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“A Rhetorical Interrogative as to Why Almost No Attention Has Been Paid to the Beat Making Process on To the 5 Boroughs.”

* “Pretty much, whether it’s Eminem or these guys, the white rap artists get by primarily on personality, since the stylistic vanguard seems to be less of an option.”

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I’m talking about big, sweeping musical movements here. The Beastie Boys are one of them. Since their genesis, they’ve had their haters and their negotiators, both coming out in droves as a result of a fact that they were like a weasel popping up around every corner, and nobody had enough arcade mallets to really get rid of ‘em.
This post is going to be about their beats and primarily those on not their last album, but in my opinion, their last GOOD album, To the 5 Boroughs. As we know, Boroughs was their first project after 9/11 and it bubbles over with an almost apoplectic feeling for their city on centerpiece “An Open Letter to NYC.” Overall, it’s the showcase of three legitimate, street-tough emcees which plays, already, 13 years later, as a sort of throwback to a time when amidst the populace there was an HOLISTIC faith in music, its ability to be ingenuous and its ability to truly unite. You will not find the Beasties goin’ for self anywhere on it. Everything conveyed, all of the imagery summoned, serves to feed the New York culture body, and in my opinion, that it does.
I noticed that neither the Rolling Stone nor the Pitchfork review, nor even the album’s Wikipedia page, mentions very much at all of the beats or their exact creators, on these sessions, so thank you to sputnik music for providing the information that “most beats… (were) created by world champion DJ Mix Master Mike (recruited in 1998) with nothing but a turntable and a mixer” [1]. Notice that these instruments don’t include “sampler,” so we’re left to assume that the best selections on the album, frankly, “Triple Trouble,” which lifts Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and “An Open Letter to NYC,” which employs of all things punk band the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” are the work of the band themselves, with said instrument. A look at Wikipedia shows that even “Ch-Check it out” makes heavy use of samples, but this is the page for just that song. Unthinkably, the To the 5 Boroughs blurb on Wikipedia is short as he**, and doesn’t give us any leads on how exactly the album was put together on a rudimentary level. Actually, even the recent Rolling Stone article on Timbaland was more in-depth, at least giving us the information that he’s “increasingly skipping big, extensive studios to make tracks at home using the software Ableton Live” [2]. With the Beasties, it’s like the nuts and bolts aren’t taken seriously, partly because as RS’s David Fricke points out it’s “old-school fight and comedy” that really dress this party up.
Admittedly, I’ve spun this album along with The Roots’ The Tipping Point, which came out that same summer, probably close to a hundred times either in my car or at parties, and I’ve never cared once about the beats. They were just kind of THERE.
Maybe it’s just that beats are expendable in hip-hop. I find Dre to be a great beatmaker, with D12’s “Purple Pills” owning to this surreal, otherworldly bass sound, and yet I can’t say I ever listen to that song, or crave it.
The more likely reason why the production of To the 5 Boroughs is so apathy-garnering, though, is that he**, ANYBODY can do this sh**, at least on a superficial level. In 2004, we were firmly embedded in the digital age, with Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” standing as a radio single produced with completely digital parts, five strong years earlier [4]. Nobody was listening to these grinds themselves and marveling over them on a technical level, either within epoch or within objective artistic assessment. Jam Master Jay was a megastar in his own right, but what he did, with the 808, was more innovative at the time, not to mention cottoned on to lyrically by the Beasties themselves, in repeated form. Pretty much, whether it’s Eminem or these guys, the white rap artists get by primarily on personality, since the stylistic vanguard seems to be less of an option. Rap beats are mechanistic and inhuman, way more than, say, guitarist Kevin Cadogan of Third Eye Blind, whose awesome riffs would always and should always obviously be accredited on any Wikipedia page of that band’s albums.
Still, it is FUN. I was curious as to how exactly these drum patterns and timbres came into life, because, as the “funky a** Jews” [5] themselves once said, or sampled someone as saying, “It’s got a funky beat! I can bug out to it!” [6]
It’s just surprising that with a statement like this, a high-profile “comeback album” (though oddly nobody I’ve read has “dubbed” it just that [7], no pun intended), these stones are unturned, the beats are not discussed widely, and criticism of To the 5 Boroughs reads as essentially vocal-only, minus the two main references of samples in “An Open Letter to NYC” and “Triple Trouble,” respectively. But let’s look at what hip-hop is, historically. It is essentially a statement of nakedness, of minimalism, of lack of raw entertainment materials and thereby, transcendence. Ice-T’s commendable Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap documentary, which features interviews with many greats like Nas, Kanye, Raekwon, Eminem but not the Beastie Boys, details how the rap genre started (and this is Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar speaking at this point) when Bronx high school districts cut costs, leaving the music programs which had provided instruments for student usage emaciated and devastated. Hence we have the turntable used as an instrument in and of itself, by necessity, and not by any artistic license or liberty. When it came to the street parties, though, somebody had invented the vocal form of rap, which, originally a musically autonomous entity from the turntable scratching, represented the sense of urgency blacks felt before the sociological atrocities they were incurring, and, rather than anything too musically involved, in its early days, was literally just set “to old records,” most often of the soul variety along with maybe some jazz.
The Beastie Boys have their black fans. I don’t think that this fact is trivial. In an interesting exchange, one time while day-drinking down at ABC (Asheville Brewing Company) [8], I met this brotha and we were exchanging favorite shows ever — his was the very Jewish rapscallions I’m discussing in this very post, precociously enough [9], whereas mine was The Roots, so we were like a perfect yin and yang to each other, or, an irresponsibly mid-day drunk yin and yang to each other, as it were. Note, The Roots are my favorite concert I’ve seen ever, IU Auditorium 2005, rap OR outside. Similarly, then, we have Rakim, literally one of the “older gods” titularly championed by Wu-Tang and Ghostface Killah, propping them up by at very least acclimating them officially to even the phrase “hip-hop,” if nothing else [10] [11].
Then, there’s just the examination of the term “DJ” in itself. Nobody would confuse the Beastie Boys with being “DJ”’s — they even sparked “Three MC’s and One DJ” on their last album, the DJ being DMC World Champion Mix Master Mike, so as to apparently further cement the distinction within our minds. Juxtaposed with The Velvet Underground & Nico, it’s rare to see a title of a rap album actually name the DJ. Instead, we have the inhuman machinations of GZA’s “Pro Tools,” and we have Kweli, while at times giving props to HI-Tek, almost allotting him as something faceless or interchangeable on the breakthrough track “Waiting for the DJ” from catapulting album Quality.
I guess that’s how it is with this Beasties stuff — the beats are just kinda THERE.
Any discussion of hip-hop past, I guess, has to be intertwined with one of hip-hop future. In my opinion, all the attempts to modulate what hip-hop is, at its core, whether they’re rock-rap, trap [12], nerdcore, neo-soul or what have you, have been frivolous, evidenced if only by the incredibly primitive, embryonic state of the unanimous classic To the 5 Boroughs, stylistically speaking. In order to be DOPE, in other words, you have to take hip-hop back to its original days — you have to do what your heroes did, not better or worse, but just on the same map, at least. It’s like Ghostface Killah says, “The older gods put me on / I had to rock this / Maintain 360 / Lord live prosperous”, or like Run-DMC, “Kickin’ it old school”.
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Addenda: Much props to the Limited Edition Import Version and its track “Now Get Busy.”
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This track totally should have been included on the original version, the reason for its being left out most likely being an effort to fit the entire album on one vinyl record (like all that “listening to wax I’m not using the CD crap, I guess). Well, the great, almighty Pitchfork didn’t say anything about the vinyl format — from what I understand home boy was walking around listening to it on headphones in, you guessed it, New York City, so the backlash avoided by sacrificing a double album might be minimal at best. Still, I don’t doubt the magnanimous scope of To the 5 Boroughs, even more so for its minimal scores, and so I’m sure the artist anxiety leading up to its creation and release was probably considerable. But “Now Get Busy” is a repetitious and anthemic song every Beasties fan has to hear, especially ‘cause, da**, that’s the exact thing the guy says on the sound bite that opens the freakin’ album!
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[1] https://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/5713/Beastie-Boys-To-the-5-Boroughs/.
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[2] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/timbaland-kicked-oxycontin-self-doubt-to-stage-comeback-w512403.
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[3] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/to-the-5-boroughs-20080709.
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[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pro_Tools.
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[5] This quote is from “Right Right Now Now” off this album.
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[6] This sound bite clamors in during the “Mike on the Mic” movement of closing medley Paul’s Boutique “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.”
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[7] Amusingly, though, there’s a great video for “Triple Trouble” in which it explains the group’s six-year lag for following up 1998’s Hello Nasty by lamenting an unfortunate incident of Sasquatch-ambush. Kanye features post-clip, in mock interview, an event which in my humble white opinion can almost play as a symbolic passing off of the ultimate hip-hop arbitration baton, although like I said The Roots’ material this decade was likewise important to me personally.
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[8] By the way, the newest addition to your bucket list is trying ABC’s Jalapeno IPA.
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[9] For the record, I BARELY got to see the Beastie boys before MCA was done, the Rock the Vote tour in ’08, and it’s probably in my top 10 shows all time, top five rap shows.
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[10] https://hiphopdx.com/news/id.19632/title.rakim-remembers-adam-yauch-credits-beastie-boys-with-making-hip-hop-global#.
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[11] Troublingly, the group isn’t shouted out on The Roots’ Phrenology track “WAOK (Ay) Rollcall,” which basically just name-checks a slew of the groups intra-stylistic influences. This is almost definitely the work of a larger and arguably justified reverse-racism prevalent in rap.
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[12] Ironically, although I can’t stand it Mike D is a professed trap enthusiast.

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