Check Your Head Turns 20
It must be some cosmically appropriate coincidence that Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted and the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head came out within a couple of days of each other. Slanted And Enchanted helped define one long-lasting strain of ’90s underground culture: Obliquely smirky wit, sidelong guitar jams, the persistent sense that you couldn’t tell whether somebody was making fun of you or not. But Check Your Head practically invented another, very different strain. In its genetic fusion of rap and punk and ’70s stoner-culture and head-rush pop-cult referentialism, Check Your Head presented, fully-formed, a strain of skater/stoner culture that became a way of life for plenty of kids I knew in high school. In the years that followed, the Beasties and their armies of friends and admirers would flesh that idea out further and further, turning retro-dazed cool-kidism into an entire complete worldview — one that interacted uneasily with the Buddhism-inflected human-rights awakening the Beasties themselves would undergo a couple of years later. But Check Your Head presents that world in the ecstasy of birth: A purely impure artifact that sought to pull together a new idea of cool from whatever bits of cultural flotsam it could find. It succeeded beautifully.
The Beastie Boys had been on one hell of a roller-coaster before they settled into their Check Your Head groove. With License To Ill six years earlier, their goofy frat-rap joke had turned them into an international phenomenon, and they’d played a huge role in popularizing rap music, a genre that they were maybe a little bit sort of mocking. After a shitstorm of attention, they’d moved west, regrouped, and given the world Paul’s Boutique, their absolute masterpiece, only to see it utterly brick commercially. Suddenly, they were faded stars, even though they were barely into their mid-’20s. And so the regrouped again, workshopping about five different entirely new sounds and then jumbling them all together on one album. That sense of jumble would become their lasting legacy, or the most important of their many lasting legacies. Check Your Head isn’t their best album, but it may be their most essential and characteristic one.
And so: The album itself. It’s aged remarkably well! The big news at the time was that they were playing their own instruments for the first time since their teenage hardcore-punk years. And they knew what they were doing there. The many instrumental Meters-funk tracks on Check Your Head are the best the band ever recorded. “Something’s Got To Give” is gorgeously psychedelic space-funk, “Pow” rides a goofily great breakbeat and sticks its time changes, “Groove Holmes” floats like a butterfly. I’ve got a particular love for “Mark On The Bus,” the War-style song-sketch about the career drudgery that the Beasties themselves never had to experience. Meanwhile, “Time For Livin'” scratches an old-school hardcore itch that must’ve been nearly a decade old, and it doesn’t want for ferocity. And “Gratitude” maybe the unsung masterpiece of the album: A bongwater-soaked riff-rock trial run on “Sabotage,” funky the same way Black Sabbath were funky when they recorded “The Wizard.”
As far as the rap stuff goes, the Beasties, admittedly, were not in top form on Check Your Head; it was not a proud moment when Mike D rhymed “commercial” with “commercial.” But I still like the album’s raps; they get over on pure nerd-out energy. Maybe the Beasties weren’t trying too hard when they were writing them, but maybe that’s also sort of the point. And though the samples aren’t as dazzlingly stitched-together as they were on Paul’s Boutique, there’s still a staggering amount of other people’s music in there. The difference, this time, is that the samples don’t sound like samples; they sound like sounds that have always existed together. This was the moment where the Beasties internalized their many, many influences and spit them back out whole. In the Spin Alternative Record Guide (the best book of music-writing ever, real talk), Rob Sheffield calls the Check Your Head-era Beasties “a funkier version of Ween or Unrest,” which is ridiculous, but I get what he means. They had that same sense of homespun possibility, of friends fucking around in garages and trying out anything that crossed their minds. Worth noting: After Check Your Head came out, the Beasties toured with the Rollins Band and Cypress Hill as their openers. Those days, nobody did stuff like that. These days, a whole lot of people do it. Check Your Head changed things.
So what do you guys think? Favorite song from Check Your Head? Favorite memory? Did the stoner kids in your high-school come in from illicit lunchtime smoke-breaks to play the album on Walkman speakers in the hallway, rapping along with every word, the way mine did? And let’s all watch some videos below.