Off The Record, Beastie Boys’ 5 Boroughs

The Beastie Boys, how sweet the sound. They once were lost, but now they’re found. It’s been almost two full decades since the 1986 release of the Beastie Boys’ classic album License to Ill. Group-members MCA, Ad Rock, and Mike D exploded onto the hip-hop scene with their funky New York City white boy style, banging beats, and some real stage presence and microphone skills.

Since then the Beastie Boys have gone on to earn themselves one of the most contradictory reputations in hip-hop. The group has achieved legendary status and is universally accepted as being one of the most important rap groups ever to touch the mic, even though they haven’t really put out any truly relevant music since the release of their first album. At some point, the Beastie’s decided to stop rhyming about partying and to start delivering a socially conscious message. Somehow in trying to learn how to rap about something important, the Beasties lost their ability to rhyme about anything at all. License to Ill was dope musically, and the lyrics were hot enough to match the beats.

Each song on their first album left the listener with a distinct picture in his or her head. When you listen to “Paul Revere” you can really imagine these three crazy Jewish kids actually pulling off the wild heist that they are rhyming about. Flip forward more than a decade to the release of 1998’s Hello Nasty and it’s not that the group cannot pull off a decent narrative concept track, they can’t even write a coherent sentence. “Intergalactic” is a perfect example of a song that is composed entirely of nonsensical jibber-jabber and does not even hint at the lyrical firepower displayed on any License to Ill track. Somewhere over the years, the Beastie Boys had ceased to be relevant in hip-hop.

You could catch any one of their oftentimes catchy songs on alternative rock stations, but it was not until this summer that I heard any of their new material get airplay on a hip-hop station. The Beastie Boys returned to their roots and brought the fire with the summertime release of To the 5 Boroughs, a fifteen track ode to the great city that raised them. Sure, they aren’t making too much sense on tracks like “Ch-Check it Out” but who is complaining? Over an ill bare bones 80s throwback beat, the Beasties get back to their roots and kick some straight raw, and rugged hip-hop.

From what I’ve heard, the three emcees handled most of the album’s production themselves, with a little help from long-time collaborator Mix Master Mike who is given credit as being the “Turntable Extraordinaire” of the record. The end product is a finely polished album with a dope sound and a consistent theme of eclectic bass-heavy 80s beats, dope scratches, creative samples, and some great chemistry between the three emcees who have mastered the art of trading verses.

The Beastie’s know how to trade rhymes back and forth in a verse and how to flip from letting each member spit a few bars solo and then all jumping in to work together on the hooks. The beats on this album are straight-up crazy, I can’t say it enough. Each one is just wild. Every instrumental is interlaced with all sorts of classic Beastie-style oddball samples. The beats dynamically shift sound and tempo, and are far more creative in their composition than your average static continuously-looped keyboard beat. Lyrically the Beastie Boys are outmatched against today’s new breed of emcees, but they do their thing on this album. When they’re flipping rhymes back and forth, the listener focuses on the sound of their voices and their control of timing and delivery more than he notices what they are actually saying.

To the 5 Boroughs keeps the listener on his toes as the Beasties are constantly switching up their flow and bringing a distinctly original and different sound to each track. With twenty years experience in the game, the Beasties know how to do a lot of things right, and they bring their best to the table on To the 5 Boroughs. Hey, they even make sense on “An Open Letter to NYC” and succeeded in delivering a message in a dope song. You can catch the Beastie’s on tour in NYC, Philly, or wonderful Worchester Massachusetts in early October. If you’re a die-hard Beastie’s fan, you’ll be happy to see them get back to making the kind of music they make best. If you’ve never given them a chance, pick up To the 5 Borough’s at Pure Pop in downtown Burlington, for a chance to see some of the originators at their finest.