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“Toward Assessing the Significance of the Beastie Boys’ Non-Rap Material”

I’d be highly surprised if there were another rap group in the history of mankind with 1/10 the amount of non-rap songs in their repertoire that the Beastie Boys have. Starting with Check Your Head (1992), the group of New Yorker brats known as the Beasties would make it a regular practice to drizzle copious levels of instrumentals, such as the funky “Groove Holmes” and the grunge rock one-off “Futterman’s Rule,” as well as songs that are sung, like the trippy, existential “Something’s Got to Give” and the majestic simplicity of the acoustic “I Don’t Know,” which is sung by Miho Hatori of the band Cibo Matto, onto their albums. They even put out an album in 1996 called The In Sound from Way Out!, which is composed solely of instrumentals. 

Obviously, when you think of a rap group putting out an album of instrumentals, your mind would typically jettison to beats, such as are on Pete Rock’s album Petestrumentals, which is obviously music that’s entirely electronically programmed on a sampler. (Pending a release of about 1999 or later, the sampler would be replaced by a computer, obviously.) In this way, the Beastie Boys are probably in a unique position of being a platinum-plus-selling rap group with really no background in hip-hop production: their default was looking to The Dust Brothers or Mario Caldato, Jr. to be enlisted for sound and mixing-related responsibilities. 

Their real musical background, that is, as will be affirmed by the playlist included below, lay in funk rock, as well as the hardcore punk brand illustrated by the brief, unruly ditties like “Time for Livin’” and “Tough Guy,” et. al. Well, as we know, most men in their 30’s don’t spend all day rocking out to hardcore punk, barring some real pretension by some Chicagoans afraid of expressing their true selves and getting glass beer bottles thrown at their skulls by the crowd [1]. 

As I state above, the Beasties’ penchant for instrumental funk rock pretty much began on Check Your Head, their first’ 90s album, and the tracks “Groove Holmes” and “Pow,” in particular, each of which, to their credit, made it onto the The In Sound from Way Out! tracklist. On this album, as well as their next two, Ill Communication (1994) and Hello Nasty (1998), they built up a moderate arsenal of instrumental songs, most of which, roughly, approximate the long-winded, laid-back funk rock of War. One notable exception is “Dr. Lee, phD.,” which though isn’t an instrumental, is sort of half-sung, half-mumbled by pioneering reggae artist Lee “Scratch” Perry, and is accompanied by a reggae groove provided by the band. The typical aesthetic for this format would be Adam Horovitz, or “Ad-Rock,” on guitar, Adam Yauch (MCA) on bass and Mike Diamond (Mike D.) on drums. Tracks like “Namaste,” then, which concludes Check Your Head with some mumbled rhetoric by MCA but is also beholden to an instrumental version which made it to The In Sound from Way Out!, also include a keyboard, this time provided by Mark Nishita [actually Genius credits him with “D6, Clav [2], Organ (sic), Wurlitzer”]. In addition, Drew Lawrence is credited with additional percussion on this track, by the same source. 

And, to stack this stuff on top of itself on a 31-song playlist, is plays like, to be honest, the best instrumental funk rock band on the planet. It seems like music that would have gone on to influence a Khruangbin, or even a jam band like Galactic, or The Disco Biscuits. It’s got that sort of artistic depth and inspired feel — it’s got a distinct vibe that obviates a firm musical vision juxtaposed with immense instrumental skill and tightness. 

But, it seems, it was the Beastie Boys’ destiny to be misunderstood. They were a bunch of bright young dudes, with a proclivity for music, in the 1980s in New York, who started as a hardcore punk band [3] but then heard rap and fell in love with it, and found the genre to be a pretty competent meal ticket, at that. They’re born entertainers with a knack for getting on the mic and spitting, and indeed, at the concert I saw of them in 2008 with Tenacious D, there wasn’t a single musical instrument on stage. (As a pointless but interesting aside, I can’t remember, but I believe Tenacious D only had one acoustic guitar, and nothing else.) So are the Beastie Boys an inherently schizophrenic entity? If schizophrenia amounts to housing multiple, distinct minds within one common, overloaded control tower, I would say so. 

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[1] Along these lines, I just a second ago came across the unfortunate rumination that out of the nation’s four big cities, New York, LA, Chicago and Houston, Chicago is the only one that’s never spawned a commercially successful funk-rock band. New York has given us the Beastie Boys (whom I am, I realize, licentiously categorizing as such), LA bequeathed War and Houston provided Khruangbin. In the Windy City, it seems more the default to veer toward camp, a la the cringe-worthy band named after the city, or to just employ the kind of bet-hedging comedic element typified by those frat boys the Blues Brothers.  

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[2] This webpage, which was apparently not compiled by a lingustical perfectionist, I believe offers “Clav” as short for “Clavinet,” which is an electrically amplified clavichord, according to Wikipedia

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[3] The album Some Old Bullsh** highlights their early punk days pretty punctiliously. 

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