The Beastie Boys landed in the public consciousness with Licensed to Ill, an album of spoof hip-hop over cartoon metal beats that established them clearly as some kind of humorous novelty act—however, nobody thought to tell the Beastie Boys that’s what they were. Their sophomore long-player, Paul’s Boutique, was a landmark album in hip-hop, largely for its complex and erudite production, but also for their skill as MCs. Nobody saw it coming, and it was never going to be possible for them to produce something so surprising again. Enthusiasts will argue indefinitely about whether they have ever equalled that album creatively, but most fans see it as part one of a trilogy in which they recorded some of the most groundbreaking and entertaining hip-hop ever committed to wax. Part two was Check Your Head, with which I’ve been spending a lot of time for the past few months.
In many ways Check Your Head is a more innovative record than Paul’s Boutique, which took the established methodology of hip-hop beat-making, and elevated its complexity and its expressive precision. On Check Your Head they chose to do things that aren’t done at all in hip-hop—perhaps appropriately, given that three middle-class kids of Jewish and Catholic origin weren’t supposed to be doing this at all either. The hip-hop community, by and large, didn’t care that they didn’t fit the mould, and Check Your Head was well-received irrespective of its inclusion of hand-made instrumental tracks, and elements of the frenetic hardcore punk which Beastie Boys had been purveying before they turned their attention to rap.
They pick up instruments for this album, but they are mainly put to use performing bouncy jazz-funk beats, with the assistance of Money Mark’s deep-in-the-pocket keyboards. This is a genre which audiences are used to hearing performed by extremely slick and refined professional instrumentalists, but these simple arrangements, realised with the Boys’ loose and informal playing, have irresistibly deep grooves—they combine a funk aesthetic with a punk ethic. And then, at times, they just let rip with the punk rock. None of this is anything that people expected to hear on any kind of a mainstream, commercial record, hip-hop or otherwise, but the Beastie Boys just do whatever the hell they want, clearly having a fantastic time, and probably not that bothered about just how much money they made, as long as they could keep getting paid to have a huge amount of fun.
This record completely passed me by at the time of its 1992 release, a period of my life when I was more interested in investigating what the flower-children had been listening to in 1967, so there is no nostalgia value in it for me. Now I’m fifty years old a lot of the humour on the record is the kind I’ll smile at indulgently, recalling when I used to find that shit amusing, rather than anything I’ll guffaw out loud at, but I’m not immune to the charm of a bunch of irreverent young guys taking the piss out of absolutely anything that’s not nailed down. Some of the lyrics are more serious in intent as well, and there is a great deal of linguistic agility involved, wherever they’re pitching it. For me the greatest pleasure is to be had from the booty-shaking beats, like those found in ‘Professor Booty’, and the instrumental that follows it, ‘In 3’s’ (how I hate that misplaced apostrophe, though). I think a lot of people might find a limit to the level of exposure at which they can consistently enjoy this album, but I have been thoroughly entertained every time I’ve spun it.