Breastie Boys wrap 'communication' rap in layers of fresh, kaleidoscope sound

May 31, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Are you smart enough to appreciate the Beastie Boys?

A ridiculous question, right? Bela Bartok -- that takes brains to understand. Be-bop too. But the Beasties? How many IQ points do you need to understand a few rhymes and a beat?

That depends on how carefully you listen. Because few albums reward close attention more assiduously than the Beastie Boys' latest, "Ill Communication" (Grand Royal/Capitol 28599, arriving in stores today).

It isn't just a matter of being able to sort through the pop-culture references and dropped names that litter these raps, though it's difficult to savor a rhyme like "So I kick out the jams and tell you who I am/And talk to the people like Les McCann" without knowing that "Kick Out the Jams" was a landmark release by the MC5, while "Talk to the People" was the title of an album by soul-jazz keyboardist Les McCann. There's also a lot of musical information to process, thanks to the Beasties' fondness for densely layered grooves and astonishingly eclectic taste.

Take "Root Down," for example. Most of the track is straight retro-funk, from MCA's bone-simple bass line to the lock between Mike D's drums and Eric Bobo's congas. But when DJ Hurricane drops a few bars of Jimmy Smith's "Root Down (And Get It)" into the chorus, the music's flavor shifts dramatically, adding a rhythmic and harmonic tension that revitalizes the track.

At the same time, the mixture of musical elements creates just the right mood to convey the Beasties' own sense of hip-hop roots. Soul, jazz and '70s funk, remember, were the most popular sounds on the early rap scene, back when the Beasties were just Brooklyn high-schoolers going to "Harlem world battles on the Zulu Beat show/It's Kool Moe Dee Vs. Busy Bee, there's one you should know."

Granted, it's not necessary to catch every lyrical reference or musical allusion to get the basic effect here. In fact, there are some tracks where what the Beasties do sonically seems almost intended to obscure the rap's verbal content.

On the lyric sheet, "The Update" comes across as an urgent warning about the impending apocalypse, as the Beasties rap about "searching for unity" and how "a transition is occurring" in global consciousness. Sounds cosmic and kind of preachy, doesn't it? But the track itself masks that didacticism in a dense, percussion-heavy mix that not only distorts MCA's rap with fuzz and echo, but places far greater emphasis on the group's Afro-Cuban percussion and fusion-jazz keyboards.

Then again, it's worth noting that the Beasties have always placed greater value in musical impact than on lyrical content or stylistic allegiance. That's one reason "Ill Communication" can so easily sustain such a wide range of musical interests.

After all, how many other acts can sound as at home moshing through a punk tune like "Tough Guy" as trading rhymes with Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest) on "Get It Together"? Who else would dare mix hip-hop with Tibetan Buddhist chant the way the Beasties do on "Shambala," or mix fusion jazz and klezmer music as freely as "Eugene's Lament" does?

But that's precisely the sort of thing that makes "Ill Communication" worth hearing -- even if it does take some effort to appreciate.

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