The Beastie Boys
ere’s the thing about the Beastie Boys: they’ve always been annoying. Despite their frequent brilliance, success has always come in spite of and not because of Ad-Rock, MCA, & Mike D’s adenoidal yawps and frat-boy lyrics. And yet, despite being blessed with Screech Powers-like voices, the mercurial trio has had an astonishing run over the past three decades.
Then they dropped To the 5 Boroughs, 2004’s feeble concoction of grown-man rap and hoary nostalgia, a record that managed to double as a 45 minute commercial for the NYC Tourism Bureau. It’s not that the record was bad per se, it’s more that listening to it was like seeing the balding Wizard quivering behind the curtain. For the first time in their career, the Beastie Boys were looking backward, vainly groping to make a record that would’ve sounded at home in the rap world circa Licensed to Ill. Without the intricate sonic collage of the Dust Brothers, the weed-break jam interludes of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, or the spaced out playfulness of Hello Nasty to protect them, their flaws were exposed, their voices turned strident and shrill, their personas warped into a dull abyss of gray hair and ancient B-Boy slang. It was the sort of album you hear and immediately say, “Fuck it. This band’s finished.”
Which is why it’s kind of shocking that The Mix-Up is actually good. Here we have 12 eminently listenable grooves indicative of the band’s ability to synthesize a wide variety of noise into a wholly unique sound. Album opener, “B for My Name” shakes with a bell-bottomed funk and the sound of MCA peeling off bass lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a Blaxploitation underworld of fedoras, long black overcoats, and hand-cannons. Think the second half of Check Your Head (i.e. that moment when everyone realized that despite the fact that the Beasties couldn’t really play their instruments, they had the uncanny ability to craft things that just sounded good).
In that respect, The Mix-Up doesn’t present anything innovative, nor is it any sort of triumphant career coda; it just sounds good. “14th St. Break” floats at stoned heights, pairing psychedelic vaguely Indian-sounding guitars with haunting whirling Rhodes notes courtesy of Money Mark. The Latin vibe of “Suco De Tangerina” sounds like what you’d expect to hear if one of the world’s best Holiday Inn bands decided to guzzle a quart of tequila and chase it with some low-grade Tijuana dirt weed. I’m sure that description alone is enough to convince most people not to give the record a shot, but remember: the Beasties have made a career out of making things work that sound atrocious on paper. (Ever hear the one about the rich white Jewish kids from Long Island that decide to kick raps about beer and girls?)
Touching upon dub, afro-Cuban jazz, hip-hop, and Stax soul, The Mix-Up encompasses nearly every sound the Beasties have attempted in their 28-year existence, save for punk. Sure, it’s a little lazy, a little meandering, and most definitely a little jammy, but it might also be the most fluid and loose-limbed work the band has ever done. Either way, it’s nice to hear something new from a band that clearly needed to mix things up.