The Beastie Boys were an early love. I remember first listening to them on SUNY Albany's hip-hop radio show in 1986. (brag? i don't even know anymore.) This was a weird time for rap music, because the radio waves were dominated by early novelty songs like "Roxanne's Revenge" and "Do the Pee-Wee Herman" and "The Rappin' Duke", but I still preferred it to the classic rock radio which dominated Albany's airwaves. The first Beasties song I can remember hearing was "Hold It Now, Hit It." I'd probably heard "She's On It" before that, but "Hold It Now..." was the first rap song that cut through all the simple, pushbutton beats of hip-hop radio programming. It was chaotic, and fresh. Not fresh in the quickly-appropriated Beat Street argot – though it was that, too – but fresh as in fresh-mouthed and petulant. It kind of dodged this way and that, refusing to stand still, and it was loaded with cut-and-pasted samples. This track, more than any of the other songs that would later be released on License to Ill, was like an unofficial bridge to their next album, Paul's Boutique. (The first time I heard that album – and there was an insane amount of anticipation over it amongst my group of friends – I am sure I said I never saw it coming. But if I'd really thought about it, "Hold It Now, Hit It" was kind of lighting the way.) "Hold It Now" is still my favorite song on the first album, though I'm sure I played everything else through and through, endlessly. (Except "Slow and Low". Too downtempo. It sounded like a boring outtake from RUN DMC's King of Rock, and it probably was, since they wrote the track themselves.)
The Beastie Boys were also one of my first concerts, at the RPI Field House. Most of the hooligan bullshit I'd been reading with greedy eyes in the pages of SPIN magazine were present: exploding beer cans, 20-foot pneumatic cock, cursing. The only thing changed was the DJ stand which, on previous shows, was designed to look like a Budweiser can. Reacting to complaints about promoting underage drinking, the stand was now designed to look like a Jolt Cola can. "Fascists!" I screamed, bursting several pimples with my strained facial muscles. The show was fun. Murphy's Law, a hardcore band that has never stopped touring, opened. So did Public Enemy, whose first album had not yet been released. They were black, blacker than black. Air raid sirens, fake rifles, military uniforms. What the fuck? We came here for rhymes about how parents are squares. Why is this guy yelling at me to "bum rush the show?" And what's with all the crosshairs? Public Enemy scared the shit out of me so bad I had to wait two more years before purchasing one of their albums. I'm sure someone much cooler, someone much older, or someone who is a much bigger liar than me would say they saw Public Enemy opening up for the Beasties in 1986, not knowing who they were, and instantly fell in love. But that's another story.
I loved the shit out of the Beastie Boys after that, and even though I doubt I'd put them in my top 100 list of greatest hip-hop artists, at least two of their albums are among my all-time favorites. So, even as they get older and hip-hop has lapped them a thousand times over, I still anticipate their newest releases with candy-smelling excitement. So, when I heard they had a new album on its way, and a new single, I was still game.
I've already written about the single, and I must confess it has grown on me. The beats are bouncy, and have that pied piper effect where, for reasons unknown even to you, you want to reach for the "repeat" button as soon as the song is through. (I'm still boggled by Adam Yauch, though. I can't get my head around what he's doing on that song. It seems to come to a screeching halt beneath his rhymes.) And I'd heard some not-so-good advanced notice on the full-length, but I didn't care. People shit on Hello Nasty and I still think it has several greatest hits tracks on it. ("Intergalactic", "Body Movin'", "The Negotiation Limerick File" and "Unite" are all strongety-strong and sing-along.) So, when To the 5 Boroughs arrived yesterday from Sandbox, here's how it went down:
[This just occurred to me. It might help to imagine me wearing a powder blue Kangol cap with a propellor on top, and Mork from Ork suspenders while I'm doing all of this.]
ME (fumbling with the shrinkwrap, and then feeling the pristine, white textured cardboard packaging): AW SHIT!! NO SLEEP TIL BROOKLYN, Y'ALL!!!!
2 minutes later...
MIKE D: ...'freshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
15 minutes and several tracks later...
The beats are still hot, on occasion, but man...The album is like a rough draft. Like they all met and said, "Hey, we should write a song about how NYC is great. How it's got black people and subways and stuff. Let's try to think really hard about all the reasons we like NYC." And then they all went to Whole Foods or some shit to buy quinoa and tempeh and when they came back they just wrote a song that's all, "NYC is the greatest town/The Bronx is up and Brooklyn's down!/Here's what I like about NYC/Black people, White people, Burger King." It's just not there this time around. Maybe they've finally developed a true outsider perspective of the city they're saluting this album, or maybe they've entered a serious navel-gazing period – in the last six years they haven't even really appeared on other people's tracks – but this album seems like it was recorded inside a fake, prop subway car in Mike D's expansive Santa Monica living room, and not in a good way. I hope someone frees Tibet, and soon, so these guys can finally get busy again.