Be True To Yourself And You Will Never Fall: Check Your Head at 30

On their third record, the Beastie Boys lifted themselves back up and set the tone for the 90s

Back cover collage on Check Your Head (Image: Capitol Records)

Here’s a question: Was Paul’s Boutique’s initial faceplant the best thing that could have happened to the Beastie Boys?

A classic case of a record born way before its time, the Beasties’ kaleidoscopic sophomore effort landed with a thud upon its July 1989 release, effectively driving the once-heralded rap rock posterchildren underground. 

But time has proven that underground has always exactly been where the trio wanted to be, at least musically. Keep in mind that the point of Paul’s Boutique, at least in part, was to help shed the cartoonish, frat boy image the Beasties helped cultivate through the success of Licensed to Ill. Maybe they pivoted too sharply from one record to the next, but by charting a new path, Mike D, Adrock and MCA freed themselves from others’ expectations. Suddenly, no one knew quite what to make of the Beastie Boys, not fans and certainly not their label, Capitol Records. 

So with the eyes of the world fixated elsewhere, the trio retreated into their own bubble in then-sleepy Atwater Village. Instead of doling out big bucks for pricey studio time, they built their own, complete with a skate ramp and basketball court. They spent their days writing, recording, ordering takeout and rummaging for vinyl. And through that process, they not only brought themselves back into the warm embrace of fans and critics, they cemented their status as one of the most visionary and irreverent acts of their generation.

Beastie Boys Check Your Head, Capitol Records 1992

On paper, Check Your Head looks like a mess. Shoehorning hip hop, hardcore, funk, soul, jazz, samba and other microgenres onto one record sounds like the musical equivalent of a garbage plate special at your local diner. And yet the Beasties spun all those vastly different ingredients into a (mostly) coherent listen. Left to their own devices, the trio once again pulled off a masterstroke, their third in as many records. Thirty years later, it remains one of the definitive musical statements of the 90s, a record that today still somehow sounds both vintage and fresh.

The beauty of the Beastie Boys has always been their unwillingness to play by anyone else’s rules, and Check Your Head lives in that unphased headspace. There’s a tangible sense of chill to the record, the feeling that each track came together in its own way on its own time.  Biz Markie wants to sing over Ted Nugent? Sure. Money Mark feels like recording something while staying overnight in the studio? Great? Porn funk jams that sound like they belong on an episode of Kojak? Why not? Check Your Head might be indulgent, arguably overly so, but it’s so inspired and alive that you really don’t mind the baggage. It’s too much miscreant fun to ignore.

 

VIDEO: Beastie Boys “Pass The Mic”

The central innovation on Check Your Head remains the group’s evolution into a live band. The switch over to live instrumentation may have thrown audiences for a loop on first listen, but it’s actually a sly return to form. The Beasties started out as a teenage hardcore outfit (a fact well documented on their souped up cover of Sly Stone’s “Time For Livin’), so the move wasn’t entirely unprecedented. What’s more interesting is how the trio’s influences had shifted. Hardcore largely takes a backseat to dollar bin soul, r&b and jazz, and some of the record’s best moments come in hearing them feel their way through their quasi-reinvention as a loungy, supper club funk band. Some songs give deliberate nods those influences (“Groove Holmes,” “Live At PJs”), while the fingerprints of The Meters, fusion-era Miles Davis and others are all over tracks like “Funky Boss,” “Pow” and “In 3s.” There’s a looseness to the jamming, and while the trio isn’t totally locked in yet as a live unit, the addition of Money Mark Nahsita on keyboards lifts the performances and helps the tracks gel together in the middle. Once at risk of being pigeon-holed as macho douchebags, Check Your Head showcases a range and versatility that even the group’s staunchest critics had to contend with.

The Beasties’ move into new sonic territory is balanced out by their continued evolution on the hip hop front. And while not nearly as densely packed as Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head further demonstrates the trio’s creative use of sampling. “Jimmy James” is underpinned by a blink-and-you-miss-it baseline from a Jimi Hendrix/Sly Stone collaboration. The musical “Hair” gets some love thanks to a sample of “Age of Aquarius” on “Finger Lickin’ Good.” “Professor Booty” makes good use of the Willie Henderson cut “Loose Booty,” while “Pass The Mic” brings Bad Brains, Johnny Hammond and even jazz flautist James Newton (who subsequently brought the trio to court over use of the sample and lost) together for one of the record’s best tracks. Other tracks blur the lines between the two musical directions pursued by the group. Built off a sample of Southside Movement’s “I’ve Been Watching You,” “So What’cha Want” has the band playing live over the sample, complete with rhymes filtered through a distortion peddle. The Beasties have never been great self-editors, but they’re never short on ideas, and the wide majority of them here work wonderfully.

 

VIDEO: Beastie Boys “So What’cha Want”

Check Your Head returned the Beasties to good critical and commercial standing, only this time they achieved it entirely on their own terms. The trio, rounded out by a cast of characters including Nashita, DJ Hurricane and percussionist Eric Bobo (son of latin jazz musician Willie Bobo), toured the record heavily, which tightened up the band’s sound in time for 1994’s Ill Communication, which largely built upon its predecessor’s strengths. From there, the Beasties were off to pursue other musically sounds and styles, but arguably no record in their canon more fully showcased the breadth of the band’s talent than Check Your Head.  

Arriving right at the cusp of the alternative rock boom, Check Your Head 30 years later still feels “alternative” in the truest sense of the word. For hip hop heads, it gave reason to dig a little deeper into rock. The record similarly gave rock audiences a healthier push toward hip hop. And who knows? Maybe fans from both camps thought it worth checking out some Les McCann and Eddie Harris.

As they did on Paul’s Boutique before it, the Beasties were staring ahead on Check Your Head into the future. What’s novel is the way they looked forward while digging back into the past.

 

 

 

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Ryan Bray

Ryan Bray has written for Wicked Local, Consequence of Sound, AV Club, Village Voice, and Washington City Paper. Follow him on Twitter @feedbackbos.

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