Beastie Boys
Ill Communication: Remastered Edition

For an embarrassingly sheltered suburban kid whose musical intake consisted of Garth Brooks, Boyz II Men, and showtunes (I’m not sure how I made it through such a traumatically bland childhood), Ill Communication was nothing short of a revelation. It was the lightning rod that first exposed me to hip-hop, punk rock, funk, and the very existence of the Eastern Hemisphere. Soon, my musical tastes expanded at startling speeds as the Q-Tip collaboration “Get it Together” led to an appreciation of A Tribe Called Quest along with less polite rap collectives like Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. Thrashy bursts of colic energy like “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” sent me on a cautious yet resolute expedition into the worlds of Black Flag and Hüsker Dü, where I learned the difference between “punk rock” and “Green Day.” Funk jams like “Sabrosa” and “Ricky’s Theme” had me rummaging through my parents’ record collection for Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone albums. And the didgeridoos and tablas that permeate the album’s second half forced me to re-evaluate all those Beatles songs I used to skip over because they had the audacity to utilize non-Western instrumentation.

(As a side note, “Sabotage” did lead me to believe that there was actually a future in rap-rock, thus plunging me into a mercifully short yet no less emetic “Korn/Limp Bizkit” phase that afflicted so many children born in the mid-80s. Luckily I survived this brief love affair with terrible rapping and extraneous turntable noises.)

Now, after 15 years, this two-disc anniversary reissue provides an opportunity to strip the gooey patina of nostalgia off Ill Communication and take an objective look at the album that taught me music is about more than just meter, melody, and harmony; it’s also about style, swagger, and recklessness. Though critically acclaimed upon its release, Ill Communication usually takes a backseat to Check Your Head when compared against the rest of the Beastie Boys’ ’90s output. Maybe it’s because it tends to repeat the same formula as Check Your Head with its mix of raucous hip-hop bangers, hardcore throwbacks, and porn instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because Check Your Head was the first mainstream Beastie Boys release where the band played its own instruments and relied less on samples. (For some reason, the Beasties were always held to higher standards of musicianship than many of their hip-hop peers.)

And yet Ill Communication holds up remarkably well after all these years and in many ways surpasses its hallowed predecessor. While nothing here matches the heavy machinery doom-bap of “So What’cha Want,” Ill Communication is the much more fluid and complete album of the two. Check Your Head, despite the consistently high quality of the individual songs, sounds more like a sampler of various genres than a unified entree. And although there’s no shortage of genre-hopping on Ill Communication, many of the tracks flow into one another, creating a relentlessly kinetic vibe that masks the album’s inevitable lack of cohesion. Additionally, on idiosyncratic songs like “The Scoop,” “Flute Loop,” and “Bodhisattva Vow,” the Beasties show much more willingness to drop their signature rhymes over uniquely arranged tracks that on Check Your Head would have been relegated to “instrumental” status. By blending their witty, pop culture–damaged lyrics with their more adventurous musical predilections, the group closed the rift between their “rap” and “instrumental” songs, pioneering a sound that no one (not even the Beasties themselves) has since duplicated.

The second disc of the reissue features remixes of “Sure Shot,” “Get It Together,” and “Root Down,” and while the first two are perfectly disposable, some listeners actually prefer the slowed-down trip-hop version of “Root Down” to the original. Also included is the fun rocker “Mullet Head,” which could serve as a suitable replacement for either “Heart Attack Man” or “Tough Guy,” along with the solid if inessential outtakes, “Resolution Time,” “Dope Little Song,” and “The Vibes.” Ultimately there’s not enough here to merit a second purchase of the album if you already have the original. But if your copy is scarred by grape jelly stains and errant embers, this is a great opportunity to replace and rediscover an old favorite.

The reissue is a bittersweet event, as it arrives on the eve of the announcement made by Adam Yauch that he has cancer. Thankfully, the cancer is localized so Yauch’s prognosis is very good, and after he heals up the Beasties will go forward with the release of Hot Sauce Committee Part 1. Judging by the early press surrounding the album, it sounds like this could be their most eclectic since Ill Communication. Which is good news since the Beastie Boys are at their best when they supply the connective tissue between disparate genres, expanding the breadth of people’s musical tastes.
David Holmes