Ill Communication Turns 20
Where did “Sabotage” come from? I’m not talking about the fake-cop-show video, a clear masterpiece of the form and the main reason Spike Jonze ever got to make movies in the first place. I’m talking about the single itself, a delirious chunk of Camaro-rock that has no precedent in the Beasties discography. The Beasties had done so many things by 1994: Intentionally dickish knucklehead party-rap, astrally inclined experimental rap, sneery teenage trash-can hardcore, zoned-out ’70s scratch-funk instrumentals. And you can hear bits and pieces of all those things in “Sabotage,” but you have to squint your ears hard and imagine things that maybe aren’t there. What they’d never done was massive bottom-heavy fuzz-rock. “Gratitude,” a small masterpiece of snarling riffery from 1992’s Check Your Head, had maybe come close, but even that really felt like a practice run. “Sabotage” was its own thing, a mean motherfucking song of a type that the Beasties had never really made before, and a sound to which they’d certainly never return again. There’s a lot going on in “Sabotage”: The berserk nasal-gorilla Ad-Rock vocal, the sloppy-funk percussion, the DJ scratching that sounded like a Tom Morello solo, the MCA bassline that sounded like a monster punching another monster in the face, the bit where the music drops out and the bass comes rushing back in but doesn’t even entirely stay on-beat the whole time. It’s like what might’ve happened if Black Sabbath, circa (um) Sabotage, had somehow drafted a great turntablist into the band, and if they’d somehow had the more-annoying Jerky Boy as their singer. It makes no sense as a song, and yet it kicks every possible variety of ass.
Doing a modicum of Wikipedia research, I’m vaguely shocked to learn that “Sabotage” never charted on Billboard‘s Hot 100; in terms of pure statistics, you’d have to consider it a minor hit, at best. And yet that song was everywhere if you were, let’s say, just finishing up 8th grade in the spring of 1994. The video was on MTV more than Denis Leary. The song was on the radio almost as much as whatever single Counting Crows had out right then. It was the engine that drove Ill Communication to triple-platinum status, making it the second-most successful Beasties album, after the License To Ill phenomenon. A couple of years after the album dropped, Ad-Rock’s “listen all of y’all, it’s the sabotage” delivery was still the voice that every black kid I knew used to make fun of every white kid. On the radio, or in just about any other context, it sucked up all the air in the room. It was a huge and frothing and weird-as-fuck song, and it towered over everything around it. But in the context of Ill Communication, it’s just another goofy, strange musical choice on an album full of them. It sounded like nothing else on the album, and yet it fit in perfectly.
By the time they made Ill Communication the Beasties had figured out their role. They’d been through stardom and commercial failure and come out the other side, scarred but wiser. And they’d developed an entirely new persona: As the cool older cousins of an entire generation. They knew about things — cool new things, cool forgotten old things — before the rest of the world took notice, and they were happy to let you hang out in the corner while they threw impossibly knotty inside jokes back and forth between each other. They could rap on a track, or they could just not, and it was fine either way. They trusted you to enjoy their random hardcore-punk bursts and much as their anthemic rap bangers, and if you couldn’t get on board, you’d feel like an asshole. You’d feel like you’d failed them. They’d figured out that space for themselves on Check Your Head, and it carried over to Ill Communication, the first Beasties album that sounded a lot like the one that preceded it. And nobody was mad about that. If anything, I wish the Beasties had made 10 more albums that sounded like Check Your Head.
There were differences, though, and the main one was the way Adam Yauch’s expanded conscience was manifesting itself. Another, related thing was all the chanting monks. At 14, this bothered me enormously: Why are there chanting monks on this thing? Earlier that spring, the Benedictine Monks Of Santo Domingo had come out with an unlikely bazillion-selling album called Chant, an album of nothing but ancient Gregorian chants that somehow went mom-viral. All my parents would listen to was the goddam chanting monks. I could not escape them. So when chanting monks showed up on the last few tracks of Ill Communication, I felt somehow betrayed. Of course, these were Tibetan Buddhist monks, not Spanish Catholic monks. They were working from entirely different cultural and musical traditions, and they really sounded nothing alike. To me, though, it didn’t matter. The mere presence of chanting monks was enough to flummox me, to piss me off, to make me feel as though motherfucking monks were following me down the street to school every morning. My personal anti-monk culture war was such that I’d turn the album off after “Heart Attack Man,” even though that one makes no sense as a closer and even though there are some deep-space grooves on those last few tracks.
Truthfully, though, Yauch’s social consciousness was a weird fit for the pop-cultural playground the Beasties had made for themselves. Later on, stories would circulate that Yauch was losing interest in rapping, that the heightened state of energy didn’t much appeal to him. And compared to the other two guys, his voice was flatter, less enthused. It was cooler than their voices, low and gruff and serious and badass, but he was using it to deliver messages, which was weird when his bandmates were rhyming “John Woo” with “Rod Carew” on the same track. Still, he sold it. The “disrespecting women has got to be through” moment on “Sure Shot” was a quick and jarring burst of real talk, but it didn’t slow the track’s loony momentum. And while “The Update” has the preachiest lyrics of any Beasties track ever, they come slathered in the same echo that Yauch used when he was contemplating the universe through a haze of weed smoke on “A Year And A Day,” years earlier. Heard in the right light, his do-gooder talk is simply another version of the stoner patter that the group uses throughout. Ill Communication is, among other things, a document of what it’s like when three friends get older and start getting into different things and caring deeply about those things and maybe making each other uncomfortable sometimes but staying just as close regardless.
Listening now, its striking now insular the album sounds, how much these guys were talking to each other and not caring whether the rest of the world was listening in. The group had their own L.A. studio by the time they made Ill Communication, and they had a solid crew of collaborators: co-producer Mario Caldato, keyboardist Money Mark, percussionist Eric Bobo, DJ Hurricane. The tracks feel loose and half-improvised, and rather than let their backing tracks remain static, they’d let these ace musicians in to squelch around with them mid-song. There are glorious moments that come up briefly and then never return, like the piano sample and the breakbeat that shine through halfway through “Flute Loop.” There’s the bits of no-context-given pop-culture effluvia, like the guy saying that, if this was going to be that type of party, he was going to stick his dick in the mashed potatoes. (If you and your friends did not constantly yell about sticking your dicks in the mashed potatoes throughout the ’90s, you had shitty friends — though, to be honest, Luis Guzman kind of ruined that whole thing when he yelled it in the movie Waiting.) They constantly make reference to the guys in the room, and it’s like they’re trying to crack each other up rather than to professionally record a song that’s going to make them money. Even on the fired-up hardcore rant “Tough Guy,” the evil oppressive figure is just the guy who gets too physical during pickup basketball games. That sort of vibe-harshing could not be tolerated, because vibe was everything to the Beasties.
That casual, sloppy sensibility works remarkably well even when it shouldn’t. Q-Tip, showing up on “Get It Together” for one of the only guest raps ever to appear on a Beasties album, doesn’t even bother bringing his A-game; he’s giggling and fucking around just like everyone else. But it’s almost startling to hear his assured delivery and buttery tone: Oh yeah, this is what great rapping sounds like. And half the songs are sketches, purposefully left unfinished. And yet the whole thing works; it blurs together into a bumpy and fascinating whole. Looking back, I hadn’t heard too many albums before this that tried to be more than just collections of songs. This one didn’t bother to be a collection of songs; it adapted cohesion as the path of least resistance. Ill Communication really had nothing to do with the musical climate of 1994. You could tell they’d been paying attention to the Native Tongues and post-Native Tongues rap stuff, but their greatest influence on this one was themselves. And the alt-rock boom didn’t even register on what they were doing, no matter how much distortion they used on “Sabotage.” They were instead creating their own little pocket universe, and this was a place where many of us were content to spend the ’90s. Soon after, they’d launch their Grand Royal label and magazine, and groups like Luscious Jackson and Cibo Matto would emerge, seemingly in the Beasties’ wake, to do amazing things on their own. It was a quiet, low-key sort of empire, but it was still an empire.