The Beastie Boys blew up in 1986 when they dropped Licensed to ill on Def Jam. Drawing on their punk rock roots, they brought a sonic edge to Hip Hop that drew white people in droves. Their bratty antics and entitled attitude appealed to people who couldn’t relate to the culture of struggle and strife from which Hip Hop came.
But the Beastie Boys were not the type to get pigeonholed by an industry that wanted them to fit a narrow mold. In 1989 they released Paul’s Boutique, a groovy little number that had nothing to do with the previous album. Fans abandoned them en masse, unable to relate to the artistry and growth of the young lads.
Determined not to let the downturn ruin their momentum, the Beasties relocated from New York to Los Angeles. Here, they found their way back to their roots, picking up instruments for the first time in years with Adam “MCA” Yauch (RIP) on bass, Adam “Adrock” Horovitz on guitar, and Mike D [Diamond] on drums.
The Beasties teamed up with producer Mario Caldato, Jr., and got down to work, setting up shop at G-Son Studios in the decidedly uncool section of Atwater, Los Angeles. Here, they created a clubhouse that allowed them to rock out, whether skateboarding on custom ramps, playing basketball on a half court, or recording tracks in an old ballroom. Inside this hermetic little world, the Beasties fused their love of Hip Hop and punk in what would become Check Your Head, arguably the finest album in their catalogue—which celebrates its 25th anniversary today, April 21.
In speaking with Brian Coleman for the seminal book, Check The Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Random House/Villard, 2007), Mike D recalled, “Sonically, on Check Your Head we put songs together in every type of way. Sometimes it was just us playing, sometimes we cut-and-pasted parts of us playing together [in the final song mix], and sometimes we’d sample ourselves playing a loop and then build something on top of that. We could have done all that in a regular studio, but it’s hard to imagine how, because of all the time it took. Hundreds of hours went into making that album.”
Check Your Head was an act of pure liberation and an expression of freedom. Rather than be bogged down by the highs and lows of industry life, they created reclaimed their love for music as an extension of living life. The result was a sound that was entirely new, not just for the Beasties but for the world.
Tracks like “Pass the Mic” and “So What’cha Want” were the big hits, restoring to the world the raw live energy of the Beastie—only this time, with more soul and more finesse. They were maturing, from boys to men, so to speak. They dropped the adolescent antics in favor of mastering their craft, no longer relying upon the juvenile pleasure of shock value. At the same time, they kept their sense of humor about things, crafting “The Biz Vs. The Nuge,” with Biz Markie going over Ted Nugent, an act that has proved to have even greater resonance today.
In retrospect, Check Your Head set a precedent, not so much in Hip Hop but in rock, influencing a new generation of white bands to try to fuse these two worlds. But, let’s face it—no one came close to achieving what the Beasties did. Perhaps that’s because those other bands were outsiders. The Beasties didn’t have to try; they simply were down by law.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.