I’m That Kid in the Corner

Jun 11, 2012 by

For Matt Zausch- wherever you may be, I know youre listening….

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I knew a girl once who wished that life came with a score.  She was uncomfortable in social situations and felt that if she had her own personal soundtrack, she’d know how to act based on the music.  We make the soundtrack to our lives every day, some of the songs are fleeting, staying around long enough for a summer or a particular significant other, while others are there for the long haul, growing old with us and making sure we always know how to act, no matter what the occasion.  Check Your Head and Ill Communication by the Beastie Boys are of the long lasting variety for Matt and me.  Today Matt offers up his ode to Ill Communication.  Stop back by here in a couple of days and you can read what I have to offer up for Check Your Head.  Enjoy!  – Alan

There are a scattering of moments dispersed throughout your twenties that mark an end to your youth.  Those endings aren’t usually dwelled upon for myriad reasons, but mostly because fresh new beginnings promptly replace what just concluded.  There is no time to bid farewell or pause to reflect.  All that youthful energy is used to dive headfirst into something new.  However, in some instances an ending is just that…an end.  There are times when something so dear and instrumental in shaping us fades away forever, leaving us with nothing to supplant it.  I experienced this firsthand one particular summer almost twenty years ago.

Ill Communication, the 4th studio album by the Beastie Boys was released on May 24, 1994.   It was the last hip hop album that I truly loved and it represented a personal coda to a musical genre I left behind.

Hip hop entered my life in 1986 and was a constant right up until 1995 when my interest in rap took an abrupt downturn.  My introduction to this musical art form came from a Harlem MC named Kurtis Blow.  He rapped over a simplistic beat about his love for the sport of basketball in the song, fittingly titled, Basketball.1   It was the coolest thing I had ever heard outside of Eddie’s instrumental, Eruption, off Van Halen I.  By 1989, Rap music (Which is what we called it back in the day) gained serious steam for me with my discovery of Public Enemy, and later peaked in 1992 with the iconic solo album from Dr. Dre, a former N.W.A. member, that prominently featured a marijuana leaf on the cover.  There was a stretch from 1988-1993 when I missed out on some outstanding releases from other genres due to my stubborn resistance to invest musically in anything else.  My friends and I needed a soundtrack for the countless hours spent on basketball courts throughout our little city, and Hip Hop was it.

By the time the Beastie Boys released Ill Communication in the late spring of my return home from freshman year; my musical tastes began to slowly expand.  If I were to spend the time analyzing the impetus of my disinterest, I think it would come down to the following:

  • The punk music of my time (Hip Hop) was gearing up for major commercial viability and it is always a rule of mine to move on when high school girls flock to it.
  • The R&B singer in the chorus of every rap song or the rapper in the chorus of every R&B song began appearing everywhere.  There were a few instances early on in the mid-nineties tracks that I found this to be somewhat intriguing, however, this formula was no longer the exception.  It became a boring listen.
  • The gratuitous murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.  These nonsensical deaths turned me off.
  • By 1991 all samples used on an album had to be approved by the copyright owners, which in turn made sampling extremely expensive.  This all came about in the landmark copyright case Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. To prevent further copyright infringements made by the use of sampling2 a judge granted an injunction to the defendants changing the hip hop industry forever.  I did not entirely disagree with the ruling but the use of sampling in early hip hop records hooked me early.  It was sometimes cool to hear a familiar snippet of music on a rap track but rack your brain on figuring out its origin.  I miss that….
  • Tribe Called Quest called it quits and Public Enemy lost its edge.
  • The creativity and uniqueness of the music rapidly evaporated by the conclusion of the 90’s.  There were moments for sure, but as a whole I felt that hip hop sold its soul.  The almighty dollar reared its ugly head and the large label executives began calling the shots.  Hip hop albums sold like mad and still do, but it’s mostly shit.   You could see the watered-down product made for the masses coming a mile away. Personally, that was the final nail in the coffin and marked the end of one of the most exciting and influential eras of music in my lifetime.
  • Lastly, I haven’t heard an album sound even remotely like Ill Communication since, which adds a little extra sentiment for me.  It’s sad to know that with the recent passing of Adam Yauch, anything duplicating the sounds of Ill Communication will never again come from the Beastie Boys.

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Ill Communication is the pinnacle of the Beastie Boys genius. (At least for me it is.)  There are other albums from the Beasties that battle for this top billing, but for me Ill Communication has that special something that will always give it a slight hold on the top spot over Check Your Head and Pauls Boutique.  Of course it’s kind of pointless to even debate the merit of one of these albums over the other, each has its own place in the pantheon of all-time greats, and trying to rank one over the other is a rather pointless and ridiculous debate – but this is the interwebs, where pointless and ridiculous collide, so I’ll give you my thoughts on why this is the best Beasties album.

Let’s start with a lesson on how to choose the lead track, the one that sets the tone for the whole album.  Almost instantaneously, after pushing play, you receive a punch in the gut with the killer opening track, Sure Shot.  A dog barks, a combination of samples from artists UFO, Run DMC, Jeremy Steig, and Mom Mabley, a sense that one member of the Beastie Boys has a drastically different perspective on life, and there you have it, the tone of the album is set.   It knocks the wind out of you, but still you politely ask for another.

In addition to Sure Shot, there is a sequence of songs on Ill Communication  that not only sums up the Beasties amazing talent, unique influences, and multidimensional approach to their craft, but is also  arguably their finest moments on record.  It begins with Root Down and ends with The Update. (Tracks 5 through 9)

Root Down (Classic Beasties-A straight forward rap track that’s so good, that many MC’s wish they could create  it just once, yet we’ve become accustomed  to it, taking it for granted as just another track with this group ) -> Sabotage (Punk roots played with live instruments and an exceptional video) -> Get it Together f/ Q-Tip (Being a huge fan of Tribe this was a treat upon first listen) -> Sabrosa (Or what I like to call “searching for weed from an unknown dealer in the city” music3) -> The Update4  (Distorted vocals, a ballsy message for the times in hip hop, and MCA owning every bit of this gem.)

Along with Sabrosa, I enjoy each of the instrumentals offered up on Ill Communication; the music is inspired, paying homage to the grit and grime of the Funkadelic records from 70’s.  If anything, the instrumental tracks reminded us of, or filled a void that, the Red Hot Chili Peppers all but abandoned.  These funky instrumental gems filled the album with a big helping spoonful of soul, keeping the album loose as well as providing a rhythmic groove to shake your ass to.  It was this album that made you fully aware of Beasties musical chops.  Check Your Head5 was the album that introduced us to a side of the Beasties that had not been heard before, especially the song In 3s.   Now with Ill Communication, they kept the live show rocking and the girls dancing well into the night.

Maybe the real reason this album instantly resonated with me and my friends was the shared love of basketball.  Basketball is the true underlying theme of Ill Communication.  Tough Guy is their hatred of former Detroit Piston, Bill Laimbeer, a resentment shared with millions of NBA fans outside of the Detroit metro area.  Get it Together, B-Boys Makin with the Freak Freak, and other tracks reference time on the court, and/or the mention former New York Knick players John Starks and Anthony Mason.  Even the 2009 reissue of Ill Communication came with a 90 second recording of the Beastie Boys playing basketball.

Music and basketball was really the only thing that mattered to my group of 19 year old kids.  My love for the game of basketball paved a path to my discovery of hip hop and with Ill Communication playing the role of my personal hip hop exit music, the Beastie Boys made sure I went out like I came in.

 

“Shit, if this is gonna be that kind of party, I’m gonna stick my dick in the mashed potatoes”

 

Ill Communications lyrics were a who’s who of pop culture, the porn industry, sports and music icons.  Listening to the references on the album got us up to speed on those making a difference in our world.  The album’s themes bordered on the serious, but not without the Beasties trade mark humor. The kind of education you would never receive in a formal school setting.  It was the Beastie Boys who became the teacher we gravitated towards.  It was a new source of knowledge, and with this album, our educational needs were met.

The album kept you on your toes.   Each track changed on a dime, flowing freely between themes of discontent, friendship, isolation, relationships, silliness, and despair.  They rapped about world problems we still face today and did it all embracing an approach that was different from the norm.  It left you with a sense of uncertainty, but feeling good in a way only the Beasties could manage.   As a member of Generation X, it expressed how we viewed the adult world we were just discovering, and left us feeling we could change it if we wanted to.

I admire and respect artists who take a leap into uncharted waters.  The risk can alienate a fan base, but there are certain artists who jump in with both feet.  The Beastie Boys do that with each of their first three albums sounding drastically different from each one prior.   Ill Communication was a product of all those past drastic turns, each album building off of each prior release, resulting in a classic that stands apart from its predecessors.

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If there is one thing you can count on with your first year of college, it’s that you return home nine months later.  The summer preceding your first year of college looks and feels much like the last four previous summers; at least it did for me.  I began my shitty full-time summer job within days of unpacking and settling in.  My friends and I picked up our summer routine, right where we had left off the year prior – we had basketball courts to invade, drunken nights of disorder and chaos to take part in, and girls to fool around with.  That was pretty much it and in no particular order.  Ill Communication was the album that ended my obsession with Hip Hop, but I was leaving more than just rap behind that summer.

Hip hop was what we played heading to the basketball courts.   The illusion of cool came over us as we listened to other cool people saying cool things over beats blasting out of our car speakers.  The difference of course was obvious, they were cool, and we were not.   We had the music and the perception of cool, and we were perfectly fine with that.  We did everything together, nothing else mattered.  Hip hop music formed our bond.

In the song The Biz vs. The Nuge off of Check Your Head, Biz Markie lets us know the Beasties are coming home.  Ill Communication felt like them leaving home behind, this time it would be forever.  It was a time of transitions, the title of the final song on the album.

Ill Communication has always represented a bitter sweet ending, for me.  I was going back to school to grasp all new experiences and friends, leaving behind a genre of music and close childhood friends.  I haven’t seen or spoke to many of those past friends since that summer of ’94.

And with that, another end to a chapter of my youth.

 

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Adam Yauch passed away from cancer a few weeks back and within a moment, the Beastie Boys were no longer.  There has been an outpouring of love and some truly great pieces recently written about him.  It is a shame that you often get to know someone through their passing.  For me, Adam Yauch was the difference maker in the band.  He was the guy that pushed Mike D and Ad-Roc out of their comfort zones.  I think the band took the chances they did largely because of Adam’s will and his uncanny belief in being unafraid to fail. It is people like this that I wish we would surround ourselves with more often, just imagine the benefit.  It was a line he rapped from the song The Update that I will take with me forever when thinking of Adam Yauch.

I dream and I hope and I wont forget

The Beastie Boys are one of my all-time favorites.  There is just something great about these guys as they trade off verses, rapping over an unforgettable groove.  The three of them will always be referenced together, but it was always MCA that stood out for me.  He will be truly missed by fans around the globe.  He can never be replaced.  It was because of the music and the humanitarian efforts of Adam Yauch that led us to dream and hope.  Though he left us too early, he left us with so much.  This we will never forget.

 

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A few weeks ago, I drove out to my daughters’ school to pick her up.  I arrived ten minutes early and remained in the car until it was time.  I am sitting in the school parking lot on a beautiful North Carolina spring day windows down, receiving a few strange looks from parents walking by my car.  I guess I had the Beastie’s Heart Attack Man on a little too loud for parent ears at 11:40 AM on a Tuesday.  Unlike the character Michael Bolton in the film Office Space, I did not roll up the windows nor did I lower the volume.

  1. I can still recite every lyric on a whim; however, it’s more entertaining for some watching me do this drunk off my ass at a bar.
  2. According to Jonah Lehrer, in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, it was David Byrne of the Talking Heads who pioneered the use of sampling.
  3. I just like the way The Update sounded; it was many years later when I actually looked up the lyrics to the song.  Ill Communication was a rebirth for MCA.  The change in his personality thorough his lyrics told a tale of a man’s personal growth and maturity into adulthood. He also became one of music’s great humanitarians of the past two decades. I tend to believe that those distorted vocals were for a reason, making a statement true to his heart but doing it a humble and subtle way….Kind of respect the way it was recorded whether intentional or not.
  4. The city you ask?  Cincinnati, Ohio.  Try it sometime.
  5. Released two years apart, I often view Ill Communication and Check Your Head as extension of each other, basically a part one and two.  They stand successfully on their own but they sound and feel like brothers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Matthew Zausch

    Well written Matthew, Thanks for the dedication, a nostalgic look back at a truly carefree time.

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