This month is bittersweet for the Beastie Boys and their fans. On May 4th, we had the sad two-year anniversary of Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death, a result of his battle with cancer. But reflecting on his passing also allows us to reminisce about the mark on music history he and fellow Beastie Boys Adam “Adrock” Horowitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond left for us. And so, just a few weeks after the anniversary of Yauch’s untimely departure, we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the Beastie Boys’ iconic album, Ill Communication.
The fourth full-length released by the Beasties is arguably when they managed to master the fusion of Punk Rock, Metal, and Hip Hop, culminating in a record that furthered the respect deserved of hard-working musicians, and gave listeners a chance to smile at the humor and discuss some of the more thought-provoking political undertones of the Beasties’ lyrics. The album was a monster as far as content — with 20 tracks on the original release, including instrumentals, hard-hitting bangers heavy on the Punk Rock, Hip Hop raps which proved, as EW’s David Browne put it in his original review of the album, “These white boys can sing the blues,” and a myriad of frenzied, super-charged songs that further stretched the definition of what constitutes a Hip Hop artist and album.
Ill Communication held a slew of fan favorites and chart-toppers, as well as input from celebrity contemporaries like Q-Tip and Biz Markie, and featured album booklet artwork by psychedelic artist Alex Grey. Perhaps the most notable track on the album is “Sabotage,” a song that hits the right note on pretty much everything the Beasties were trying to accomplish at the time. Loud guitars and megaphone vocals? Check. Scratch beats and looming bass runs? Absolutely. Grown up subject matter delivered with lyrical proficiency? Definitely. A cinematic and hilarious music video? You bet your ass.
At a time when music videos were still a major force behind generating momentum for an album, the Beastie Boys put out one of the year’s best. If you were alive in the ’90s and lucid enough to watch television, you likely can still vividly recall the video. The Spike Jonze directed force of cinematic nature showcased the Beastie’s humor, and perfectly fit the song’s riotous sound. Taking the form of the opening theme for a ’70s-era police show, the video stars MCA, Mike D, Adrock, and DJ Hurricane in various costumes (all with mustaches only cops in the ’70s would don) participating in car and on-foot chases, kicking down doors, jumping over ledges, beating up on handcuffed criminals, and plenty of donuts in both the dough and automobile varieties. Nominated in five different categories at the year’s VMAs and eventually awarded a coveted “Moonman” in 2009 for “Videos That Should Have Won a Moonman,” the video’s greatness was praised by nearly everyone in the music world. Hell, even fictional culture-commenters Beavis and Butthead liked it, and you know you’ve got a winner when those two decide a video “kicks ass” rather than “sucks.”
But beyond the video, “Sabotage” was the quintessential track on an album largely felt to be the Beastie Boys’ breakthrough. Name-checking Watergate and focused on paranoia and political sketchiness, the lyrical content is of a more grown-up variety than what was generally previously offered from the Beastie Boys’ earlier records, and adds to the musical hybrid of Punk and Hip Hop. In its delivery, the screaming vocals and crunchy distortion complement a scratch beat rather than take away from it, again adding to their mastery of the “rap core” genre.
And of course, we would be remiss if we were to leave out the largest benefit of flipping genres on their metaphorical heads — the massive reach allowed by successfully fusing multiple types of music together. Fans of Punk, Metal, and Rap all enjoyed “Sabotage” because of the elements of each genre it contained, and while this gave the Beastie Boys a massive fan base, it also undoubtedly expanded the musical horizons of many — Punk fans were able to give Hip Hop a chance and Hip Hop fans were able to do the same with Punk. For that, “Sabotage,” Ill Communication, and most importantly the Beastie Boys themselves, will forever be known as a pioneers. And in celebrating the life and work of Yauch and his cohorts, we ask, what better musical legacy is there to have?