Check Your Head – by way of Punk Rock and Paul’s Boutique

Jun 14, 2012 by

This is the second part to our Check Your Head/Ill Communication/Beastie Boys Love Fest.  Hope you enjoy!

Punk rock changed our lives…

–          D. Boon, the Minutemen

I started listening to punk rock after years of absorbing whatever swill was on the radio, not knowing there was anything different.  I got my first guitar and my first skateboard the summer I turned 14, at the same time I had some friends turn me on to Bad Brains, Black Flag, JFA and the Minutemen.  A slew of bands followed, all as loudly as I could play them[i].  It was liberating in a way I can’t quite explain, but if I had to try, I guess I’d have to say that it opened me up to all the potential the world had to offer.

Punk Rock isn’t about virtuosity.  It’s about passion, energy and not relying on someone else to make things happen.  It’s rebellion and freedom, and at its core, has a social conscience.  Punk Rock is about crashing the party, because everyone is invited – it’s the most egalitarian modern music we have, because anyone can do it – just pick up your guitar and play[ii]When anyone can do it, anything is possible.  I grew up as part of a generation that was told we could be whatever we wanted to be, but until punk rock entered my life, I just wanted to be like everyone else.  All that changed the summer I turned 14, and while my taste in music has evolved, everything will always be compared to Punk and whether or not it lives up to their ideals.

 

 

The Beastie Boys were introduced to me in a high school gym class.  Our teacher, Mrs. Handfinger (I shit you not, that was her real name) was forcing us to do aerobics, and in an attempt to make it hip, she was injecting the “music that all the kids were listening to” into the routine.   So my first listening to Fight For your Right came while bumping into a bunch of other smelly awkward teenagers as we attempted to do the grapevine or some other dumb ass move (which was actually fairly similar to many of the punk shows I went to, minus the grapevine).

I’ll admit, there was a modicum of enjoyment listening to License to Ill, but mostly I just thought it was stupid.  The ridiculous get ups, the hair banger riffs, the misogynist lyrics – it just didn’t resonate with me.  I got that it was a joke, but the more I saw them, the more it seemed like they were becoming what they made fun of.  They were a joke band to me and it seemed the joke was on anyone buying the album.  I couldn’t imagine seeing them live and I certainly didn’t expect a second album.  I wrote them off and that was that[iii].

Fast forward a few years and I find myself riding around town with a friend that I didn’t really hang out with anymore.  Somehow we ended up driving around town together looking for something to do, and he convinced me that I really had to hear the second Beasties album.   I couldn’t believe they even had a second album.  I acquiesced and he blew my mind with Shake Your Rump.  I got a CD player shortly thereafter and Paul’s Boutique was one of the first disks I got.  The rhymes, the beats, the layers upon layers of samples – it was a piece of art, an acid trip, a stroll through the streets of New York, it was the only thing like it I’d ever heard.

 

 

There had been some other white rappers, most of them trying desperately to show how street they were.   Paul’s Boutique didn’t just make those guys obsolete; it challenged the whole world of hip hop.  With Licensed to Ill, the Beasties were basically a minstrel comedy routine, with Paul’s Boutique they took themselves seriously, and paid respect to an art form they truly loved, and they did it in a way only they could.  Wisecracks, put downs, and pop culture references from the 70s and 80s ran ramshackle over and between fat beats, 70s funk, and a wide array of sound bites and samples from seemingly every song you ever heard.  The Beasties were the Bodhisattva Beats of the New York streets.

Paul’s seemed like such a beautiful impossible culmination of events: multi-platinum first album, long debauchery filled tours in which they make asses of themselves – repeatedly, become the stereotype they mocked, have a messy break up with Rick Rubin and Def Jam records, almost decide to call it quits,  almost disappear entirely eventually being supplanted by 3rd Bass as the white boy rap group du jour, decide to write songs together again and get introduced to the Dust Brothers who just happen to have a whole bunch of album worthy music that the Beastie Boys can rap over.  All that and they release one of the best hip hop albums of all time – and it didn’t get any airplay.

I never really thought the Beasties would come out with another album, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted them to.  What would the point be?  They had achieved perfection; anything else would be an insult.

Because of Paul’s Boutique, I gave rap another chance – Public Enemy, Ice T, NWA, I realized that Hardcore didn’t just refer to Punk.  Rap shared so many of the same principles from a different perspective with different instrumentation, but just as egalitarian.  Anyone could do it, it didn’t take a lot of money and it gave angry kids something to do.

I was one of those angry kids – white, suburban, in the middle of nowhere and positive that anyone over 25 had it in for me and my kind.  I lived in an area that was rife with drugs and I was part of that culture. While I couldn’t necessarily identify with the oppression expressed in a Public Enemy song, I could identify with the emotion.   While I wasn’t constantly being hassled by the cops and certainly wasn’t carrying a 9mm with me everywhere I went, my friends and I were selling and using drugs as fast as we could get them and NWA/IceT/Beastie Boys fit right in to our delusional sense of selves.

 

 

We still listened to Punk, it was ever present.  Our tastes had morphed from the hardcore bands of our youth, the slightly slower, more melodic phase that was becoming known as Indie Rock.  A great couple of years were on its way with the release of Slanted and Enchanted (Pavement), Just Gimmie Indie Rock(Sebadoh), Smash Your head on the Punk Rock(Sebadoh), Imperial f.f.r.r (Unrest), Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Teen Beat records, Merge Records, Sub Pop, the explosion of the Seattle Scene, and the absolute game changing – Check Your Head.

Check Your Head came out in April of 1992.  My junior year of college was wrapping up and I’d had an up and down year to say the least.  Without boring you with details, let’s just say that the “selling and using drugs as fast as we could get them” had caught up with me.  I spent most of that school year trying to figure out how to integrate back into regular society and keep my 67 Chevy Caprice running against its better judgment.  As summer was starting to creep up and spring was in full swing, everything felt like it was possible again, a feeling I’d been missing for a long time.  It’s amazing what a little sunshine, a couple of friendly girls, and a bag of good tunes can do…

 

 

There were a lot of great albums in the cd changer that summer, spanning multiple decades, but it was Check Your Head that was my personal soundtrack.  Licensed to Ill was their satirical look at both Heavy Metal and Hip Hop, Paul’s Boutique was their own personal ode to the City and their youth, but Check Your Head was really their first true expression of who they were becoming.  Instead of relying on music made by others with other people’s music, the Beasties took matters into their own hands, returning to their punk rock youth and reclaiming their instruments.  Mario C and “Money Mark” Nishita became fully integrated into the group, and for the first time, the Beasties were actually a BAND.

The album starts with Jimmy James and the difference between this album and its predecessors couldn’t be clearer.  Paul’s and License start off with party songs, Check Your Head starts off with a “New Day Dawning”, and while there are still allusions to the B-Boy staples, (The Party People Get Moving) they do it with more grace (kind of like a formal dedication/giving out a shout for much inspiration) and clearly are putting their past behind them (I Jump Up On The Stage And Take The Mic/In My Hand Not Playin’ The Roll Just Being Who I Am).  All of this is done with a blend of live instrumentation and samples so deft that it all sounds live and original.

 

 

The album has been criticized at times for being lyrically simple, and after Paul’s Boutique, it would be hard to disagree with that, however, I think those criticisms are missing the point.  The Beasties cover their share of heavier topics on the album (racism, unity, love, religion, gratitude, new beginnings) and they certainly have their share of dense rhymes (Professor Booty, So What’cha Want, Finger Lickin Good).  What makes this album so good, and so important, is how loosely and easily they switch styles – old school rap, 70s jams, pure funk, psychedelia, garage, punk, and moments of Latin and Motown vibes.  All of it done with their own trademark humor and pop culture name dropping.  This album was a transition for the Beasties – both personally and musically – as they start to distance themselves from their profane past and start to move towards a more reverent future – but it was also a transition for rap and hip hop all together.  This shit was visionary and it left all other hip hop (and quite a few rock) acts behind.

The Beasties have both feet planted firmly in the future and past throughout the album, one moment they preach a simpler life while in another they boast about yachts and mansions.  In Stand Together they talk about peace, love, inspiration and evolution, then the last verse of Professor Booty is an extended  smack down towards 3rd Bass’s MC Serch[iv].  Other times the songs aren’t as fully formed as they later become – Gratitude is like a preliminary shot across the bow for The Update from Ill Communication.   Maybe it’s summed up best by Time For Living – a quintessentially funky song when done by Sly and the Family Stone, but with the Beasties it’s a lyrically stripped down song ripped out in straight forward hardcore.  It’s almost like they can’t wait for change to happen, whether it’s their own or the worlds, so instead of sitting by and waiting, they’re going to “yell in your ear” and make you listen.

 

 

By today’s standards, the album is almost quaint, what they do on Check Your Head is done by countless bands with a few software programs, some keyboards, and a guitar or two.  It’s easy to forget just how ahead of its time it was.  Sure, songs like So What’cha Want and Pass the Mic are still popular, and very representative of the Beastie sound, no matter which decade we reference, but the album as a whole gets a little lost in the shuffle between Paul’s and Ill.  Is it the best of the three (arguably the three best Beastie albums), probably not.  Is it the most important?  It might be, at least from my perspective.

And I guess that’s where this all really stands anyway, right?  It’s the soundtrack of our own lives that matter most to us.  This album came in a time of transition for me.  Learning to live on my own, trying to keep my shit straight, and hoping to find a way to trigger all that anger into something positive.  I saw myself in them – just three hardcore kids, riding their skateboards and making their music.  They realized they could do that for the rest of their lives and be happy, but maybe not fulfilled.  I’m not saying the Beastie Boys of all people made me start to think about things differently, but I am saying that they reinforced something I already knew had to happen.

I had to grow up.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but at least I had someone to do it with[v].



[i] This led to my mom cornering me in the upstairs hallway after a particularly loud playing of Everything Went Black, as she tearily asked me “is this all you listen to now?  Crazy music?”  I love you mom, but that just made me want to play it even more.

[ii] I know I’m not quoting a punk band here, sue me.

[iii] Of course I was wrong about that, but I stand by my assessment of the first album.  Yes, there are funny bits and moments of genius, but check out the wiki on it and see how many publications rank Ill on their top album lists.  It’s the only album, by a white group, to ever win 5 mics on the Source.  Are you fucking kidding me?  Licensed to Ill gets 5 mics, and Pauls Boutique doesn’t?  Bullshit.

[iv] This was one of the more ridiculous rap rivalries.  MC Serch had tried to join the Beastie Boys and was rejected.  Def Jam, in an attempt to show that white boy rap groups were basically the modern day Monkees, signed 3rd Bass to their label.  The Beasties had already walked out on their contract so Russell Simmons was out to prove a point.  Mc Serch made sure to dis the beasties (making references to their drug use – specifically MCA, as well as walking out on Def Jam – its always a shame when artists, or workers, allow themselves to be convinced by management to slam another artist for sticking up for themselves.)  The Beasties took the high road through Paul’s Boutique, but I guess couldn’t let it drop all the way.  By this time, 3rd Bass was all but done, so the put down is kind of moot.

[v] Thankfully, and probably much to her chagrin, I met my wife a few years later.  So in addition to three scruffy kids from New York, I also had a beautiful woman to grow old with.  Definite score for me…not so much for her I’m afraid.  Love you Ali!

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