The Beastie Boys were a trio, a threesome. Musically, this presents certain difficulties. You could call it a theological problem. How do you unify a trinity? How do you balance the three individual voices without ending up in cacophony?
The fact that the Beastie Boys were rappers made it all the more difficult. Rappers don’t sing; they rap. So harmony is out. There will be no blending of voices. No barbershop tricks were going to solve the problem for the Beasties. These three fellows from Manhattan and Brooklyn would have to develop a new style of rapping altogether. The style was perfected on their second album, Paul’s Boutique, but it was already present in their debut album License to Ill. Maybe the fact that the Beastie Boys started almost as a gag (three white Jewish kids from New York make a rap album) had a freeing effect on their music. Taking themselves less than seriously, they were able to have a loose approach to rhythm and lyrics. They would finish one another’s sentences, combining thoughts and rhymes, as if their three-partite mind was connected bodily and spiritually.
Without exactly intending to, the Beastie Boys helped solve one of rap’s biggest problems in the early- to mid-1980s, which was rap’s simplistic rhyme scheme. Early rap can often feel like a nursery rhyme set to music. The rhyming is too often obvious and formulaic. The stress is always on the last syllable of the line. No offense to Kurtis Blow (an innovator in his own place and time), but the lyrics to his less-than-fantastic song “Basketball” are a case in point:
Basketball is my favorite sport
I like the way they dribble up and down the court
It is straight iambics all the way through, with a hard caesura and stress to end each line. In a word: boring. (Blow’s thoughts on basketball did not exactly kindle the imagination either, but that is another point.) Something had to change. Circa 1986, the rap world was ready to experiment with something a little more complicated. That’s the year Run-DMC came out with the album Raising Hell. The first cut on that album is exciting. There’s no other way to describe it. It is called “Peter Piper.” The funny thing is, it is a rap song about nursery rhymes. It is as if Run-DMC was saying, “OK, let’s take this nursery rhyme stuff up a notch or two.” In “Peter Piper,” the beat is fast, the rhyming is fast, and the lines play around with long and short syllables, enjambment, off-rhymes — the works. The song starts a capella and then a stripped-down sample of Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” kicks in. A cowbell and a little synthesizer riff on top of a simple beat. It creates a raw and insistent feel. When Run and DMC rap over the beat they don’t just follow it along, as previous rappers were content to do. They jump all over the beat, as in the line, “He’s the better of the best best believe he’s the baddest.”
Now Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose both did their thing
But Jam Master’s gettin loose and D.M.C.’s the king
Cause he’s adult entertainer
Jam Master Jay king of the crossfader
He’s the better of the best best believe he’s the baddest
Perfect timin when I’m climbin I’m a rhymin apparatus
Lot of guts
When he cuts
Girls move their butts
His name is Jay hear the play he must be nuts
There’s a straight lineage from Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” to the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” on License to Ill. In fact, the Beastie Boys sampled directly from “Peter Piper” on another song from License to Ill, “The New Style.” Clearly, they were paying attention. Don’t get me wrong, “Brass Monkey” is a stupid song. The lyrics are verging on asinine. But they flow. Sometimes they move ahead of the beat, sometimes they fall behind it. One Beastie will start a line before the other is completely finished.
Got this dance that’s more than real
Drink Brass Monkey — here’s how you feel
Put your left leg down — your right leg up
Tilt your head back — let’s finish the cup
M.C.A. with the bottle ‘ D. rocks the can
Adrock gets nice with Charlie Chan
We’re offered Moet – we don’t mind Chivas
Wherever we go with bring the Monkey with us
Simple tricks like the pause before “down” and “up” in the third line give the whole song an off-kilter jauntiness that much of previous hip-hop hadn’t figured out how to produce yet. And here is where the Beastie Boy uniqueness really arrived. It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation on the face of it, but the Beasties started to trade vocals within a line. They realized that it sounded better if one guy said “put your left leg” and then the other guys say “down,” and then the first guy comes in again with “your right leg” and the other guys finish with “up.” The possibility for layering and lyrical complexity had taken a great leap forward, just like that.
You could say that Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill are companion albums. Both groups were hitting on some of the very same ideas at the same time. In fact, Run-DMC and the Beasties knew one another by then and they were both working with producer Rick Rubin. The rap world was still small enough that an innovation by one group could be heard at a show and used by another group in a song the very next day. It was like the Dutch and Italian painters of the late Renaissance. They were competing with one another, watching one another, grabbing at the latest idea and then trying to one-up that idea in the next painting. Raising Hell and License to Ill were released within a few months of each other in 1986. By their second album, Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys had already learned from, synthesized, sampled, and moved on from what Run-DMC had thrown at them.
Once the Beastie Boys had created their own style, they applied it to music outside the hip-hop tradition. Sometimes, as on Ill Communication, the Beastie’s would stray from rap into more of a punk/post-punk screaming style (the first version of the Beastie Boys was actually a punk band). Their 2007 album The Mix-Up was an all-instrumental affair. The three core members of the Beastie Boys (Mike D, Ad Rock, and MCA) had learned to work together so well that their music eventually transcended any particular genre.
There’s a track on Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys’ most fully realized and brilliant album, called “Shadrach.” The Beasties made a lovely animated video of the song in 1989. “Shadrach” references a biblical story from the Book of Daniel. The Beastie Boys are comparing themselves to the three pious Jews in the story: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In the Bible, these three Jews were thrown into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar over their refusal to worship the Babylonian gods. They are protected from the fire by the Hebrew god, forcing Nebuchadnezzar to pardon them and to make special provisions for the protection of Jews.
Shadrach is by no means a religious tune. The lyrics include the lines:
It’s not how you play the game it’s how you win it
I cheat and steal and sin and I’m a cynic
The Beastie Boys clearly found it amusing to think of themselves as these three biblical Jews. The significance ends there. Except that there is one line from the Book of Daniel that might have resonated with the Beasties. It reads, “Then the three, as out of one mouth, praised, glorified, and blessed God in the furnace.” It was very much as if the three Beastie Boys — just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — shared one mouth. And there is something miraculous about that. They were, after all, just three normal guys, school friends who decided to start a band. Where did the brilliance come from? How did these three individuals manage to come together into a unity that so transcended the individual parts? There is no way they could have known, back then, that they were meant to be together, that the three of them could give voice to a sound and a style that had never been heard before. As their collaboration developed, they would sometimes refer to themselves simply as “The Three.”
The death last week of MCA (Adam Yauch) seems particularly cruel. If the universe were fair, the Three would have managed to die together. Perhaps they could have gone down in a fiery crash to match the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But it didn’t happen that way. Real world stories rarely have such tidy endings. The only thing to do now is to mourn the death of one man, Adam Yauch, and thus the death of the trio of which he was one indivisible part. • 14 May 2012