Records Revisited: Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994)

Planned Disruption! For their fourth album, the band got together to jam in the studio, resulting in a lush work that was nonetheless considered by some to be less than complex.

»Listen all y’all, it’s a sabotage!«: 1994 saw the Beastie Boys back on the pop scene with a bang. This was still the era of the TV screen and MTV was all the rage. Not surprisingly, the song’s Spike Jonze-directed music video was at least partly responsible for the Beasties’ sensation—even if it didn’t win an MTV Video Music Award: Aerosmith won the race with »Cryin’«. Which is a crying shame! 

Whatever: The Beastie Boys’ fourth album, »Ill Communication«, is much more than »Sabotage«. It’s a grab bag, a kaleidoscope of ideas, references, possibilities and musical facets—and the first one on which the New Yorkers, who have been making music together since the early eighties, haven’t reinvented themselves. In terms of its production style, it seamlessly follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, »Check Your Head«. Like its predecessor, it was primarily created at their G-Son studio in Atwater, California, in a band structure with Mike D on drums, AdRock on guitar and MCA on bass, complemented by co-producer Mario Caldato Jr, DJ Hurricane, keyboardist Mark Nishita and percussionist Eric »Bobo« Correa. 

They take the work of a super-talented jazz musician, condense it into a one-bar loop and repeat it in a way that undermines everything the musician has achieved.

Syncopation Magazine

On »Ill Communication«, the Beastie Boys delve into many genres at once, but the finished songs are easier to categorise than in the days of »Check Your Head«. Classic rap tracks with meticulous sampling and finely honed old-school turntable skills meet stripped-down, raw hardcore punk, lo-fi funk and instrumental tracks that hint at the Beastie Boys’ fondness for certain Miles Davis jazz-rock albums during the recording sessions, as noted by Simon Reynolds in »Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop«. »Bobo on the Corner« is the most obvious reference, citing the Miles Davis album »On the Corner« in the title. 

Soup as science

Speaking of jazz: A memorable 1994 review of the opener »Sure Shot« in Syncopation magazine went something like this: »You’ve definitely heard similar songs before. They take the work of a super-talented jazz musician, condense it into a one-bar loop and repeat it in a way that undermines everything the musician has achieved. Then you superimpose three singers shouting words that rhyme with a drum pattern, and you’ve got the current trend in popular music: Rap music«. The reviewer also expresses his dislike for »Ill Communication« by talking more about the soup he’s cooking during the listening session than the LP itself. Strange, but somehow fitting, given the unique sonic soup the Beasties themselves have brewed up with »Ill Communication«. 

In the »Beastie Boys Book«, in which the review is also republished, Mike D recalls the recording sessions: »We knew we’d start by playing our instruments, improvising and tinkering with ideas. Meanwhile Mario would record us, mix it a bit, add effects or live dubbing elements and note down what might be a »keeper«. We were looking for ideas that we could build on and use to put songs together. Sometimes we kept the original recordings, sometimes we re-recorded parts or even a whole song. Then we added lyrics and turned the pieces into songs. In short, we didn’t feel the need to break all the rules we had set ourselves. We were happy just to bend them a little.« 

Tracks such as »Sure Shot«, »Sabotage«, »Root Down« and »Get it Together«, with its legendary Q-Tip feature, stand out as standalone tracks. Around them are the 16 other songs, sketchy and fragmentary, though at times almost overwhelming due to the overused »bullshit mic, made out of plastic«. But even if you skip them at first, they’re packed with powerful, unexpected sonic moments. Check out »The Update«, »Flute Loop«, »Do It«, »Sabrosa« or »Allright Hear This«. The Beastie Boys are sound scientists. »Ill Communication« wasn’t the first and wasn’t the last proof of that in 1994.