Editor’s Note: We’re resharing our definitive ranking of Beastie Boys albums in honor of Licensed to Ill’s 34th anniversary.
I grew up as a weird kid in a middle-class Greek suburb. Too straight-laced and scared to hang with anyone my parents deemed “edgy” (the bar was low to say the least), not interested enough in my family’s traditions to find friends in my own ethnic circle, and not nearly enough of an oddball to dye my hair blue, hang a chain from my black jeans, and roll with the bleeding hearts. Instead, I spent my taciturn time on the periphery of nearly every social group there was in solitude, sitting too close the television watching hours of music videos; scribbling notes in the margins of music history books; listening to my older brother’s CDs from inside a closet (I refused to be disturbed). Part of me wished my circumstances were more dire as to make me more interesting. There are a lot of records and musicians that made it feel okay to be an in-betweener, but there’s a particular corner of my record collection I still dedicate to the experimental screwballs who remind me of just what I’m capable of. New York’s most devilish sons top that list.
I came to the Beastie Boys sometime around 2004. Late to the game as a product of my age, I had almost an entire discography at my disposal. A group of upper-middle-class Jewish kids in leather jackets with roots way down in the rebellion of punk rock who spent their time reinventing the hip-hop wheel sounded right up my alley. What awaited me, of course, was so much more.
A Beastie Boys record is a lot like those ridiculous thousand-piece puzzles at least one person you know is completing in self-quarantine right now. Each one is a deftly woven tapestry of lacerating comedy, towering technical skill, and a network of samples so spicy they’ll make your stomach ache. Every LP is innovative in its own right, a unique neural network so bountiful with ideas you could spend an entire day tracing the synapses of just one. Combine all that in an iron-clad cauldron of friendship and you get one of the most influential acts in the history of hip-hop, alt-, and punk rock.
Needless to say, dissecting the oeuvre of New York’s most mischievous is no easy feat. It’s bittersweet and maybe even a bit painful, as we all but wave goodbye in the wake of Adam Yauch’s untimely death and the release of Spike Jonze’s much-hyped documentary, Beastie Boys Story. But to be a music journalist is to be slightly masochistic, so without further ado, we give our Beastie Boys Dissected. Ch-check it out…
08. The Mix-Up (2007)
Runtime: 42:43, 12 tracks
Ch-Check It Out (Album Art): If you stare at the tape reel, wedge of cheese, and umbrella long enough, you’ll eventually recognize the name of your favorite hip-hop trio across the top of the album cover. As for the contraption below conceived by graphic artist Bill McMullen, it’s enlightening to know that it takes a seahorse and a little, green whosie-whatsit on a hand crank to pump out these Beastie instrumentals.
Sure Shot (Best Song): From the opening handclap percussion straight through the build to that eventual all-out jam, “Off the Grid” is the type of groove that we would’ve loved to have seen become something more. Then again, maybe that isn’t really the point.
Sabotage (Worst Song): It’s difficult, and possibly pointless, to pick a worst track off an album all but the most die-hard Beastie Boys fans will never own and skip all together, but if we have to pick out a dud among a steady flow of semi-interesting head-boppers, we’ll go with … eh, pick your own weak sauce.
The New Style (Beastiest Moment): Sensing it was only fair to warn fans that this wouldn’t be a typical Beasties record, the band emailed the following to their mailing list prior to release: “OK, here’s our blurb about our new album — it spits hot fire! — hot shit! it’s official… it’s named THE MIX-UP. g’wan. all instrumental record. ‘see i knew they were gonna do that!’ that’s a quote from you. check the track listing and cover below. you love us. don’t you?”
Gotta love the “you love us. don’t you?”
Picture This (Best Video): One of the group’s most memorable moments came when the boys were on SNL and began playing “Sabotage”, only to be interrupted by Elvis Costello and then join him in busting out an Attractions-worthy version of “Radio Radio”. It showed that the Beasties can have just as much fun making noise in the background. “Suco De Tangerina” finds them once again relegated to the sidelines and soaking up the scene, even if the room is spinning because someone spiked Ad-Rock’s punch. As for defusing a bomb in that condition, well, we can’t recommend that.
Oh Word? (Fun Fact): The band originally intended to follow up this release with a version that featured vocals from a series of guests. M.I.A. and Jarvis Cocker were among the artists rumored to be involved in the project. Alas (or maybe not), it never came to pass, and the band moved on to hot sauces.
That’s It That’s All (Verdict): Haters are gonna hate, and, no, you’ll not be that much poorer for all together skipping The Mix-Up. Still, the Beasties have rarely been given enough credit for their musical abilities and, probably more importantly, their ears as musicians. So, while 2007’s The Mix-Up — an album consisting entirely of instrumentals — might have smacked of a production goof failing to include the band’s vocals, it actually allowed the Beasties a chance to sit back and enjoy being musicians first and MCs second (or not at all) for one of the few times across three decades. It’s not a necessary detour, but a pleasant enough one for those who love music, records, and sounds as much as Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA. –Matt Melis
07. To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
Runtime: 44:37, 15 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: An album cover that can easily be skipped over for those who remain unimpressed by the music within, architect-turned-artist Matteo Pericoli’s panoramic illustration of New York City doubles as an epic seven-page foldout.
Sure Shot: “Ch-check It Out” has become one of the most instantly recognizable Beastie bits to ever grace public consciousness.
Sabotage: “In a World Gone Mad” is exemplary of why To the 5 Boroughs falls flat: the flow is disjointed, the lyrics uninspired, the politics feel pre-canned.
Pass the Mic (Illest Lyric): “Is the US gonna keep breaking necks/ Maybe it’s time that we impeach Tex” or, for the Picard fans among us (read: this writer): “All you Trekkies and TV addicts/ Don’t mean to diss don’t mean to bring static/All you Klingons in the fucking house/ Grab your backstreet friend and get loud.”
Rhymin & Stealin (Sickest Sample): “Triple Trouble” not only transports listeners back to hip-hop’s early days. It also puts its money where its mouth is and samples the opening of “Rapper’s Delight”.
The New Style: “An Open Letter to NYC” may not be the weirdest, but it’s a track that is everything Beastie Boys are about.
Picture This: In a competition for most hilarious video, “Ch-check it out” is a top contender. Filmed on the streets of New York, the clip is a balls-to-the-wall masterclass in hell-raising. There’s Trekkie fist fights, enraged grannies, and so much more.
Oh Word?: Jon Stewart once said “In a World Gone Mad” sounded “like a commercial for an extreme soft drink.” Yikes.
That’s It That’s All: Whereas every other Beastie Boys output sounds innovative and prides itself on eccentricity and eclecticism, To the 5 Burroughs feels lyrically and sonically homogenous. Even on a record that prides itself on creating emotional connections to listeners when all of the theatrics have been stripped away, Beasties’ love letter to the city that made them feels more like a shallow selling point than anything else. —Irene Monokandilos
06. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)
Runtime: 44:07, 16 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is synesthesia pressed into the grooves of your musical format of choice. The artwork echoes as much.
Sure Shot: Many argue that “Make Some Noise” was the last truly epic Beastie Boys output. This writer agrees. Released a year before MCA’s death following a battle with cancer, the track shows the Beastie Boys at 40 could run circles around their youngest contemporaries. A rollicking display of confidence, “Make Some Noise” is a full-circle finale built on numerous textures, crystalline drumming, and a raucous energy that hearkens back to where it all started.
Sabotage: On “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, Beastie Boys welcomed on Santigold for a reggae collaboration that feels so outside the scope of the experimentation we’re used to, it’s hard to justify the track’s inclusion on the LP.
Pass the Mic: “Hear my perfection, rotary connection/ Taking MCs down by lethal rap injection”
Rhymin & Stealin: On an album wrought with walls of space-age sound, you probably wouldn’t expect Bob Dylan to crop up, would you? That’s exactly what happens on “Funky Donkey”, which borrows from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
The New Style: One would think the inclusion of one more rapper on a Beastie Boys track wouldn’t make too much of an impression, but the juxtaposition of Nas’ lackadaisical delivery and the group’s fiery output feels so weird that it works.
Picture This: The 30-minute MCA-directed video for “Make Some Noise” feels like an eerie epitaph. Featuring two Beastie line-ups (Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride are one, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C Reilly the other) battling on a New York street, the almost-short-film is a perfect amalgamation of the cheeky Beastie Boy brand.
Oh Word?: “Make Some Noise” was adapted by Kidz Bop. No, really
That’s It That’s All: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is an extremely detailed elegy to the Beastie Boys with a message ready to slap listeners hotly in the face: The Boys are still the boss, at any age and under any circumstance. Pairing new robust sounds with production tricks from the likes of Hello Nasty and Ill Communication, Hot Sauce Committee proves the group remained witty, experimental, and unflinchingly fun. However, that revelry comes at a price: HSCII is almost too digestible and falls short when the old school Beasties try to full steam ahead into completely modern mixes. –Irene Monokandilos
05. Hello Nasty (1998)
Runtime: 67:28, 22 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: A four-year gap between albums isn’t unusual for a veteran band, but make no mistake about it: 1994’s Ill Communication seemed ages ago come Hello Nasty’s release in 1998. The group themselves, however, looked and sounded better than ever. If the album artwork is to be believed, perhaps the Beasties had locked in the freshness and killed the time in a sardine tin. We’re told Tupperware breathes better … Just saying.
Sure Shot: Everything about “Intergalactic” felt like a revelation in 1998. Fresh out of the sardine tin, vocoder in tow, came that forward and backwards robotic voice that’s as recognizable today as any riff from the decade. The trio themselves have never sounded better either, running a three-man weave of punctuated braggadocio as only they could: “Jazz and AWOL, that’s our team/ Step inside the party, disrupt the whole scene/ When it comes to beats, well, I’m a fiend/ I like my sugar with coffee and cream.” That’s how we take it, too!
Sabotage: At 22 tracks and nearly 70 minutes, there’s usually going to be some fat around the edges. If I have to send a single song into space with that robot in the “Intergalactic” video, never to be seen or heard from again, I’d boot “Song for the Man”. There are more effective ways to offer a cooldown or change of pace than the Monty Python tactic of doing something completely different and out of place. Again, plenty of fat on this album. Knock off 3-4 tracks of your choice, and nobody would flinch.
Pass the Mic: “I don’t mean to brag/ I don’t mean to boast/ But I’m intercontinental when I eat French toast” — from “The Move”
Rhymin & Stealin: Among their stranger samples, the instructions from Ed Durlacher’s physical fitness recording paired with a steel orchestra muse makes “Body Movin'” feel like a rigorous island boot camp for Beasties in training.
The New Style: Sampling their own “drrrroooopppp” from “The New Style”.
Picture This: “Intergalactic” again. This silly tale from space — equal parts Godzilla and Power Rangers — felt like a homecoming from another planet. It features the fab three famously shifting gears and speeds as they rap into their signature low-shot cam atop a track sampling sci-fi fare as bizarre as the Resonator from From Beyond and the theme song from The Toxic Avenger. The whole package somehow felt ahead of its time, like an homage, and out of this world — simultaneously. That’s actually a pretty good way to describe Beastie Boys.
Oh Word?: So, the idea for the album title apparently came from someone at the band’s PR (Nasty Little Man) who would always answer the telephone: “Hello, Nasty.” So, there you go.
That’s It That’s All: After leaning on their own instruments on Ill Communication, Beastie Boys returned with Mix Master Mike and a design to spin in a whole other direction. As a result, Hello Nasty unfolds like a smorgasbord of beats, styles, and flow — arguably their most ambitious and creative endeavor since the rep-making Paul’s Boutique. In hindsight, the hit record does suffer from a lack of editing. For every tight jam or perfectly executed three-man weave, there’s a loose song that either gets away, doesn’t fit, or could drop off the edge of the album and not be missed. That’s bound to happen when a disc bears the load of nearly 70 minutes across 22 tracks. Still, always better to have too much at the buffet than not enough to go around. Now, pass that French toast. –Matt Melis
Click ahead for more Beasties greatness…
04. Licensed to Ill (1986)
Runtime: 44:33, 13 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: Rick Rubin gets credit for the original idea behind the Licensed to Ill cover art, which, when opened, features the Beastie Boys’ private jet crashing head first into a mountain, looking like an extinguished joint. Let’s just say that’s either first class or no class. Take your pick.
Sure Shot: Corny as their parody may be, try thinking of a more recognizable opening to an ’80s song than that screeched “Kick it!” followed by that guitar riff. Ironically, the Beasties were so good at pulling off the personas they were mocking, many of the people listening didn’t realize it was all a big joke.
Sabotage: God help me, but that “Low Rider” sample on “Slow Ride” always took me right out of the album.
Pass the Mic: “Now my name is MCA/ I’ve got a license to kill/ I think you know what time it is, it’s time to get ill.” — from “Paul Revere”
Rhymin & Stealin: Opening your debut with samples from Zeppelin, Sabbath, and The Clash. Talk about announcing your presence on the scene with authority … and volume.
Picture This: The personas from “Fight for Your Right” return, this time in spandex and wigs to crash a rock concert, not a party. Of course, the three MCs rock the mic so hard that all the glam and heavy metal fans are totally won over. The best gag is when the sleazy promoter asks the Beasties where their instruments are, and Ad-Rock hands him a vinyl record. It was a prophetic moment for hip-hop.
Oh Word?: Yes, that’s Slayer’s (whoooooooooooo, Slayer!) … who let that guy in here? Anyway, yeah, that’s Slayer’s Kerry King riffing and soloing on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”.
That’s It That’s All: After shedding their punk roots and putting in their dues as three wannabe MCs, Licensed to Ill demonstrated that Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA had not only the skills to pay the bills as a hip-hop group, but also the talent to send up the parts of culture they saw fit. Ironically, the trio were so convincing in their frat boy hip-hop roles that many — even those they were parodying and mocking — didn’t recognize the joke behind the personas. It wouldn’t be until Paul’s Boutique three years later that Beastie Boys would prove their sophistication and talent to the hip-hop world. That so many didn’t get Licensed at the time (even though it eventually went Diamond) doesn’t change the fact that it’s a strong first foray into hip-hop and an even stronger piece of parody. Though some of the old-school hip-hop hasn’t aged particularly well, so much of the album hints that the Beasties were on a crash course for the brilliance to follow shortly. –Matt Melis
03. Check Your Head (1992)
Runtime: 53:29, 20 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: The cover art for Check Your Head is rumored to have initially been a duplicate of jazz man Eddie Canto’s It’s in Face before Capitol Records nixed the plan and went with the instantly recognizable photo of Horovitz, Diamond, and Yauch sitting on a nondescript street corner with their musical instruments by their side — a fitting foreshadow of the album’s sonic direction
Sure Shot: After basking in complexity on Paul’s Boutique, Beastie Boys returned to simpler composition on “So What’cha Want” and shifted the group’s gears to a grimier sound more in touch with their punk and metal backgrounds.
Sabotage: As outros go, “Namaste” — at the very least — makes sense. A slow groove meant to help take us out of the abrasive (in a good way) beats of the songs before it, but ultimately feels more like an ill-conceived lullaby.
Pass the Mic: “I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce.” — from “So What’Cha Want”
Rhymin & Stealin: Not only did Beastie Boys pay homage to Jimi Hendrix on “Jimmy James”, but they did so by sampling half a dozen of his classic cuts. From the intro laden in “Foxy Lady” to “EXP”, “Third Stone From the Sun”, “Are You Experienced”, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”, this one gets the A+ for masterful handling of one of rock’s finest.
The New Style: At only 33 seconds, “The Biz v The Nuge” barely skates by as a song, but the inclusion of Biz Markie over the opening from Ted Nugent’s “Homebound” is so mind-bogglingly Beastie, I’m still not over it.
Picture This: If you thought Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA were just about sick samples and silly rhymes, think again. “Something’s Got to Give” is a more somber cut than any of their output to date; the track’s accompanying visual is equally serious in tone. Functioning as a statement against violence, the clip features video of military bombing missions, nuclear explosions, and of course Adam Yauch dawning a devilish grin as he takes a sledgehammer to a handgun.
Oh Word?: The record was given a track-by-track breakdown by Diamond, Yauch, Horovitz, Caldato, and frequent Beasties collaborator Money Mark in Brian Coleman’s book, Check the Technique.
That’s It That’s All: Check Your Head could easily occupy the number two or three spot on this list. It may not be a perfect, polished collection of technical bru-ha-ha, but it is an endlessly entertaining record that saw our favorite MCs pick up their instruments and transform into a pretty stellar funk band — Adam Horovitz on lead guitar, Adam Yauch on bass guitar, and Mike Diamond on drums. Of course, they still found time to deliver those freestyles we know and love. –Irene Monokandilos
02. Ill Communication (1994)
Runtime: 59:37, 20 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: The cover art is an otherwise unpublished 1964 piece by photographer Ben Davidson, who gave the Beasties permission to use it. With the shades and suit, you might even suspect that the image influenced the “Sabotage” video.
Sure Shot: Fill in the blank: “Because you <blank>, you <blank>, and you <blank> stop. It’s a gimme for anyone who grew up listening to alternative rock radio or watching MTV in the ’90s. “Sure Shot” is a perfect culmination of all the Beasties had been building towards. They run the three-man weave, dropping sick brags and boasts, against backing as disparate as sampled flute and Run-D.M.C. drums. It’s just a beautiful amalgamation of elements that proved absolutely elemental to the scene and times.
Sabotage: Sacrilegious to some, but my heart would barely murmur if “Heart Attack Man” keeled over.
Pass the Mic: “I’m like “Sweetie Pie” by the Stone Alliance/ Everybody know I’m known for dropping science.” — from “Root Down”
Rhymin & Stealin: The fluttering Jeremy Steig flute sample juxtaposed with that abrasive three-part chorus absolutely makes “Sure Shot” at once recognizable and unforgettable.
Picture This: Certain music videos are markers — absolute capsules — for their time. More than that, they not only capture a time but offer viewers the very thing needed at that moment. Ironically, the Beasties’ quintessential ’90s video riffed on old cop shows from the ’70s. But in a year where the alternative rock bubble seemed ready to burst and Kurt Cobain, a few short months later, would take his own life, there’s something so necessarily silly about three Jewish rappers, dressed and coiffed as stereotypical ’70s cops, in high-speed pursuit of car-exploding action — all set to a brilliant, abrasive slice of rap-rock about being pissed off at studio producer Mario Caldato, Jr. It may not go down as Spike Jonze’s finest work, but it’ll make the highlight reel for sure.
The wigs, the ‘staches, the shades, the ties … this is the dream haul that sends us back to thrift stores again and again.
Oh Word?: Filmmaker Danny Boyle credits the opening credits of “Sabotage” as the influence for the beginning of Trainspotting.
That’s It That’s All: If Paul’s Boutique saw Beastie Boys at their most free and creative, Ill Communication found them creating with the most eyeballs on them. As a result, they went lighter on the samples and leaned heavier on their own musicianship for a grittier, more abrasive sound that matched what was still being pumped out of places like Seattle. At the same time, influences like Miles Davis informed the album, creating the fusion that makes Ill Communication famous — able to hold distorted guitar noise, aggressive rhyming, and more-delicate instrumental grooves all on the same record. With the Beasties retreating back towards straight (well, for them) hip-hop in the late ’90s, Ill Communication marks the album where they really got to show all they could do, both as a band and as a hip-hop trio. Twenty-six years later, we’re still rapping and screaming along — hell, some of us are still even sliding across the hoods of our cars. –Matt Melis
01. Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Runtime: 53:03, 15 tracks
Ch-Check It Out: The cover of Paul’s Boutique is now legendary: a storefront bathed in orange on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Credited to Nathanial Hornblower (aka Adam Yauch) but shot by Jeremy Shatan, the enduring image elicits a nostalgic comfort we could all use even at the best of times.
Sure Shot: The fact of the matter is that “Shake Your Rump” is a certified jam. Held under a magnifying glass, it’s a microcosm of what made the stylistic departure Beastie Boys took on Paul’s Boutique so intriguing and satisfying — a perfectly woven pastiche of incongruous samples so equally out of left field they melt together into the perfect funk fondue.
Sabotage: Picking out a “worst song” on Paul’s Boutique is a fool’s errand, but if we had to choose (and we have to), we’re going with “What Comes Around”. Why? The cut lacks the out-the-gate energy of its sonic brothers and sisters who come out guns blazing, making its jazzy backbone come off lackadaisical at best. Extra Credit: Ad-Rock and Mike D have publicly referred to “What Comes Around” as a dud.
Pass the Mic: “Running from the law, the press, and the parents/ Is your name Michael Diamond?/ Naw, mine’s Clarence.”
Rhymin & Stealin: On “Egg Man”, the Dust Brothers took a deep breath in and declared, “Hold my beer”. Instead of your typical chop and rearrange of one lucky source, the duo took drums from Lightning Rod‘s “Sport” (Kool & The Gang are the uncredited musicians on the song) and Tower of Power‘s “Drop It in the Slot”, as well as a bassline from Curtis Mayfield‘s “Superfly”. Now that might sound crazy, but the result is one spotless bass loop. *chef’s kiss*
The New Style: Something like the Country Bear Jamboree on hip-hop steroids, the insatiable hoedown that is “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” is so finger-lickin’ good it will make you say “wtf”, get up and dance, and reach for that bucket of Popeyes all at the same time.
Picture This: Unlike anything we’d seen before from the Boys, the video for “Shadrach” is a modern art masterpiece that evokes the colorful work of Leroy Neiman. Each frame of the Beastie Boys performance is hand-painted to give you that tripping on LSD effect to astounding results.
Oh Word?: That’s Ad-Rock’s Mets jersey, albums, and banjo on the album cover.
That’s It That’s All: Expectations following their uber-successful debut disc, Licensed to Ill, were high. Instead of settling into one sound, the Beastie Boys refused to be pinned into any box. In the midst of a massive blowup with Def Jam, the three Jewish kids who had given birth to frat-rap high-tailed it from NYC and LA to link up with the Dust Brothers and lay waste to whatever you thought you knew about the trio. The result was a catastrophic flop upon release, but an eclectic monolith to a sound all their own. In the rear view mirror, Paul’s Boutique is easily not only the Beastie Boys’ best album, but one of the greatest albums of all time. –Irene Monokandilos