Happy 25th Anniversary to the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, originally released April 21, 1992.
Check Your Head, the Beastie Boys’ third official release, was a critical comeback album. People who weren’t there may have trouble believing that, but it’s the absolute truth. Paul’s Boutique, their dizzying, Dust-Brothers-produced, sonic-collage sophomore effort, now widely regarded as a classic, was nearly a career-killing commercial flop when it arrived in 1989. Yes, Paul’s Boutique may have gone Gold. But it was originally shipped platinum by Capitol Records, the Beastie Boys’ new label, on the heels of their five-million-selling 1986 debut Licensed to Ill on Def Jam, after a lengthy contract dispute during the late eighties.
So, what to do now, after making a highly slept-on, sample-based-symphony, which also served as a tribute to New York City, an album that by any commercial measurement, flopped?!? Well, move to Los Angeles, of course. Then, over the course of 1991, while as lifelong friends in their late-twenties having fun in the sun, workshop this garage-rap/rock “musical masterpiece.”
Make no mistake, Check Your Head saved the Beasties’ career. It also drew up a blueprint for the territory they would go on to mine for the duration of their shared prime. This formula might have taken them outside the realms of what true-school folks consider hip-hop, placing them perilously close to the alt-rock campfire that was raging at the time. But that was never truly their bag. This album remained true to who the Beastie Boys actually were. And in the words of Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, in Last of the Mohicans, a film released during the same year, Check Your Head would go on to make sure that these three-brothers-from-another-mother, would “Stay alive, no matter what occurs.”
The Beasties did more than stay alive. With the Check Your Head’s release one quarter of a century ago, the Beasties would go on to thrive. Blessed with hindsight, we don’t think about this album in those terms now. But I clearly recall the first time I heard this album. It was near the cement stairs of a major bank in Philadelphia, near Independence Hall off Market Street, where a wonderfully multi-ethnic group of young skaters were pumping it on cassette out of a boombox while my friends performed rail-slides. As a hip-hop junkie, I’d already all-but-forgotten the Beastie Boys. Shortly after hearing “Pass the Mic,” the lead and arguably most crucial single on the album, the loud music coupled with teenage rebellion resulted in cops showing up. Next thing we all knew, we were running for what felt like our young lives. I will remember the way that new music, and moment, made me feel for the rest of my lifetime.
As old-ass Bob Dylan, an artist sampled by the Beasties on this album and name checked on the one before, said in his own record from around the same time: “Everything is Broken.” And it was. Like lemonade, it still is. Yet, as Biz Markie warbles on Check Your Head, “The Beastie Booooooys…they really got their own.” Because they did. And that feverish rush of sound and fury, during those beautifully tense moments, shall forever represent that bridge for me to “adulthood” from being a kid.
In a similar sense, this was the album throughout which the Beasties Boys would become men. Gone were the boys who had reveled in “beer-drinking-breath-stinking-sniffing-glue.” Gone were the anthems about egging or girls. But they had not yet fully honed in on sobriety, nor freeing Tibet. This was MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D, trying to grow older, but wisely doing so less-than-gracefully. This was three Brothers Beastie, no longer tied to the shackles of popular trends, or their sometimes-misbegotten youth. This album, recorded 3000 miles away from the city where they’d always lived to play, was where they boiled their music down to reflect a hard-earned truth. Check Your Head remains the most authentic amalgamation of all their influences to date, as well as the most creative body of work in their catalog.
The moment that you hear Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander proudly proclaim “This next one, is the first song, on our new album!,” a declaration sampled from the introduction of that band’s classic Live at Budokan, it’s on like Donkey Kong, as the beat drops into “Jimmy James,” fed by the poison-ivy levels of itching-and-turntable-scratching provided by DJ Hurricane. From that point forward, you never quite know where this album is gonna go, no matter how many times you’ve heard it. Each additional listen adds a new wrinkle, or jogs an old memory. When it comes to seamlessly guiding your way thru a maze of disparate styles, there has been few denser records ever released that drop this heavy.
Check Your Head pre-dates mash-ups while anticipating the modern-day mix-tape. It gives you a healthy dose of the rap we’d come to expect from the B-Boys. But at the same time, it meanders joyfully into a million other directions. The Boys go back to re-exploring their hardcore roots on “Time for Livin,’” rewarding any fans who somehow might still be left from their pre-rap days as a hardcore act making novelty records like “Cookie Puss” pre-Licensed to Ill.
In addition to that, they take on some newfangled, sloppy lounge-funk on “Lighten Up.” Songs like “Funky Boss” were punk-funk in a way that Rick James never would have dreamed up. “Something’s Got to Give” sounds like The Butthole Surfers’ cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” with hip-hop DJ cuts over top of it. The Beastie Boys introduced hordes of American youth culture to the term “Namaste,” two decades before all these privileged Eat.Pray.Love. white girls got around to doing it and ruining it. Even interludes like “Mark on the Bus,” still has layers with multiple ways to cut. All of this stuff sounded unfathomably, beautifully bizarre on April 21st 1992. In fact, most of it still does to this day.
Mind you, none of the aforementioned records on their own may truly hold up outside this album’s context. The classic stand-alone cuts on this album are still the hip-hop tracks that always represented the best of where their bread was buttered. But with live instruments performed with rudimentary brilliance by the Beastie Boys themselves, aided by two secret instrumental weapons in Keyboard “Money” Mark and Mario “C,” what all of these songs in between do is fill in all gaps and dictate a mood. They function as a bridge between the landmark songs, similar to how the reggae cuts on albums by their idols Bad Brains did.
The actual rap tracks?!? Might be their best batch, front to back. “Pass the Mic” is one of their finest displays of microphone trio teamwork. “So What’cha Want” introduced the old-school, NYC park-jam, megaphone-mic-sound onto record with devastating effect. There’s samples from the New York classic early b-boy flick Wild Style, and in almost the same breath references to L.A. low-rider bicycles. They kick some of the group’s most indelible lines on “Professor Booty,” such as Mike D spitting, “I've been through many times in which I thought I might lose it / The only thing that saved me, has always been music” Or the late great Adam Yauch a.k.a. MCA (RIP), always the best emcee of these three: “But like a pencil to a paper, I got more to come / One after another, you can all get some / So you better take your time, and meditate on your rhyme / Cause your shit'll be stinkin' when I go for mine.”
Such sentiments could come off hackneyed in the wrong hands. But when each of the Beasties deliver those lines, along with those verses, we believe it as fans, just like we always have. 25 years after its release, Check Your Head can still split your wig.