At a recent round-table discussion, we were talking about the one album that gave us that moment of “I get it.” While the deep digging into the far recesses of my mind could have very well taken hours, days, months, and so on, the real answer wasn’t as difficult to come up with as I thought.
That album was (drum roll, please)… the Beastie Boys‘ 1994 album Ill Communication. I was 13-years old, and I could have gone back to Van Halen‘s 1984, where I asked my parents to play “Jump” and “Panama” on repeat endlessly, but it was truly with the B-Boys that I got “IT”. The love of music was always there, but Ill Communication changed my perspective many times over.
The love of the album began, of course, with the “Sabotage” video getting regular airplay on MTV, and to this day still, hands down, one of the best music videos ever created. That was back when that station still gave a fuck about music, and not Teen Mom‘s and their inability to keep their legs closed, or understand the concept of using prophylactics. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I truly care about Jenelle and Farrah and all, but let’s stick to the music MTV.
I had been suffering from severe migraines for a solid year or two at that point, while in middle school, and was going for a CAT Scan to see what the issue was. Slightly unnerving, but it had to be done. To anybody that doesn’t get migraines, they are the worst, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy… well, maybe my worst one. Anyway, the doctors said that I could bring in some music and listen to it while the testing was going to be done. While my Mom and I made our way from the doctor’s office to the CAT Scan place, we stopped at Sam Goody‘s (remember that place?). I knew exactly what album I wanted. It was a no-brainer. Definitely have to give it to my Mom, the “Parental Advisory” sticker didn’t really phase her at all, and like that, Ill Communication was mine, all mine.
The album definitely helped ease my mind while getting those tests done, and I remember the people that were running the tests saying to me upon leaving, “Those are some interesting lyrics”, clearly having perused through the album art. And as I would find out upon further devouring of the album when I arrived back home, they most certainly were interesting lyrics, for many reasons. Message to the kiddies that only stream their music, or download it… you’re missing out big time. There is nothing better than taking off that plastic wrapper from the album you just bought and looking over every aspect of the album booklet, while rocking out to the music. Go out and buy music!
Over the course of the next few weeks, I spent every waking moment learning every lyric to that album, looked over the artwork (i.e. the truly impressive “Gaia” artwork by Alex Grey on the page for “The Update”) time and time again, and fell absolutely in love with the Beastie’s. Being a kid from Queens, I could relate to three MC’s from other parts of the five boroughs. While having heard past songs such as “Fight For Your Right”, “No Sleep ’til Brooklyn” and “So What’Cha Want”, listening to Ill Communication was akin to doing research for a thesis.
“Cause you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop”
And that’s how the album starts on “Sure Shot”. “It’s the taking of the Pelham, 1-2-3, if you want a doo-doo rhyme then come see me”….WHAT?! Absolutely ridiculous. Mike D into Ad Rock into MCA, spitting and trading verses back and forth with so much ease that only their own words can explain.
“Bill Laimbeer, motherfucker, it’s time for you to die”
The B-Boys love them some b-ball, and you can hear it in a nice chunk of their lyrics over the course of the group’s career. “Tough Guy” is literally calling out ex-Detroit Piston bad boy power forward Bill Laimbeer for being a world class douche on the court. You really can’t blame the guy though, that was back when people actually played defense in the NBA, and you didn’t allow anybody to just walk across the lane for a lay-up or dunk. Ahhh, the good ol’ days….
“Shit, if it’s gonna be that kinda party….”
It was with that little line, smack dab in the middle of “B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak”, with a sample of Mantan Moreland‘s from his comedy That Ain’t My Finger, that it was a forever love with the three MC’s and one DJ. Thirteen year-old me was rolling on the floor laughing before ROFL was even a thang.
But as the album progressed, it wasn’t just the tongue-in-cheek humor that the Beastie Boys exhibited that I fell in love with. I mean, look at the instrumentals on the album, such as “Sabrosa” or “Eugene’s Lament”, or the downtempo, smooth jazz sounds of “Ricky’s Theme”. You could easily find yourself at an NYC jazz lounge, drinking bourbon or scotch neat, smoking a cigarette, and tapping your feet along to the drum beat that Mike D. was throwing down. That shit is THAT good! And then, you even got a little education on the group’s hip-hop roots and where it all came from. Check out Mike D. on “Root Down”:
“Every Morning I Took The Train To High Street Station
Doing Homework On The Train, What A Fucked Up situation
On The Way Back Up Hearing Battle Tapes
Through The Underground, Underneath The Sky Scrapes
Like Harlem World Battles On The Zulu Beat Show
It’s Kool Moe D Vs. Busy Bee There’s One You Should Know”
And here is Kool Moe D vs. Busy Bee from the Harlem World Battle Christmas Rappers Convention show back in 1981:
These dudes weren’t just MC’s spitting rhymes, they originally started out playing instruments in a hardcore punk band called The Young Aborigenes – sans Ad Rock, he was in a band called The Young and the Useless before joining forces with his two brothers-in-arms in 1982. While never abandoning their roots (i.e. “Sabotage” and “Heart Attack Man” – everything about Ad Rock’s vocals is straight punk), the trio furthered their evolution with some of the most beast-mode instrumentals heard on the planet, that have since been sampled time and time again. These guys were serious artists, playing some serious music. With Mike D. on the drums, MCA on bass, and Ad Rock on guitar, the creativity simply flowed like the salmon of Capistrano.
Then you get a special guest and fourth MC like A Tribe Called Quest‘s Q-Tip on a number like “Get It Together”, and you’re attempting to mimic and play karaoke singer along to four completely different tones and cadences. What about Biz Markie joining the fray on “Do It”? And musicians and producers such as Eric Bobo (percussion), Money Mark Nishita (keys), and Mario Caldato Jr., who is an incredible producer in his own right. This album is a collective of quite a bit of genius lumped into one seriously epic album front to back.
Beastie Boys performing “Sabrosa” live at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington D.C. (1998):
The Beastie Boys weren’t just about the party and the good times, it was clear on tracks such as “The Update” and “Bodhissatva Vow” that a “transition is occurring and I am not blind” (as MCA so eloquently rhymed), and it was important for the group to be both socially and spiritually conscious about the state of the world we are living in, and to convey that to their listeners. At 13, I wasn’t learning much about Shantideva, Dharma, and Samsara in the classroom; Adam Yauch aka MCA’s poignant lyrics acted as a form of extra credit in the game of life for me. A deeply devout Buddhist, Yauch was the main impetus behind the Milarepa Fund and the Tibetan Freedom Concert – the latter of which I attended at Randall’s Island in 1997 – both of which helped raise money for the plight of Tibetan independence.
The Tibetan Freedom Concert was my first “festival experience” with acts such as the Beasties, Radiohead, U2, Foo Fighters, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Sonic Youth, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals and a long list of talent that is actually mind-blowing to recollect as I write this. A truly great experience, musically, but more importantly it raised my own level of awareness and consciousness with regards to the plight of the Tibetan people even moreso, with monks performing these gorgeous chants, as well as former political prisoners and human rights activists speaking on-site throughout the day. It was eye-opening, to say the least, and showed me the real influence music can have on the state of the world. “The Update” and “Bodhissatva Vow” lyrics were monumental in shaping my teenage mind and made me see the world quite a bit differently.
The only live performance of “The Update”, in Japan 1994, courtesy of nutri871:
With the instrumental piece “Transitions” fittingly bringing the album to a close, it went hand in hand with the transition I was going through in my own life. Being a teenager isn’t an easy stage of life, you are changing physically, mentally, and spiritually. Some guidance helps, and Ill Communication was the album that lent a hand in a good portion of helping me accept such changes and understanding that music is truly universal:
“I Can Hear The Trumpets Blowing Screaming Out The End Of Time
Look Around And Listen And You’ll See Every Sign
The Waters Are Polluted As The Forests Are Cut Down
Bombing And Drilling Deep Below The Ground
Check The Prophecies From Around The World
And Look Around Now As It All Unfurls
Look Into Yourself And See What Goes On
Get A Feeling In Your Heart Of The Right From Wrong”
In conclusion, I just have to say RIP to Adam Yauch. It’s hard to believe that he has been gone for a little over four years now, leaving this world at the age of 47; the thought still pains me to think that he is no longer with us. His lyrics have had such a huge impact on me as a human being. I wrote my own lament the day he passed on to the next life. Let’s hope that creativity and passion transferred on to somebody else, because the world could certainly use it right about now.