Beastie Boys

Check Your Head

(Grand Royal; 1992)

By Clayton Purdom | 1 September 2005

This review was originally published as part of our CMG is 3 feature. Here is the request letter:

Hello anniversary,

New:
The Departure ‘Dirty Words’
Coparck ‘Few Chances Come Once In a Lifetime’ or ‘Birds, Happinness
and Still Not Worried’ (this one is old)
dEUS ‘Pocket Revolution’
Mommy and Daddy ‘Fighting Style Killer Panda EP’

Old:
Beastie Boys ‘Check Your Head’
Archive ‘Londinium’
Dresden Dolls ‘s/t’
Tool ‘Opiate EP’ or ‘AEnima’

And also something from Kylie Minogue, Breatny or something of that kind. Hehehe.

Best regards, Georgy

Think back to a time before Paul’s Boutique was regarded as the hyperactive post-Nation classic that it is. Think back to a time before it was viewed as the door-opener to the sampling era. Think way back (hurt yourself if you have to): back before Puffy turned sampling into theft, or before the Dust Brothers were working with David Fincher, or before Free Tibet, or before Spike Jonze turned “Sabotage” into one of the most indelibly badass songs of all time. Think back to the era before the importance and (arguable) greatness of the Beastie Boys seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Can’t quite get there? Me neither; I was seven then. My favorite musical artists at the time were, in order, The Beatles, the Gin Blossoms and Seal. Seal. (Ed.: “Crazy” is the fucking jam.) I had, I’m sure, seen the “Fight for your Right to Party” video a couple times and found it amusing, but my older brother wouldn’t buy Paul’s Boutique until at least the second half of the decade, and a copy of Check Your Head wouldn’t find its way into my hands until the summer before I started high school, in ’98.

I indulge in this personal chronology because, for me, the Beastie Boys were always Great; they were always Album Artists, they were always Important. (Whether or not making fratboy whiteness okay in hip hop was a positive development remains to be seen, yeah, but shit: if three ratty rapping white dudes from NYC want to talk to me, then I’ll listen).

Because the Beasties will always be a staple for me, my analysis of Check Your Head will always be flawed: it was the last of their albums I got my hands on, and they were already my favorite band at that point. Check Your Head will therefore never be shocking, since it simply completed a puzzle: as I understood it, the album was the band’s first stab at the sound I had fallen in love with after I stole Ill Communication from a kid in Wisconsin. (Sorry, Erik.)

In hindsight, of course, I realize that, with the exception of its astounding first seven tracks, Ill Communication is an altogether unappealing retread of Check Your Head. But who could blame the Boys for this? It’s hard to hold it against them for trying to recreate the magic. Without Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys would have vanished into the footnotes of history, an “important” group that made an underrated follow-up before wholly disappearing.

History lesson: After License to Ill and the type of monstrous crossover sales that land three white dudes from Brooklyn opening gigs for both Run D.M.C. and Madonna, the Beasties had a much-touted label switch, from Def Jam to Capitol. This was a huge coup for Capitol; at the time, the Beastie Boys were a commodity to break necks for, and by “commodity” I mean “white guys that made hip hop and sold lots of records.” Capitol accordingly gave the band a long leash: they had paid good money for the boys from Brooklyn, and the follow-up needed to be enormously successful to justify the wages. The Beastie Boys shacked up in a studio in southern California with the then-unknown Dust Brothers and, after a summer of cultural foraging, emerged with Paul’s Boutique. Arguably the best album of the 1980s, Paul’s Boutique was a daring, visionary cartoon mishmash that forecasted some of the most important art of the upcoming decade.

And as is the case with most things visionary, it flopped. Execs were fired, the Beasties were reviled, critics were ambivalent and everybody else bought the new Huey Lewis record (Ed.: “I Want a New Drug” is the fucking jam). The group that produced the first number one hip hop album in history made a follow-up that couldn’t put a single any higher than 36 on the Billboard charts. Everybody stopped giving a shit about the Beastie Boys.

With the limelight safely away, the Beasties took the genre-bending lessons of the Dust Brothers and imprinted it on their own musical passions: the shifty punk-rock of their adolescence, the populist hip hop that had brought them to where they were, the jazz leanings and improvisational jamming they were just starting to get into. As the myth goes, they bought a house together and skateboarded, played basketball, smoked pot and jammed for three hazy years. The environment was so chill that when a guy that came over to fix the front gate mentioned he played a little keyboard, he ended up becoming an unofficial member of the band (from the liner notes: “36, Clav, Organ, Wurlitzer, + Master Carpenter: Mark Ramos Nishita”). What resulted from these sessions was something of an accidental classic.

Rarely has a musical masterpiece sounded so casual, so goofy and fun, so haphazard and tossed-off and incidental as Check Your Head. This album is a freak-flag-waving parade of musical influences, where an atonal, 30 second Ted Nugent cover bleeds into a ferocious Sly Stone redux and then on to a subterranean, quasi-spiritual jazz groove, complete with congas and echo effects. The cross-pollinating that produced the magnanimously far-reaching Paul’s Boutique lyrics sheet was eschewed in favor of a more musical melange; the lyrics are, on this album, absolutely secondary to the music, being brought to the forefront only when necessary.

That being said, “So What’Cha Want” is the Beastie Boys’ finest recorded moment, a thrilling, sneering Fuck You to a nebulous batch of haters, and the track works because of it vociferous lyrics (O inimitable chorus! O plebeian rhyme schemes!), not the earth-shakingly Rick Rubinesque beat. It’s stunning, too, that a track this violently dismissive doesn’t sound angry. Rather, it bounces and surges with the hard-won confidence of an emotional survivor; it sounds like the Beasties just got over the failure of Paul’s Boutique by spitting a gallon of venom on the mic. That thumping beat begs for fire, and, on an album of unmistakable coolness, the Beasties were willing to torch a track. This proved a remarkable act of foresight.

It was this track that reannounced the Beastie Boys as both viable commercial musicians and as artists, opening the door beyond the scattered cult that had just begun to form around Paul’s Boutique. But the myth around Check Your Head had yet to gestate, and while that’s what interested after-the-fact maven like myself, the album won fans originally through the simple act of being good. The funky breaks and turntable wizardry of “Jimmy James” set things off right, the beat a dense echo chamber full of bongos, the rhymes surfacing between extended instrumental passages as giddy encouragement to the unholy beatmashing going on. They hit the mic on this track like the oldest school of emcees: rapping as a percussive complement to the music and to hype the crowd.

Follow-up “Funky Boss” is a tossed-off joke jam made engaging by muscular dynamics and the monstrous bassline MCA lays down. Later gag tracks like “The Blue Nun” are short in runtime and long on replay value, quotable and confusing and unexplainably funny. They also serve purposes within the album’s sequencing: “The Blue Nun,” for example, leads calamitously into the propulsive “Stand Together,” a track that, in less than 3 minutes, packs all the driving guitar lines and crisp drum hits of a thousand later rocktronica acts.

The back-end-of-the-tracklist glut that would plague the Beasties’ next two studio albums is blissfully absent here. The jams get looser but no less enjoyable, and tracks like “Live at P.J.‘s” serve to further the nuanced musical vein introduced by “Jimmy James.” The rhymes remain silly (from “The Maestro”: “Yeah you motherfuckers / I have all that / I see all you lookin’ at me / Sayin, ‘How can he be so skinny / and live so fat?’”) but the emphatic delivery and musical bedlam support the outlandish boasts and cliche messages on unity and wackness.

Check Your Head saved the Beastie Boys from irrelevance, but they never put out another inarguably great album. (Ill Communication would fail to recreate Check Your Head‘s loose vibe; Hello Nasty would suffer from overexertion; To the 5 Boroughs would blow.) The most lasting legacy of the Beastie Boys is that, with their first album, they opened the door through which Fred Durst and ICP would later enter the public consciousness. In a sense, the lasting legacy of Check Your Head is that it bashed that door straight off its hinges, allowing a host of godawful, hip hop-leaning jam bands (311, G Love and the Special Sauce, Sublime) to plow through. For these crimes the album should be destroyed en masse, right?

Obviously not (Ed.: but that’s still some pretty heavy shit). While the aforementioned bands deserve defenestration for their sonic crimes (okay, Sublime’s alright) these are bands that missed the point. After that initial rush of corny white guys in oversized stocking caps came and went, the album has continued to inspire artists and fans, igniting a thirst for intelligent, genreblasting party music that lingers still. The Avalanches, the Go! Team, Outkast, Madlib, the Dismemberment Plan, Edan, even New Buffalo or, hell, Kanye West: these are artists whose careers are indebted to the compositional skill and musical eclecticism introduced on Check Your Head. With their backs to the wall, the Beastie Boys had one chance to reclaim their legacy. I’d say they succeeded with an unforeseeable degree of brilliance, but I’m listening to the album right now, and that seems an understatement.