Beastie Boys - Ill Communication - Review
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critics' view

While it was far from disappointing, the Beasties’ third LP, 1992’s Check Your Head, lacked a lot of the wow-factor that’d graced their sampladelic masterpiece of 1989, Paul’s Boutique. A return to the New York trio’s scrappy punk sound, prominent on early demos, Check Your Head was solid, competent, mixing the band’s trademark rhyme schemes with bombastic percussion and over-amplified riffs. But for their next set, messrs Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA would have to step their game up.

And didn’t they just. 1994’s Ill Communication mixed together elements of the preceding pair of long-players – the bratty sneer of the group’s 86 debut, Licensed to Ill, was by now forgotten – to present 20 tracks fluttering from low-slung funk to caustic rock’n’roll via bona-fide mega-hits and jazz-tinged instrumentals. Trading lines with such liquidity that, at times, the three voices blend into a perfectly unprecedented stew of consciousness, our protagonists were promptly re-established as both a rap force and a commercially viable proposition. In the UK, Sabotage – this album’s lead single – charted higher than any Beasties cut had since 1987’s No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn, buoyed by its now-iconic cop show-spoofing video. But one track alone couldn’t come close to representing the full spectrum of sounds on its parent LP.

Opening with a canine squeal before breaking into a flute loop cribbed from Jeremy Steig, Sure Shot wastes no time in setting a tone for what’s to follow: pop culture references, in-jokes, shout-outs to the Beasties’ supporting cast, all atop the sort of bread-and-butter hip hop beat that’s backed the dropping of science since day dot. Tough Guy’s a Check Your Head hangover, but at less than a minute it’s over as soon as the racket’s begun. From there, the Beasties slip back into hip hop mindsets – B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak brings distorted vocals to the fore, ahead of Root Down’s appearance as a scratchy partner piece to Sure Shot, its reappropriated sample also drawn from jazz circles, namely Jimmy Smith’s Root Down (And Get It). Sabotage sits at track six – one of this set’s heavier numbers, with an opening riff that’s immediately recognisable (name that tune? Two seconds, max…), it’ll forever be heard with its video firmly in mind.

The album’s numerous instrumentals help to break up the dizzying cavalcade of rhymes coming at the listener from all sides – performed by the Beasties, they’re rooted in lounge-jazz territory, and the likes of Sabrosa and Eugene’s Lament would later feature on an all-instrumental collection, 1996’s The In Sound from Way Out! (the trio has since released a ‘sequel’, 2007’s Grammy-winning The Mix-Up). Of the rap numbers in the record’s second half, Do It welcomes long-standing Beasties buddy Biz Markie for its disyllabic ‘chorus’, and The Scoop positions the three MCs behind the same fuzzy production front erected by B-Boys… several tracks earlier. Heart Attack Man is a two-minute thrash-about introduced by a laughing-himself-apart Mike D; and the penultimate number Bodhisattva Vow is a showcase for MCA’s Buddhist philosophy, tumbling forth over Om-like drones.

Ill Communication returned the Beasties to the number one position on the US Billboard 200 – the first time they’d topped the chart since Licensed to Ill – and their next two albums, 1998’s Hello Nasty and 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, would repeat the feat. Clearly, this is the collection that steadied the Beasties after a minor commercial wobble – that, and it represents the moment when three brats from the other side of the Pond properly grew up, developed attitudes that looked to the future rather than live for the present, and became global superstars for all the right reasons. It remains to this day the quintessential Beastie Boys collection – perhaps not the most influential, nor the most critically celebrated; but certainly the most concisely encapsulating.

Mike Diver
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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