Intergalactic and Beyond
Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty at Twenty-One
THE fortunes of the Beastie Boys…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beastie Boys in 1998/PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch
hardly ran smooth early in their career - and it took a few albums before they were winning critics over. Take the first couple of albums and how long it took people to understand and appreciate the trio: 1986’s Licensed to Ill was hardly a raging success and, with accusation of sexist lyrics, the Beastie Boys found themselves fighting the tide and, when Paul’s Boutique came out in 1989, there were a lot of confused heads being scratched. Not only did Beastie Boys set the benchmark high on Paul’s Boutique but they pushed Hip-Hop to new levels. They were ahead of their time and, perhaps, critics of 1989 were not prepared for what they were laying out. That album turns thirty on 25th July and I do think that we owe it a huge applause and sense of gratitude! It is an immense achievement and, luckily, after the album was released and a bit of time accumulated, people unravelled its genius and understood just how good Beastie Boys’ masterpiece is – the legacy and reputation Paul’s Boutique has acquired since 1989 is staggering. 1992’s Check Your Head brought critics back on board and is a more accessible work whereas, to many, 1994’s Ill Communication (which recently turned twenty-five) is seen as the definitive Beastie Boys record – anything with Sabotage on it must be respected! It is amazing that the New York legends managed to survive their first two albums and the fact that they were not instantly taken to heart.
It would have been easy for critics to bury them but, soon enough, they were showing how wrong people were and scoring massive reviews – even if, to be fair, their first two albums gained big reviews from those whose ears and minds were not clogged! In many ways, their fifth album sort of put the bar perilously close to the gold standard of Paul’s Boutique. Whilst not as sample-heavy as that album, Hello Nasty is a seriously ambitious and spectacular album that is packed with highlights and gold. Released on 14th July, 1998, some four years after Ill Communication was unleashed on the world, and caused controversy before a single song was heard. The original cover for the album depicted the band crammed into a pack of cigarettes; right down to the tiniest detail. The cover we have now is them in a sardine tin but the original only lasted a few days before it was replaced and, rightly, replaced with something less controversial – going to show that the Beastie Boys were hardly calming down and playing it safe after all these years. I love the fact that there was a rebellious streak running through them and the sheer rawness of Hello Nasty is fantastic. If albums such as Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication are fairly dense and elevated by the samples, I think Beastie Boys’ lyrics and rapping rock-solid across Hello Nasty.
I will come to the articles that celebrated Hello Nasty turning twenty last year and some of the reviews the album has picked up but, for me, the record connects me with my school days. Specifically, I am transported back to the final couple of years of high-school and the carefree after-school moments. I was well aware of the Beastie Boys and has experienced the pleasures of Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication but Hello Nasty spoke to me more directly and animalistically – not that this is a word but I cannot think of another word that will do! It is quite bittersweet remembering when an album came into your life because, inevitably, you cannot go back to that time and experience it first-hand; the memories are dimmer than they were and, sadly, the scents, sounds and specific details of those times are grainy and misremembered. What I DO know is how I felt listening to songs like Intergalactic and thinking how unusual this was; nothing had come out like this and I was hooked by the robotic sounds, slick raps and the sheer class of the song! No Beastie Boys album is about a single track, and so, Remote Control, Body Movin’ and Flowin’ Prose (those guys do love their apostrophes!) sunk in and became part of my Beastie education! Across twenty-two tracks, the Beastie Boys blew open their imaginations and produced, in my view, their most eclectic album.
In terms of ranking the biggest, best and stankiest Beastie Boys albums, people will rival one another in vociferousness; quoting lyrics and reviews to back up their arguments; each camp as passionate and dedicated to their beliefs and intuitions. This is the sort of delightful fervour the Beastie Boys provoke but, to me, Paul’s Boutique is their most important and, yes, Hello Nasty is their best. It might not be as fulsome when it comes to samples and the big hits – not that the trio are a ‘hits band’ – but Hello Nasty has more than its fair shout of great songs. Listen to Putting Shame in Your Game and Song for Junior and you feel involved with these songs; the sheer force, skill and nuance of the numbers seeps into the skin and bounces around the brain for months! Maybe Paul’s Boutique garnered bigger reviews – considering the retrospective acclaim – than Hello Nasty but I think a lot of journalists and sources miss the point; maybe not as receptive as they should be. AllMusic, in their review, had this to say:
“Moving from electro-funk breakdowns to Latin-soul jams to spacy pop, Hello Nasty covers as much ground as Check Your Head or Ill Communication, but the flow is natural, like Paul's Boutique, even if the finish is retro-stylized. Hiring DJ Mixmaster Mike (one of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz) turned out to be a masterstroke; he and the Beasties created a sound that strongly recalls the spare electronic funk of the early '80s, but spiked with the samples and post-modern absurdist wit that have become their trademarks…
On the surface, the sonic collages of Hello Nasty don't appear as dense as Paul's Boutique, nor is there a single as grabbing as "Sabotage," but given time, little details emerge, and each song forms its own identity. A few stray from the course, and the ending is a little anticlimactic, but that doesn't erase the riches of Hello Nasty -- the old-school kick of "Super Disco Breakin'" and "The Move"; Adam Yauch's crooning on "I Don't Know"; Lee "Scratch" Perry's cameo; and the recurring video game samples, to name just a few. The sonic adventures alone make the album noteworthy, but what makes it remarkable is how it looks to the future by looking to the past. There's no question that Hello Nasty is saturated in old-school sounds and styles, but by reviving the future-shock rock of the early '80s, the Beasties have shrewdly set themselves up for the new millennium”.
SPIN, when tipping their cap to Hello Nasty this time last year (for the twentieth), revisited a review from 1998. It noted how the Beastie Boys were moving forward and not willing to rest:
“If you’re still waiting for the Boys to renew their license to ill, abandon hope now: They are never going back to their old school. But they are going back to everyone else’s. No matter how much they swear they’re “getting on down for the year 2000,” the Hello Nasty that is given over to hip-hop is filled with so much money-makin’ and disco-breakin’ on and on till the breakadawn, you’d think we’d taken the way-back machine into the early Kangol era. Yet such recapping doesn’t sound even faintly kitschy. More like a labor of love by three premillennial mensches laying their roots down: a B-Boy Anthology of New York Folk Music.
U.T.F.O., Mantronix, and T. La Rock? It’s in there. Battle rhymes and zodiac signs? In there. Fat stacks of Flash and Run-D.M.C? In there like Times Square. “Super Disco Breakin'” and “The Move” kick off the jams with 808’n’hi-hat action on the classic tip, plus sirens, hand claps, and even a little beatboxing. “Unite” locks up funky breaks, horn samples, and ye olde def rhymes— if anything’s New York folk music, this is. They pledge to tradition and tea (“I’ll be smoking roaches in the vestibule/Till the next millennium I’ll still be old school”) and try to bridge the breakers and the ravers.
It would be a perfect album closer, except that it’s followed by three throwaways, including an excruciating Lee Perry guest dub. And back in the middle of the record, “There MC’s and One DJ” (with guest cutup Mix Master Mike) should be the disc’s fattest single. But who will play it? The problem with history is that you can get stupid with it but you can’t exactly get stupid-fresh, and none of this heritage-hop delivers the shock of the new, much less the schlock of the popular. Without a gangsta, playa, soldier, or an R&B hook in the house, Hello Nasty can say goodbye to both pop and urban radio. Lacking an airwave outlet, the Beasties have no way to find a new audience, and you can feel them hemmed in with their core fans: the same class clowns they’ve been stuck with all decade. There’s a lot of love in the room, but the room is beginning to reek”.
There is no debate that Paul’s Boutique is a masterpiece and there are very few that have anything bad to say about it. The long running time of Hello Nasty means that it will never gain quite the same heft and acclaim as Paul’s Boutique. In this article, Stereogum had an interesting take on Beastie Boys and were they were in 1998:
“So when the Beasties sampled that line on “Intergalactic,” it wasn’t just a fun, goofy, exciting moment. It was the first time that the Beasties really embraced their own legacy — where they picked over their own old records for something cool, the same way they’d already picked over everyone else’s old records. It was the moment that they recognized themselves as cultural forces. And it was also the moment when they effectively became a legacy act. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so excited that afternoon in the minivan if I’d realized that.
If a band gets famous enough and then sticks together for long enough, legacy-act status is practically an inevitability. It’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of how you slide into it. All through the ’90s, the Beasties had been building themselves their own tiny empire of cool. They had their own label and their own recording compound. They had their own interconnected web of associated acts. They had their own magazine, read religiously by dorks like me. They ventured away from rap, into scratchy instrumental funk and dirt-stache hardcore. And yet they always had something to do with mainstream rap. Check Your Head and Ill Communication, their two previous albums, could be heard as distant branches on the Native Tongues family tree, and the Native Tongues were still making popular records at the time. But by 1998, Native Tongues were a distant memory, and the Beasties couldn’t have possibly had less to do with Bad Boy, or DMX, or Master P”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch
Although there is a sense that Hello Nasty is a bit long and the standout song (Intergalactic) gets more attention than the rest, Beastie Boys were original and they were innovators. Consequence of Sound, in this feature, explain in more detail:
“So, while Beastie Boys have little in common — stylistically speaking — with contemporary counterparts like Drake, Migos, and Rae Sremmurd, they all follow a similar blueprint when it comes to their releases. All have been overshadowed by larger-than-life singles (in the Beasties’ case, “Intergalactic”, “Sabotage”, and “Fight for your Right”). And all released longer-than-necessary records that were more akin to giant mix tapes than they were original “albums.” However, where the emphasis in contemporary hip-hop is placed on framing massive, chart-topping singles, Beastie Boys could not be more polar. The aim of an album like Hello Nasty — with its densely layered samples — was to act as a modern purveyor of music’s vastly overlooked history. Beastie Boys were originals, setting release trends well before their time, and we can only hope that the artists carrying their torch spend anywhere near as much time digging into music’s rich past.
It makes for one hell of a ride”.
I think the denseness and length of Hello Nasty does mean that, compared to some of their other albums, many take longer to appreciate it. I will end with my final thoughts but, in this Billboard article, they talk about the ambition of the album and a particular song that stands out because of its emotional sensitivity and beauty:
“The christening of the album wasn't the only convention defied on Hello Nasty. At 67 minutes and 22 tracks, it stands as the longest Beasties album in their catalog. What Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock stood for as one of the premier rap acts of the day was exemplified on such crowd faves as "Remote Control," "Body Movin'," and lead single "Intergalactic." However, what really helped to make Hello Nasty stand out were the directions the band was going beyond the realm of hip-hop in 1998. Lyrically, Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch were harking back to the Treacherous Three-era of rap, but on an instrumental level the group was eager to explore sounds and styles beyond the scrappy hardcore and Blaxploitation soundtrack funk of 1992's Check Your Head and 1994's Ill Communication.
The most poignant dynamic shift on Hello Nasty, however, comes 15 songs into the album with the song "I Don't Know," a tender bossa nova ballad sung by the late, great MCA with a tenderness and vulnerability that stands in firm contrast to the gruff-voiced braggadocio of his rapping.
"I still have the lyrics sheet of 'I Don't Know' in my memory box," explains Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, who sang backup for Yauch on the tune, in an email message to Billboard. "Adam's handwriting always brings back the memory of that moment in the studio, vividly. He was very calm in the studio and handed me the pencil, with a hand written lyric sheet. I had nothing to say except YES because it is just full of Adam Yauch in it. What I could do was just sing the melody and no words -- it was already like a pure gem in the rough. He was the kind of person who was transparent about himself, had no fear to show his soul-searching in his life in that time. He was open to share with us. I think Adam's spirit lives in the lyrics of that song. I really have a huge respect to Mike D, Adam Horovitz and the producer, Mario Caldato Jr. who finished the song to be the way it is. I'm so blessed to be a part of such a beautiful song!".
I will celebrate Paul’s Boutique at thirty before its anniversary on 25th July but I think it is important to mark Hello Nasty and appreciate an album that, whilst not as lauded as giants such as Paul’s Boutique, it is a phenomenal record and one that means a lot to me. I recall the excitement of hearing Intergalactic for the first time but, when I bought Hello Nasty, other songs came to life and I was amazed by all the different shades and brilliant moments. Hello Nasty rewards those who are prepared to give it time and let the songs do their work. With Paul’s Boutique’s thirtieth not too far away now, many will look in that direction and the legacy of an incredible record. Even though Hello Nasty does not hold the same stature, I think we all need to give this remarkable album…
A lot of time and love.