, these vows blare in through a heady mix of ancient and new – monks chanting, cymbals crashing, records scratching. MCA cannot be mistaken for anyone else, though he sounds more self-assured here than when he was a Licensed to Ill lunkhead. These vows would launch years of supporting Tibetan liberation,with his Milarepa Fund and Free Tibet concerts.
Ill Communication would become the group’s second No. 1 album. It would also become its second triple platinum album. Its release prefaced its headlining Lollapalooza gig, as one of two hip-hop acts at the entire festival (A Tribe Called Quest was the other) and the only act there who brought Tibetan monks to its set. But by then, it was more than clear that Beastie Boys couldn’t just be considered hip-hop or rock. When Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan interviewed MCA on the festival grounds for MTV, he said, “I can honestly say that the Beasties have a lot of influence on the bands in the bill this year, so maybe you want to talk about that.”
“Um, well, I,” MCA said, before he bugged out his eyes and pretended to walk away, as if confounded by what Corgan said. But it’s true – with Ill Communication, Beastie Boys showed how a seemingly random aesthetic in music can make sense. They knew who they were, and they accepted how all that can change, sometimes from one song to the next.