It’s 1994. You’re 13 going on 14. Kurt Cobain is dead, but your mourning is mostly just posturing because you don’t totally understand what the huge deal about him was. You knew he was important, though, and you just learned to play the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the guitar. You say you’re punk, but you had your friend buy your Crass shirt at the Hot Topic, instructing him to turn the bag inside out as soon as he exited the store. You carry a skateboard everywhere, but the jocks who used to call you a “fag” have taken over all the good spots so they can do tricks on rollerblades. Clinton is president, you scam mail-order services to send you a bunch of free CDs because you heard they can’t make you pay since you’re under 18, and you spend a lot of time alone listening to those CDs as a form of escape. Some of them are good, others you try to forget right away. These are the early days of your obsession with music; you want to hear Minor Threat because you like Fugazi, you want to listen to more reggae because The Clash covered “Police and Thieves,” and you learn more about America listening to Public Enemy than you have from any history teacher. All of this, and there’s a new Beastie Boys album.
If that sounds familiar, then you and I might share a similar biography. The above is culled from my own personal history, stopping short of what comes after I popped Ill Communication into my CD player — not telling you that from the opening seconds of “Sure Shot” and onward, it had a profound influence on me. It was with this album that my teenage mind started to comprehend the trio beyond screaming along with them about fighting for your right to party at a bunch of suburban bar mitzvahs. This was where they started to really impact me; weird kids grow up into strange adults every day, but with Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys made me realize that you had to figure out ways to think outside of the box when it came to rebellion.
The release of Ill Communication is when I started to relate to the Beasties in a way that I’d been unable to relate to a band before. It’s when I began to realize that they shared a lineage with other anti-authoritarians in search of easy fun — from the Marx Brothers to the Ramones. But it’s also when I began to pick apart the cultural references in their songs and started to care about the samples. The “Sabotage” video had popped up a few months earlier, in anticipation of the record, and it was basically the greatest thing I’d seen in my 13 years on the planet. I was already ripping off the group’s style from the “So What Cha Want” video from their last album, but just watching them fuck around was magic.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5rRZdiu1UE]
There’s “Sabotage,” and there are songs that show they’re still as cocky and edgy like they were a decade earlier, unafraid to call out their former Def Jam label boss (“Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money”), and willing to experiment with the instrumentals, as in “Eugene’s Lament,” which could be classified as “Balkan psychedelic funk.” “Flute Loop” opens with one of my favorite samples ever (guess what instrument it is — on loop), while “Tough Guy” and “”Heart Attack Man” recall the band’s old hardcore days. But maybe most importantly, there’s the opening track, “Sure Shot,” kicking off with its own flute loop and MCA taking the mic to say:
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end
I rewound it over and over, frying it into my brain, thinking about how I’d never heard somebody say something like that in a song, how zen it felt with that flute, and how it was cool that the Beasties were saying something so diametrically opposed to so many of their earlier lyrics. I wouldn’t necessarily call it redemption, but it showed me people can change, and that personal enlightenment is possible. I could fuck up, but I could change and get better too.
I walked down the hallway of my school, slowly so my Discman didn’t skip, and listened to the CD over and over. I don’t know if people didn’t like me or if they could tell I disliked them for some reason I still can’t quite explain, but it didn’t really matter as long as I had “Root Down” in my ears. Its unfuckwithable funk sound, with a sample borrowed from Jimmy Smith, still sounds badass. I’m looking back at that walk, and I see younger me giving off a seriously lack of fucks, which still remains the exact opposite of my style: all I give is lots of fucks; my grandpa always said I was full of shpilkes (nervous energy), and always thinking too much, but for a few minutes between classes, I was blocking it all out. And that’s why Ill Communication holds such an important spot in my biography.
Beyond my personal connection to it, when you take time to listen to the Beasties’ LPs in order, it becomes clear that Ill Communication is the album on which everything great about the group came together. There’s so much packed into Ill Communication that listening to it, 20 years later, not a speck of dust has settled on it. It’s weird and filled with odd references and samples that many of today’s rappers wouldn’t think of incorporating into their songs. I wouldn’t dare call it perfect, because that was never what the Beastie Boys were about. What I’d say is that it’s the album in which the group figured out how to take all the chaos, all the fun, and all the things they’d learned along the way, and create music that still retains its edge and greatness two decades later.