The Anniversary

Hello Nasty Turns 20

I remember the rush. The first time I heard “Intergalactic,” the electro-fizz jam that was the first single from the Beastie Boys’ 1998 album Hello Nasty, I was in my mom’s minivan. The song was on the radio. (Alt-rock radio, of course; rap radio wouldn’t touch the Beasties by then.) Mike D rapped the words “Beastie Boys known to let the beat…” Then, there was this pregnant pause. And after it happened, I remember somehow knowing what was coming. What was coming was the voice of Ad-Rock, sampled from the Beasties’ own 1986 song “The New Style,” bleating the word “nnnnnnnnndrop” in that inimitable cartoon honk. And when it hit, I giggled maniacally and pounded on the dashboard. It was that kind of moment.

The Beastie Boys never disowned Licensed To Ill, the masterfully assholish frat-rap classic that made them famous. But they did spend the entire rest of their career distancing themselves from it, and sometimes apologizing for it. By the time all three Beasties hit 30, they’d achieved social and political consciousness. They were decrying misogyny and tirelessly lobbying for Tibet. They only barely did Licensed To Ill songs live. Still, Ad-Rock’s delivery on that “New Style” intro lingered. Ice Cube sampled it on “Check Yo Self” in 1992. DJ Kool quoted it on “Let Me Clear My Throat” in 1996. In 1995, the Pharcyde built the entire song “Drop” around the way Ad-Rock said that one word, and Ad-Rock and Mike D showed up to make cameos in the amazing filmed-backwards Spike Jonze video.

So when the Beasties sampled that line on “Intergalactic,” it wasn’t just a fun, goofy, exciting moment. It was the first time that the Beasties really embraced their own legacy — where they picked over their own old records for something cool, the same way they’d already picked over everyone else’s old records. It was the moment that they recognized themselves as cultural forces. And it was also the moment when they effectively became a legacy act. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so excited that afternoon in the minivan if I’d realized that.

If a band gets famous enough and then sticks together for long enough, legacy-act status is practically an inevitability. It’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of how you slide into it. All through the ’90s, the Beasties had been building themselves their own tiny empire of cool. They had their own label and their own recording compound. They had their own interconnected web of associated acts. They had their own magazine, read religiously by dorks like me. They ventured away from rap, into scratchy instrumental funk and dirt-stache hardcore. And yet they always had something to do with mainstream rap. Check Your Head and Ill Communication, their two previous albums, could be heard as distant branches on the Native Tongues family tree, and the Native Tongues were still making popular records at the time. But by 1998, Native Tongues were a distant memory, and the Beasties couldn’t have possibly had less to do with Bad Boy, or DMX, or Master P.

The Beasties weren’t willing to be like their old Def Jam labelmate L Cool J, ferociously and sometimes desperately clinging onto the rap zeitgeist and rapping over whatever sounds would keep him on rotation in rap radio. They had the luxury of letting that go, making music for the vast and mostly white cult that they’d spent the ’90s cultivating. The Beasties had been making music for themselves, but they’d been keeping an eye on crossover success. Hello Nasty — named for the phrase employees at the Beasties’ PR firm recited when answering phone calls — is more or less the album where they let that go, where they colored within the lines that they’d already drawn and stopped trying to grab anyone from outside that cult.

It was still huge, of course. The Beasties were still making music with focus and drive and energy, and a song as big and silly as “Intergalactic” or “Body Movin'” still got plenty of love on alt-rock radio. The Beasties spent the next few years touring arenas, doing a gimmicky and silly live show where they all wore matching jumpsuits and new recruit Mix Master Mike, late of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, got a whole lot of chances to show off. But Hello Nasty was still the moment when they’d play live and you’d wait patiently through the new songs. When I saw them that summer, I was excited to hear “Intergalactic,” but I was a whole lot more excited to hear “So What’Cha Want” and “Sure Shot.”

When I finally got my hands on Hello Nasty — its cassette in a cardboard box that opened like a pack of cigarettes — I remember feeling a mild, warm, hard-to-place sense of disappointment. It’s not that the album was bad. It wasn’t. I knew that. But this was a group that had relentlessly evolved over every one of its previous albums, coming up with ridiculous hooks and building entire universes out of randomized cultural references. There were left turns on Hello Nasty that worked; MCA’s folky solo song “I Don’t Know,” for instance, might be the straight-up prettiest thing the Beasties ever made. (That motherfucker sounded like Beth Orton. It ruled.) But the freeform indulgences felt more indulgent than ever. “Dr. Lee, PhD,” the one where Lee “Scratch” Perry got a whole song to just ramble half-coherently, felt like it was 12 minutes long, even though it was only five. And the high-energy moments started to feel like inertia at work.

In the moment, I remember thinking the rapping itself was listless and lazy and almost unforgivably lame. On “Body Movin’,’ there was the moment where the beat dropped out and MCA brayed, “When it comes to quarries, I’m known to swim.” You don’t drop the beat out of a song if you don’t have a great line ready, and that shit about quarries was not it. There are a lot of moments like that all through Hello Nasty. The best you could hope for was something antic and fun: “Dogs love me cuz I’m crazy sniffable.” Nothing was especially quotable. And while the Beasties were never exactly Rakim, Hello Nasty still came less than a decade after MCA told the world that he was making records when you were sucking your mother’s dick. I would’ve killed for a line like that on Hello Nasty.

But listening now, 20 years after its release, I can see that I was caught up in the moment, not able to hear the album for what it is. Hello Nasty might be a retrenchment with lame rapping, but there is still so much to love about the album. Most of it is in the production. In 2005, the indie-rapper and producer Edan became a critical favorite with Beauty And The Beat, an album that chopped up ’60s psych into hard, physical boom-bap. The Beasties didn’t get enough credit for doing the same thing seven years earlier. They fleshed it out, too, using live instruments to layer up the sample-based sound. It’s warm and dense and organic, the way the fuzzed-out guitar and the wickety scratches and sirens of “Super Disco Breakin'” or the hazy fake sitars and lurching drums of “Remote Control” all work together. There is an energy to the album, one that the group would never find again.

The Beasties would release three more albums after Hello Nasty — none of them especially good, all edging close to self-parody. At a certain point, their infrequent records sounded less like artistic statements and more like excuses to tour some more. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s the legacy act way. And so Hello Nasty now stands as a fulcrum point in the group’s career, the moment where they started transitioning from boho-rap world-builders to the cool rich dads that they are today. (It’s been six years since we suddenly and tragically lost MCA, but he’d probably be doing a slightly more activism-heavy version of the same shit as his two surviving bandmates if he was alive today.) Hello Nasty was the Beasties coasting on goodwill, but it generated plenty of goodwill of its own. And while it’s far from the best Beasties album, it still sounds plenty good on a July afternoon. Try it for yourself and see.

Tags: Beastie Boys