10 Essential Beastie Boys Songs
Taking influences from hardcore and hip hop, the Beastie Boys mixed and mashed musical styles to deliver infectious grooves and wickedly funny lyrics.
Like fellow New Yorkers Run-D.M.C., they disregarded the color line dividing rock and rap in the Eighties. The roots of the Beastie Boys date back to 1981, with the definitive trio configuration of ADROCK (Adam Horovitz), MCA (Adam Yauch) and Mike D (Michael Diamond) coalescing at mid-decade. After a series of 12-inch records, the Beastie Boys brashly announced themselves to the world with the full-length Licensed to Ill (1986). While it typecast the Beastie Boys as beer-swilling party animals, the group exploded any notions of one-dimensionality with its ambitious followup, Paul’s Boutique (1989). On Check Your Head (1992) and Ill Communication (1994), the Beastie Boys – who are capable instrumentalists – performed most of the music while integrating an array of samples, beats and witty wordplay into an ever-intriguing sonic smorgasbord.
Subsequently, the Beastie Boys have issued three full-length albums of words and music – Hello Nasty (1998), To the 5 Boroughs (2004) and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011) – along with a few EPs and 2007’s all-instrumental The Mix-Up. With each release, the Beastie Boys have reasserted themselves as sharp-tongued musical innovators with an unabashed sense of humor.
Here, the Rock Hall suggests 10 essential Beastie Boys songs.
After years performing as a hardcore punk act, the Beastie Boys – ADROCK, MCA and Mike D – recast themselves as rap innovators. It was an especially unlikely move for three middle-class white kids from New York City, but it was a sonic shift that created a stir. Leading the charge was "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)" from 1986's Licensed To Ill. Produced by friend and label head Rick Rubin, the song combined heavy metal swagger, rap brio and the Beastie Boys' ill-bred humor.
Whereas the boisterous Gen X anthem "Fight For Your Right" sonically shared much in common with the Beastie Boys' hardcore roots, "Brass Monkey" – also from Licensed To Ill – delivered a more hip-hop flavored two-and-a-half minute nugget of infectious tomfoolery. Built around a sample of obscure R&B outfit Wild Sugar's "Bring It Here," "Brass Monkey" was a riotous ode to the trio's primary interests at the time: "Monkey and parties and reelin' and rockin'" The Beastie Boys' party friendly tracks – and complementary music videos – helped make Licensed To Ill a pop-culture phenomenon, topping Billboard’s album chart for seven weeks and selling more than nine million copies.
Appearing on 1989's landmark Paul's Boutique, which was recorded with producer/collaborators the Dust Brothers, "Hey Ladies" combined the feckless sing-along hedonism of earlier Beastie Boys anthems with a technical sophistication (especially in its complex, multi-layered sampling) that would profoundly influence the sound and construction of hip-hop. The song's lyrical gymnastics – referencing Tom Thumb, Chuck Woolery, Vincent van Gogh and Welcome Back, Kotter, among many others – set the bar for rap's verbal acrobats for generations."Hey Ladies" was the only charting single from Paul's Boutique.
Paul's Boutique was a dizzying, kaleidoscopic collage that has been called “the Pet Sounds and Dark Side of the Moon of hip-hop," featuring as many as 300 audio samples spread out over its 15 tracks. "Shake Your Rump" brilliantly captured the spirit of that creativity and singular vision, weaving snippets by everyone from Average White Band, Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown to Funky 4+1, Ronnie Laws and Led Zeppelin, to Rose Royce and Sugarhill Gang. Above it all were the vocal stylings of ADROCK, MCA and Mike D, who echoed the song's sonic broad strokes with playful lyrics that referenced Patty Duke and Kangols (The Patty Duke the wrench and then I bust the tango / Got more rhymes than Jamaica got Mango Kangols), cartoon character Fred Flintsone and The Brady Bunch (Like Sam the butcher bringing Alice the meat / Like Fred Flintstone driving around with bald feet), among many, many other things. It was the type of dense masterpiece that would go on to inspire the likes of modern mashup purveyors, such as Girl Talk.
Released as the second single from 1992's Check your Head, "So What'Cha Want" was emblematic of a revised sonic approach by the Beastie Boys. Although the trio still invoked a hip-hop vision dominated by a colorful musical stew whose recipe included elements of punk, jazz and funk, the sample-heavy direction of Paul's Boutique was scaled back in favor of live instruments and complementary arrangements, with each member of the Beastie Boys playing on the album – namely ADROCK on guitar, MCA on bass, Mike D on drums and, on this track, the killer organ hook played by Money Mark. "So What'cha Want" stands out as among the album's few moments that slips into a more rap-inspired groove, with its record scratches and a bass-heavy syncopated rhythm, though embodies the lyrically driven structure found throughout the album, as the trio takes turns behind the mic delivering vaguely confrontational lyrics through a scratchy filter: But like a dream I'm flowing without no stopping / Sweeter than a cherry pie with Reddi Whip topping / Goin' from mic to mic kickin' it wall to wall / Well I'll be calling out you people like a casting call.
Released in 1994, Ill Communication brought the Beastie Boys their largest audience since their 1986 debut. The album peaked at Number One on the Billboard 200 charts in June 1994, and debuted at Number Two on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums that same month. The album's chart success was propelled largely by its first single, "Sabotage." Signaling a return to a more traditional rock arrangement, the Beastie Boys channeled their punk roots for a raucous number powered by MCA's distorted bass riff, along with Mike D on drums and ADROCK on guitar. The Spike Jonze–directed music video gained extensive MTV airplay, casting the fun-loving threesome as central characters in a Seventies crime drama parody.
The lead track on Ill Communication, "Sure Shot" was the type of unique turn that the Beastie Boys seem to effortlessly curate. The song is driven by a flute riff pulled from jazz artist Jeremy Steig's "Howlin' For Judy," which provides an unlikely yet ideal foil for the punch and kick of the track's hip-hop cadence and hardcore beat. An evolution of the era's jazz rap sound, the verse-chorus-verse structure of "Sure Shot" meant it would find release as a single, and its chorus remains one of the more often-quoted passages from the Beastie Boys voluminous canon: Because you can't, you won't, and you don't stop / When you can't, you won't, and you don't stop / You know you can't, you won't, and you don't stop. The chorus was written entirely by Beastie Boys original turntablist, DJ Hurricane. He recorded the chorus over the phone at 3 am because he was out of town during the sessions.
Echoing the title's outer-dimensional suggestion, the lead single from the Beastie Boys' fifth album, Hello Nasty, is chock full of celestial atmospherics – including a host of synth blips and beeps, and a recurring robotic vocoder voice – that gel with the steady, head-bouncing beat of "Intergalactic." Lyrically, the group deliver a twisted assemblage of metaphors and similes to address their hip-hop panache and ability to rev up a crowd: From the family tree of old school hip hop / Kick off your shoes and relax your socks / The rhymes will spread just like a pox / Cause the music is live like an electric shock. The confidence was not unfounded: "Intergalactic" peaked at Number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1999. The music video directed by MCA (under the pseudonym of Nathanial Hornblower) was an uproarious homage to classic Japanese monster movies, and featured the popular single-only mix of the song.
Appearing on 1998's Hello Nasty, "Body Movin'" was the follow-up single to "Intergalactic." The song notably sampled Amral's Trinidad Cavaliers Steel Orchestra's version of the Tito Puente composition "Oye Como Va" (later made famous by Santana), giving the song its distinct Latin flair, in addition to vocal tracks from a fitness clip. The cross-cultural hodgepodge was buoyed by a funky backbeat, as the Beastie Boys' trademark interplay, call-and-response exchange moved the track forward with typically cogent gusto.
After shelving work on The Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1 following Adam Yauch aka MCA's cancer diagnosis, the Beastie Boys regrouped and presented a reworked, edited playlist in 2011: The Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2. Older, wiser and unaffectedly hip, the trio led off their eighth studio album with the pronounced dirty funk grind of "Make Some Noise." The track not only acknowledged their aging (My rhymes age like wine as I get older / I'm getting bolder, competition is waning) but also provided a humorous reflection – and show of maturity – on self-awareness: Pass me the scalpel, I'll make an incision / I'll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitching / Put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf / And you can show it to your friends and say that's my old self. The star-studded music video directed by MCA presents itself as a sequel to the group's first hit: "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)"