Remember when the Beastie Boys were the freshest act around?
Their 1986 debut, "Licensed to Ill," was not only the first rap release to top the Billboard albums chart, but it stood as proof that rock and rap were totally compatible. "Paul's Boutique," in 1989, pioneered the wry pop culture plundering Beck has built his career around and helped kick the '70s revival into gear, while 1994's "Ill Communication" presaged rap's return to a live band groove.
There are also such side projects as the Beastie-sponsored Milarepa Fund, which produced the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, and the Beastie-owned Grand Royal label, which signed Sean Lennon. Clearly, when it comes to the latest and greatest, they're on it.
So how come their raps sound so old?
Cue up almost any track on "Hello Nasty" (Grand Royal/Capitol 37716), and you'll hear the Beasties plying the same sort of old-school routines they used when they started. From the B-Boy chorus of "The Move" to the hoary couplets of "Three MC's and One DJ" ("My name's Mike D and I'm the ladies' choice/I want to get next to you like Rose Royce"), these three come on as if they're gonna party like it's 1979.
Problem is, hip-hop expects rappers to keep up with the times. None of the other '80s rappers still making waves write like they used to; from LL Cool J to Public Enemy, they've adapted their style, using shorter phrases and more internal rhymes to give their raps a contemporary flow.
Not the Beasties. If anything, their writing seems solidly entrenched in the past. Where once they were lauded for the pop-culture literacy of their lyricism ("Paul's Boutique" name-checked everybody from Chuck Woolery to "Brady Bunch" character Sam the Butcher), the allusions on this album are mostly to old rap records.
Funny thing is, the Beasties only seem old-school on the vocal end. Musically, "Hello Nasty" is as adventurous as ever, with the group breaking all sorts of stylistic ground.
"Just a Test," for instance, supports the trio's verbal interplay with an ear-catching groove that virtually defies categorization. Although the main beat is built around a jazzily syncopated acoustic bass loop, the Beasties break things up with all sorts of sound play, from turntable scratching overlaid with outer-space synth sounds to a Mexican folk record that slowly spins to a stop. It may be hip-hop in execution, but the sound is too wide-ranging simply to be considered rap.
Other tracks go even further afield. "Intergalactic," the current single, supports its old-school rhymes with a vintage electrofunk groove, while "And Me" crosses the lo-fi synth sound of Japanese acts like Takako Minekawa and Buffalo Daughter with sound treatments swiped from drum 'n' bass and ambient.
"Dr. Lee, PhD" brings in reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry for a weird, synth-spiked jaunt through dub reggae. "I Don't Know" even finds the Boys trying their hand at bossa nova (with a vocal assist from Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori).
All told, it makes for fascinating listening, the sort of thing that richly repays headphone scrutiny. But will it "keep a party movin' to the broad daylight," as "Puttin' Shame in Your Game" promises? Given the lack of lyrical excitement, probably not -- and that's where "Hello Nasty" ultimately fails the old school.
"Hello Nasty" (Grand Royal/Capitol 37716)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Sundial: To hear excerpts from the Beastie Boys' new release, "Hello Nasty," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6188. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.
Pub Date: 7/14/98