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Beastie Masterings

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Licensed to License: The Beastie Boys have mastered the art of self-commodification.

The Beastie Boys' new album, 'Hello Nasty,' refines the high art of suburban rap

By Gina Arnold

THE BEASTIE BOYS are generally considered the most untouchably cool of the cool young bands--so cool that, to paraphrase rock critic Nick Hornby, They're subzero! They're Frosty the Snowman! They're in danger of dying of hypothermia!

But despite a coolness quotient that ought to send 42-year-old GQ readers rushing out to buy Beastie Boys records, a hip young friend of mine recently emailed me a diatribe against them. "I don't care how eclectic they are or how witty their references, they still sound like cartoonish screaming with beats to me," he wrote. "And the worst part is, they're considered so utterly vibrant--arguably, for better or worse, the most important band of the '90s."

But I disagree with his assessment. The Beasties may have replaced the Red Hot Silly Peppers as the most tuneless-yet-popular act of our time, but for all their silliness, the Beasties are far more culturally imposing. From their groovy label, Grand Royal (with its ultracool magazine, Grand Royal), to their chain of clothing stores, X-Large, they have stamped the decade with their personality, and that's no mean feat.

Indeed, we have the Beasts to thank for the revival of awful '70s-inspired clothing--the polyester golf shirts and horrid shade of baby blue that one sees in department stores everywhere now. Given the fashion world's love of retro looks, it might have happened anyway, but the trend wouldn't have been quite as pervasive without that Mannix-inspired video for "Sabotage."

But how did three well-off Jewish boys from Brooklyn wind up with so much cultural clout, anyway? Well, as is the case in most such situations, the credit must be given solely to their artistic vision. Their 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill, was, simply put, a tremendous--and tremendously influential--record, and one that still holds up today.

Songs like "Girls," "She's Crafty" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" are def and deft alike, the freshest-sounding mix of rap and rock ever to come down the pike. Licensed to Ill was undeniable, the kind of record that defied criticism, despite the group's collective persona of obnoxiousness that even a mother would have trouble loving. Indeed, in some kind of weird defiance of the rules of etiquette, the worse that band members behaved, the better they sounded, and that record still stands up as the Beasties' most innovative--a blueprint for everything they've done since.

SINCE THEN, the band has merely microrefined its original huge idea--white-boy suburban rap--into records like Paul's Boutique, Ill Communication and now Hello Nasty, their fifth album. Hello Nasty is irresistible if you love everything the Beastie Boys have ever done. It's full of those "cartoonish" nasal voice and beat-ridden chants: "Money-making, money money-making," the refrain of the leadoff track, "Super Disco Breakin'," is, for instance, the kind of chant that never quite leaves your head.

That refrain is, like many other of the fast-paced lines on this album, a clever comment on the Beastie Boys' commodification of themselves, something they have done far better and less offensively than any other band of this era. But if Hello Nasty could be said to be about anything, it's really about listening to records.

There are two songs on it--"Three MCs and One DJ" (with Sacramento DJ Mixmaster Mike, from the band Invisibl Skratch Picklz) and "Body Movin' "--that are simply about the Beebs' passionate love of records, and that, of course, is their strength. For all their funniness, they are sincere in that love and, boy, does it show.

Despite the fashion statements and relentless dollops of irritating irony (Hello Nasty is being advertised by a highly ironic infomercial on local cable stations, for example), the Beastie Boys are devoid of pretentiousness. They don't write songs about life or love; instead, they merely describe their unique inner world. And what's perennially vibrant and honest about them is that that world does not consist of the banal litany of boasts about gold chains, cars and chicks that make up most rap songs--it is a goofier world of their very own making.

That's why no other band sounds anything like the Beastie Boys, and also why they've gotten away with so much. They are practically the only white people whose raps have ever sounded exactly right, because they don't try to appropriate black idioms or ideas, but instead translate their own peculiarly Jewish accents and lifestyle in an honest and forthright way. They're even in the garment industry--a poignant and justified touch of, as the black community likes to say, "keeping it real."

NEVERTHELESS, my friend was right when he said that the Beastie Boys are a one-trick pony. Hello Nasty is 66 minutes long, and most of it sounds like the quintessential Beastie Boys record. If you don't already like Mike D's high-pitched whine and the Brooklyn intonation of words like "on" (pronounced "own"), then you'll hate every second of it.

For fans, however, there is much to like. "Super Disco Breakin' " and "The Move" are wonderful songs, and there is a great harpsichord break in the middle of "Remote Control." Numerous other numbers--like "Intergalactic" and "The Negotiation Limerick File"--sound similar in tone and tempo to "Sabotage." The record abounds with "c-c-c-cuts" and "sc-sc-scratches"; they're not innovative, but they'll pass the scrutiny of anyone who digs that sound.

The album has its broader moments. "Song for Junior" and "Picture This" are total bachelor-pad music (the kind inspired by '50s lounge artist Esquivel), while the straight-ahead ballad "I Don't Know" sounds like a rather undistinguished Beck song. Two songs use female vocalists: Brooke Williams on "Song for the Man," and Jill Cuniffe of the Grand Royal band Luscious Jackson on "Song for Junior"). "Dr. Lee, Ph.D" is a reggae song that features the vocal services of Lee "Scratch" Perry.

But the truth is, broadness and maturity are all very well and good, but the farther away the Beebs get from those Licensed to Ill-like strengths, the less exciting they sound. The last third of Hello Nasty is pretty uninspired, as the tempos become slower and slower. If the Beastie Boys have a firm grasp of anything, it's beats, and the less they employ that grasp, the less one wants to listen.

Still, the Beastie Boys have come a long way since their "Fight for the Right to Party" days. Back then, they were accused of sexism--though I always felt that no real pig could write a song like "She's Crafty," in which the girl got the better of the boy and made all his friends make fun of him to boot ("She stole everything we owned/and the boys blamed me for bringing her home!").

These days, the Beebs are known more for their humanitarian gestures: the Tibetan Freedom Concert and the Milarepa Fund, for example. The new album even has a measure of global philosophy. On "Song for a Man," the band wonders, "What makes this world so sick and evil"; on "Unite," it chants--well--"UNITE," a la Queen Latifah. The record isn't as heavy in that department as, say, Radiohead, but a close listening to its rapid-fire delivery shows a certain measure of cerebral maturity.

In short, like every Beastie Boys record, Hello Nasty is a intricately crafted piece of work, full of musical and lyrical complexity. In a weird way, as the Beastie Boys grow older, they are starting to become the modern-day equivalent of '50s radicals who frequented jazz clubs in Harlem and said "cat" and "jive" a lot. That, however, is not necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you haven't been won over by the Beastie Boys by now, then you certainly won't be swayed by Hello Nasty. But credit is due to them for prolonging their own relevance in the midst of this quickly changing zeitgeist--and for writing a song like "Super Disco Breakin'," which is damned hard not to dance to.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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