‘Ill Communication’ at 20: An Everything Guide to the Beastie Boys Masterpiece

Two decades ago, just about exactly this time of year, Beastie Boys released Ill Communication. Their fourth album, the last to be recorded primarily in Los Angeles before the crew came home to New York, wasn’t only the most seamless synthesis of what this strange band could do — 60-second hardcore and supreme ’70s flute rock and stoned jazz-bongo solos and, of course, good ol’ shit-talking rap music — but also, quite possibly, its most joyous. Herewith, a scattered appreciation.

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The Cover

It’s not only the 20th anniversary of Ill Communication. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the cover of Ill Communication. The flick, from the camera of the one and only Bruce Davidson, was taken at the iconic L.A. drive-in Tiny Naylor’s in 1964. Davidson was on assignment for Esquire, and the cover was part of a set of photos that was never actually published. Reflecting on it for Juxtapoz last year, Davidson said, “[Someone] called and said, ‘We’d like to run a picture on the cover.’ I said I have to hear the music first. … I mean I’m not musical at all. I don’t go much beyond Bach, you know. Anyway they sent me a little tape of the music and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It was like a secret language. It was beyond the realm of my experience. So I called them back and said, ‘The music’s great. You can use the picture.’”

The References

On Wax: Among the name-checked include jazz dudes Dicky Hyman and Archie Shepp and Les McCann and Yusef Lateef; Doug E. Fresh, the human beatbox; Billy Joel, the human Billy Joel; New Orleans weirdo king Dr. John; Jamaica weirdo jester Lee “Scratch” Perry; Perry’s pal Prince Jazzbo (it rhymes, quite nicely, with Hasbro). The Patty Duke Show is immortalized, as is the Moog family of synthesizers (they’ve got the “funk” for your “derriere”). We are pointed directly to instrumental jams from the Meters  (“Look-Ka Py Py”) and Stone Alliance (“Sweetie-Pie”); we watch ’em “Do It, Fluid” like the Blackbyrds and do everything funky like Lee Dorsey; we sit back as they fly off the handle like bandleader Buddy Rich, who was known to go off once or twice.

Rammellzee, the mind-boggling rap futurist so lovingly captured in Dave Tompkins’s How to Wreck a Nice Beach, gets a shout-out and a sample: the chorus of “B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak” comes from his “Beat Bop,” a 10-minute collaboration with a teenage battle rapper named K-Rob that was released, in a limited run, on Basquiat’s Tartown, Inc. label. On that same track, a latter-day entrepreneur/yoga enthusiast gets a less loving nod: With some residual anger over their early falling out with Def Jam, Mike D lets it be known that his buddy MCA’s got “fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money.”

The Incredible Jimmy Smith, a master of the Hammond B-3, was MCA’s “man” and he wanted to “give ’em a pound,” for simple enough reasons. “There was this Jimmy Smith record lying around,” Adam Yauch explains in the excellent liner notes to Beasties anthology The Sounds of Science. “We used to listen to it all the time while we played basketball. The title track, ‘Root Down,’ was ridiculous. I remember thinking, ‘How can a groove be this nice?’ It was the type of music that you hear and it immediately improves your game. … Someone came up with the idea of looping up big parts of it and making a song over his groove. Basically just rhyming over his song without any other beats. And that’s what we did.”

Stepping to the mic in his goosedown, Mike D throws kudos, too, describing his school commute from the High Street station in Brooklyn through the “sky scrapes” of lower Manhattan, all soundtracked to the iconic battles of the time — “like Kool Moe Dee vs. Busy Bee, there’s one you should know.”

Later, Adam Horovitz self-identifies as “the original nasal kid” and nods to a secret bit of music history. “What happened to the Nasal Poets?” Mike D asks Q-Tip in a 1994 issue of the Beasties’ short-lived, much revered magazine, Grand Royal. “Me, Adrock and B-Real?” Tip answers. “I’m still down to do that. I’m down for all that. You know, like Eddie Harris, I’m gonna live forever.” Then: “Yo, I should go, I’m about to watch my man Kurt Loder, find out what goes on in the world of rock. Cos I don’t know shit!

Onscreen: We touch on bald icon Kojak and Soul Train honcho Don Cornelius (way before his tumultuous, tragic final years). Crime caper Taking of Pelham One Two Three — no, not the one with the John Travolta neck tats — is present, as is pre-America (and therefore pre-Face/Off) John Woo. Doomed porno hero John Holmes is honored by guest star Q-Tip as “that freaky n—-.” And the Fruit of the Loom guys get dissed: Yauch is most certainly not planning on “coming out goofy” like these dudes.

Gianni Versace Show

Say Anything’s Ione Skye is present as well, but for more intimate reasons than you may recall: She and Horovitz were married from 1992 to 1997, and on “Get It Together” he declares her — in what is certainly the most romantic allusion ever made off the Kraft catalogue of foodstuffs — the “cheese” to his “macaroni.” Tangentially related, and at least a partial explanation for Horovitz’s impressive celeb dating history: “when it comes to bonin’,” he promises, “whoo, I’m representin’.”

On Paper: We jump-cut from Cindy Lou Who to recently deceased Screw publisher Al Goldstein to cartoonist Vaughn Bodé and his famous creation, the rascally Cheech Wizard. Borrowing a line from Hair Club for Men, Mike D also brags about not only being the prez of Grand Royal — meaning, presumably, both the label and the magazine — but “also a member.”

On the Field: We linger on the diamond for a moment: The Beasties have upped their game, no longer just having more hits than Sadaharu Oh (career totals, in the Japanese leagues: 2,786) but now keeping pace with Twins infielder Rod Carew (career totals: 3,053) as well. Then we step briefly on the campus courts — the boys’ll “do you right” just like Bobby Knight — before stepping up to the pros. They got “heart like John Starks”; they gonna take their team “to 60 wins like my man Pat Ewing”; they got their “hair cut correct like Anthony Mason” — truly, the ’94 Knicks might as well have been a paying cosponsor here.

Finally, they land squarely on the back nine. PGA Tour Golf for the Sega Genesis is fawned over, and Caddyshack’s Dr. Beeper is upheld; Diamond’s got the “funky fly golf gear from head to toe,” and Yauch’s swapping out his cleats for “custom-made boots with the spiky things.” Also, from that same Grand Royal interview, Mike D says, of the band’s untitled upcoming release: “We were thinking about [calling it] Par for the Course.”

Ultimately, of course, it would be telecommunication giant Bell Systems — a.k.a. Ma Bell, she of the provider of ill communication, before a 1984 U.S. Justice Department decision broke up the monopoly — that would get the honor.

The Elite Personnel

It must start with Mario Caldato, the Beasties’ longtime producer, who worked with the boys from Paul’s Boutique through Hello Nasty. He is the official Beastie nerd’s choice for “Fourth Beastie Boy,” and a man they are not shy crediting. On “Sure Shot”: “And on the boards is the man they call the Mario!” On “Root Down”: “And that’s a record, that’s a record ’cause of Mario!” On “Freak Freak”: “Mario’s calling Nonni’s for the pesto pizza.” Caldato was the silent, secret weapon of so many recording sessions, keeping the DAT rolling on impromptu jams, cultivating fledgling ideas into full-flight bangers.

Next, we go to the titular shout-outs. The Bobo of “Bobo on the Corner,” a nod to Miles Davis’s “On the Corner,” would be one Eric Bobo, the percussionist who was Beasties adjacent and eventually went full time with Cypress Hill; it’s his drum groove you hear here, for a lovely 73 seconds.

“Eugene’s Lament” is named for Eugene Gore, a violinist who went to USC with Bobo and came in to lay down these perfectly eerie strings, which sound like the creak of a door that developed sentience and began struggling with depression. “Ricky’s Theme” is a tribute to their old pal Ricky Powell, the photographer, and a lovably cantankerous fellow. According to Bobo, this was another one birthed out of a jam, with himself on the drums first, then Ad-Rock, MCA, and keyboardist Money Mark jumping in. And where was Mike D at the time? “Mike D was on a business call.”

Q-Tip is the only guest on the album, and one of the few guest MCs the Beasties have ever featured. (In fact, other than the always wonderful spot work from the diabolical Biz Markie, the entire list might be Tip and Nas, who punched in on Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two’s “Too Many Rappers.”) But our secret hero is DJ Hurricane, the Beasties’ early touring DJ and the man who would sleepily salvage “Sure Shot.” “It was … missing a chorus,” Horovitz recalls in the anthology liner notes. “Not that a song is not a song without the usual pop verse-chorus math. But this song needed one. We couldn’t come up with anything. So we knew what to do. We called DJ Hurricane ’cause he’s always got something. We woke him up maybe around two a.m. And from bed he came up with the chorus and did it over the phone. Thanks.”

Beastie Boys Portrait Session

The Left-Field Songs

Twice on Ill, with great precision, the Beasties run it all the way back to their hardcore roots. On “Tough Guy,” Mike D cuts down jerks intent on ruining everyone’s fun on the pickup court with their reckless elbow-throwing ways. The stand-in “Tough Guy” is like Laimbeer and Shaq and “dribbl[es] like the Biz,” which “can be bad for your health”; on the Ill Communication audio commentary, Diamond swears this was inspired by a hoop session that left him with not one but two black eyes, although the other guys dispute that. Then, on “Heart Attack Man,” Diamond gets righteously furious on a violent fellow who is being dangerously derelict with his personal health regimen. That the dudes created a space where every whiplash genre deviation made absolute perfect sense is remarkable. Even more remarkable, though? Mike D, in kicking off “Heart Attack Man,” laughing so hard he’s nearly choking to death.

“Flute Thing”: Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish — but “Flute Loop,” as nabbed from “Flute Thing” by the Blues Project, a mid-’60s Greenwich Village blip — had one of the best samples of all time … of all time!

“Futterman’s Rule”: What is indicated by “Futterman’s Rule,” the title of the funk workout nestled at the album’s halfway point? As the legend goes, Gene Futterman was a chef at Squires Restaurant in East Hampton, which Yauch frequented as a boy. And his rule, simply enough, was “When two are served, you eat! You don’t sit there and let your food get cold waiting for everybody to get served.” Whether or not any of that is true is irrelevant: That is a profound, important mandate.

“Shambala”: Intermittently throughout the latter half of the album, Yauch, always the secret autocrat of the group, drops in solo, to work out some things. A couple of years hence, his burgeoning social consciousness would manifest in the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, a spiritedly optimistic moment that now feels definitively ’90s. At the time, it popped up in stuff like “The Update,” a discomfortingly earnest — “the mother Earth needs to be respected / been far from too long that she’s been neglected” — plea for environmental awareness.

The chanting of Tibetan monks is laced, back-to-back, through “Shambala” — named after a mythical lost land of ultimate peace and understanding — and “Bodhisattva Vow,” another bit of well-intentioned awkwardness. “If others disrespect me or give me flack,” Yauch calmly explains, “I’ll stop and think before I react / knowing that they’re going through insecure stages / I’ll take the opportunity to exercise patience.” (In the liner notes, Yauch explains that this track was inspired by a run-in with the Dalai Lama himself: “He got to me, clasped both of my hands in his, looked deep into my eyes and burst out laughing. It was such a sweet laugh, nothing mocking about it. It was like a child’s laugh.” He then decided, “presumptuously,” to try to write a song based on A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, from the 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva.)

Better, as it usually is, was the more oblique stuff. On “The Scoop,” Yauch kicks things off by letting us know he smashed his 9mm with a sledgehammer, a line notable both for the fact that you can actually see it, in the “Something’s Got to Give” video, and for the sheer oddness of imagining a time when Adam Yauch would have wanted to own a gun.

There are two other delightful moments of maturity, both on “Sure Shot.” “I got more rhymes than I got gray hairs / and that’s a lot because I got my share” was adorable; the premature graying always looked good on you, bb! Even better was his famously blunt repudiation of the old ways: “I wanna say a little something that’s long overdue / the disrespect to women has got to be through / to all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.” Simple, strong, and, dare I say, courageous.

The Dick Jokes

Which didn’t mean there wasn’t room for dick jokes. Below, a definitive ranking of all genitalia-related Ill Communication lyrics:

5. “Pull up at the function and you know I ‘Kojak’ / to all the party people that are on my bozak / I got more action than my man John Woo / and I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew.”

4. “Got my nuts swingin’ from left to right / and right to left and / I’m death defying!”

3. “You see me comin’ down the block with the funky cut / You say, ‘yeah Mike D!’ and I say, ‘Mike deez nuts’”

2. “Because I’ve got the flow where I grab my dick / And say, ‘Oh my god, that’s the funky shit!’”

1. Ahem. Mashed. POTATOES.

The Ciao L.A.

“Sabotage” is the monolith: It looms so large that it exists, almost, apart from the album. And unfairly — out of sheer popularity, really — Spike Jonze’s still-startling “Sabotage” video has been watered down into something hacky and cheap. If you’d like to go back, though — back to a time when this was all so shiny and bright and new — there is something for you. There is Ciao L.A.

I don’t want to say too much here. Let’s just establish that, yes, that is Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D playing the same fake-cop characters, respectively, Staten Island tough guy Vic Colfari, confused Southern-fried dude Nathan Wind, and sensual Spanish lover Alasondro Alegre. And yes, that is Zoe Cassavetes and Sofia Coppola (then still married to Jonze) in hard-hitting TV journalism mode. Apparently this comes to us from Coppola and Cassavetes’s short-lived Comedy Central show Hi Octane, almost certainly the finest-pedigreed cinematic-scion fake news show in the history of the world.

“I’m sitting here with Nathan Wind, Alasandro Alegre, and Vic Colfari from the hit TV series Sabotage — actors who are real-life undercover cops, and actors who bring their stories of real-life crime to TV,” Coppola says, in a nice bit of meta confusion that makes us pine, all over again, for the Jonze–Beastie Boys movie that never was. At one point, Colfari alludes to the fact that Wind doesn’t do his own stunts, then promptly chokes him; later, Wind has a teary confessional about the details of his recent alien invasion.

Of the recording of “Sabotage,” Horovitz recalls a New York studio called Tin Pan Alley, where the band would play “jazzy hippie jams for hours” — “some of them came out funky, and a bunch of them remained bad jazzy hippie jams.” The place was run by a guy named Chris, who never hung around the band much — “maybe ’cause he was a little bored with the noodling. Anyways, Yauch came in one day with this idea for a song where the fuzz bass keeps playing and we would all do these hits and stops to bring like suspense and drama. As we were recording it, Chris runs in the room and starts freaking out. He’s all, ‘This is the shit!! This shit rocks!!’”

Photo illustration by Vince Wasseluk.

Filed Under: Music, Beastie Boys, Ill Communication, 20 years, Ad-Rock, MCA, Mike D, Mario Caldato, DJ Hurricane, Q-Tip

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad