Why The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head Is Still Rap-Rock's Greatest Masterpiece
Is rap-rock the worst genre ever made? Other rivals vie for that ignominious throne (screamo, hick-hop, nu-metal, adult contemporary, smooth jazz), but rap-rock’s only legitimate rival might be Christian rap-rock.
Rap-rock sounds like a great idea. Rap and rock are inherently good things. Except when they’re mixed together, it’s like a Nutella and avocado sandwich.
This is a long way to explain why Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, is a masterpiece.
MCs rhymed over rock riffs during the first Bronx block parties. On the most iconic old-school single, “White Lines,” Melle Mel spit over a bass line from no-wave legends Liquid Liquid. I guess people liked that Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. MTV monstrosity.
But until 1992’s Check Your Head, no one had artfully weaved hardcore punk, turntablist scratching, ’70s funk, ’80s rap, Biz Markie and Ted Nugent into a definitive statement — one that would have pointed toward the future of rap if it wasn’t so impossible to replicate.
It’s testament to the genius of Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA that the late ’90s and early 2000s were glutted with bands attempting a similar fusion but invariably coming off like nookie-less fuckboys (Rage Against the Machine being the sole exception).
The Beasties were the exception to every rule. Their charm, humor and brilliant collage sensibilities made up for the fact that they could be crude and juvenile, and allowed Mike D to rhyme, “Everybody’s rappin’ like it’s a commercial/Actin’ like life is a big commercial.” (It took a decade for people to learn that the second verse was supposed to say “rehearsal”; the group’s two Adams, Yauch and Horovitz, kept the mistake to fuck with their partner.)
Check Your Head’s genesis begins with the commercial failure of the Beasties’ sophomore effort, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. Despite critical acclaim and eventual canonical inclusion, most people considered the Beasties washed by the turn of the decade. The president of Capitol Records allegedly told them that he couldn’t focus on their next album because he had the new Donny Osmond to worry about.
Having relocated to L.A. a few years prior, they rented out the old Atwater Village Community Center and converted it into G-Son Studios, complete with a skate ramp and half-court basketball hoop. Recruiting Mark “Money Mark” Nishita for keyboards and impromptu carpentry work, the Beasties picked up their instruments seriously for the first time since their downtown punk-rock days (MCA on bass, Ad-Rock on guitar, Mike D on drums).
It was part inspiration, part financial necessity. The sampladelic bricolage of Paul’s Boutique reportedly cost a quarter million dollars to clear. So during a leisurely two-year recording process, the Beasties channeled an eclectic array of influences (Jimmy Smith, Bad Brains, Richard “Groove” Holmes) and sprang for a few meticulously selected, high-priced samples (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone). They named the album after a check mark that Money Mark randomly put on the head of a Desert Storm trading card of General Norman Schwarzkopf.
With ferocious scratches from the Adams, the album is grounded in hip-hop but also the genre’s kaleidoscopic ’70s roots. Where most attempts in that vein come off as nostalgic revivalism, the Beasties balanced it with an experimental streak. See breakout single “So What’cha Want,” where cheap microphones created the hurricane head-nod distortion that later influenced everything from Beck to Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 2).”
A quarter-century later, Check Your Head still slaps — brilliant, eternally progressive and proof of rap-rock’s rarely realized potential. It’s what we wanted then and still could use now.
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