Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty (1998)

beastI’ve avoided listening to the Beasties ever since Adam Yauch’s death – almost two years ago.  I have – as so many others – struggled to pinpoint exactly why this one hit so hard.  It’s not like I listened to them often, or that they were still making albums that I really liked.  But there’s something about the way the Beasties presented themselves; the way they handled success, the way they evolved as artists and as people, their sense of humor, and their willingness to do whatever they thought sounded good, regardless of whether or not it fit their personas; it was almost as if we knew them.  As a teenager, there was a point where I listened to Beastie anthology Sounds of Science on a near-daily basis.  The cover was a photo of Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D., dressed as old men, walking down the street, presumably talking about the same old bullshit – it seems so impossibly sad now. In such a youth-dominated genre, the Beasties were one of the few who seemed to actually embrace the concept of middle-age.

Not that I’ve wanted to think about it much.  But still, now and again, I marvel at how good these guys had it.  They were not exactly some great talent; regardless, a novelty single led to them getting into the right spot at the right time, they got picked up by Rick Rubin and produced Licensed to Ill, a dumb but nevertheless semi-classic album that eventually sold 9 million copies.  While they’ve since distanced themselves from that LP (Sounds of Science notably does not contain “Girls”, even though it’s easily one of their three most well-known songs), they kept the audience, and have followed their every whim since.  Since then, every album they’ve done has gotten than “huh, so this is what the Beasties sound like now” treatment – Paul’s Boutique, whose usage of the sample-crazy Dust Brothers wound up revolutionizing hip-hop as we know it today, Check Your Head, in which the Beasties dropped all outside producers, picked up their instruments, and did some kind of hip-hop/alt-rock hyrbid, and Ill Communication, which threw everything into a blender, creating an album with such a wide latitude that it allowed hardcore punk and MCA’s declaration of his newfound devotion to Buddism to sit right next to each other.

I missed all that.  I had just turned 13 when it came out and if I remember correctly it was the 3rd CD I ever bought, next to Ghost in the Machine by The Police and The Presidents of the United States of America.  I had no idea about the Beasties, though I did know “Fight For Your Right” and “Brass Monkey”, and, most importantly, I loved “Intergalactic”, especially the video.  I saw the CD in the store, read the tracklisting, and thought, “Wow!  22 songs!  Many with funny titles!”  I actually walked away, got a couple blocks down and thought “Negotiation Limerick File…that sounds really awesome”, went back and bought it.  Little did I know that the backlash had started – Beastie Boys albums were always a little wacky, but this album, their first in four years, was the first since Licensed to Ill in which they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously at all.  Furthermore, it represented a lot of what was wrong with CDs in the late 90’s – it was too long, had only one real good single, seemed to be obviously frontloaded, and contained too much dicking around.

Now all of these things are arguably true, but I still love this album anyway.  The album’s length is no issue to a 13-year old with two CDs outside of his parent’s collection; I liked the dicking around, the queasy non-songs like “And Me” and “Dr. Lee, Ph.D”.  As far as having only one good single goes – hey, that was just what the critics said, though I sure as hell couldn’t remember another single getting any kind of airplay.  The Fatboy Slim remix of “Body Movin” ruled though.  Anyway, none of this seemed to affect the album’s popularity.  Despite the fact that it only hit #28, “Intergalactic” was all over the place that summer, with music magazines and VH1 constantly remarking about how the Beasties were more relevant than they’d been since Licensed to Ill.  You can see why so many latched onto it – compared to Ill Communication (which, released four years prior, must’ve felt like half a lifetime ago), it’s much friendlier and less alienating, with goofball experimentation in lieu of punk songs or any serious statements whatsoever.  It was as though the Beasties were getting a lifetime achievement award – suddenly they were playing “Sabotage” and “Hey Ladies” on the radio again, songs I didn’t remember ever hearing before, meanwhile my classmates were picking up new copies of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, essentially experiencing the evolution of the Beastie Boys in reverse.

On Hello Nasty, for once, the Beasties don’t exactly feel like leaders, because really, who would want to make an album like thisCheck Your Head had plenty for hip-hop groups and rock bands alike, but on Hello Nasty they are firmly in “whatever works” territory, exploring a path that’s entirely their own.  There is some redundancy here (who didn’t notice that “3 MC’s and 1 DJ” was just a really stripped down “Intergalactic”?) but for the most part every song is allowed to be its own thing.  On their last two, you had the hip-hop tracks and the punk songs and the instrumentals, but here the boxes are even smaller.  How exactly, do you classify a piece of distorted musical theater like “Song For the Man”?  The unsettling, incessant honking of “And Me”?  The straight up, flutes-and-all lounge lizard jazz of “Picture This”?  For once, the Beasties are called on to actually sing, and they respond by either distorting their voices into oblivion, or singing in sort of a whisper (is that MCA on “I Don’t Know”?  Ad-Rock on “Instant Death”?)  There are a number of references to old-school hip-hop here, but they don’t play anything straight – most of the tunes are plastered with space-age sound effects and buzzy, electronic ambience, as though they gained access to the entire library of Star Trek sound effects.  Even “Flowin’ Prose”, the album’s one real inward-looking statement, is dominated by vocal effects on every single line, pinging MCA’s voice every which way.  There are guitars, three types of organs (church, hockey, and carnival), a full-time DJ (who is everywhere on this album), samples from old instructional tapes, three percussionists, one guy on alto sax (which track is this?), vocal cameos by Biz Markie, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Miho Hatori alike.

This abundance of session men and guest spots makes this really unpredictable – on some tracks (“Song for Junior”, “Picture This”, “Dr. Lee, Ph.D”) it sounds like the Beasties have no involvement at all.  That’s one way to maintain interest through a nearly 70-minute album – they’re always moving, always switching it up, flangulating the hell out of everything (my one word review: “wocka-wocka-woop-woop-woop”), deploying absurdist humor on nearly every tune.  Maybe not on the gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know” (who knew they had that one in ’em?) nor the unsettling closer “Instant Death”, but otherwise, nothing’s played straight.  And hell, I’m just going to say it, there’s just as many great lines on here as there were on Paul’s Boutique; maybe nothing particularly profound, but when they’re on, the cleverness is off the charts.

Still, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this album’s legacy is.  When Yaucht died, people talked a lot about four albums; Licensed to Ill (“I played that LP 300 times in college!”), Paul’s Boutique (“Nothing was the same after that!”), Check Your Head and Ill Communication (“That record changed my life, man”).  I don’t know why Hello Nasty got overlooked – it sure as shit was important to me.  Do you have any idea how many games of Goldeneye I played to this thing?  On one hand though, I do get it; it’s a really fun album and it features a lot of awesome lyrics, but where’s the deeper meaning?  Where’s the spirituality, where’s the power, where’s the innovation?  On the other – who needs any of that?  Hello Nasty is what the Beasties were to me – it’s absurd, it’s scatterbrained, and it’s way beyond the scope of what you’d expect from a hip-hop group.

Listening to it now is kind of a surreal experience – I must’ve played this a hundred times as a teenager.  This year it will turn 17.  I don’t feel qualified to comment on how it’s held up over the years, as I know nearly every word, scratch, and squonk by heart.  I listen to it now, and I can hear what some of the criticism was about – it does lose steam after the ninth or so track, though there are lots of moments of greatness that follow. My 13-year old self didn’t really care about that though; of all the CDs I bought in those middle school years, this was easily the one with the most stuff in it, and for my $14.99 that was all that mattered.  Even now, I love how downright entertaining and kaleidoscopic this disc is all the way through, with something new to catch your attention every 10 seconds.  And best of all, they did it without hopping any trends; it’s unlike any other hip-hop released in the late-90’s, or really anything that’s come since.  With a legacy secure and nothing to prove, the Beasties just got weird and had fun doing it.   Like many, may people have said, the Beastie Boys didn’t have much to offer after this – their next album would come six years later (I was almost 20!) and there just wasn’t the same impact.  But so what?  For those who love the Beasties, it seems to come down to that moment in time where nothing else hits the spot, where even the flaws in their work make you love it that much more.  And when you hit that level, they’ll always be legends to you.

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