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Music Review: Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (Remastered, 2-CD Edition)

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Ill Communication took on a whole new meaning when Adam Yauch (aka MCA) announced through a Youtube video post July 20 that he had a form of throat cancer that is localized in one area in the neck, but which miraculously doesn’t affect his voice and is "very treatable."

As a result, the Beasties have postponed all concert dates as well as the release of their new album Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1 until late in 2009. Yauch says he will be fine after surgery and radiation treatment. Here’s to hoping he does indeed make a full recovery.

The debut record Licensed To Ill introduced the world to the Beasties in the mid-‘80s. But between 1989 and 1994, the young (and healthy) Beastie Boys departed from party rap-rock hero status, and instead became ambitious, influential innovators of hip-hop. While the masterpiece and sample heaven of their 1989 sophomore LP Paul’s Boutique was the trio’s artistic statement, the 1992 follow-up Check Your Head and 1994’s Ill Communication in particular solidified their coolness and success in hip-hop and alternative rock circles.

Originally released in May 1994, I.C. was well timed to be unloaded on the masses, as America (and the entire rock world) was still coping with the loss of Kurt Cobain over a month earlier. It rocked alternative rock radio (as well as MTV via the “Sabotage” video), and came out during a memorable year in rock that saw the rise of the likes of Weezer and Hole, the Smashing Pumpkins co-headline Lollapalooza (in place of Nirvana) with the Beasties, modern and classic rockers coalesce for Woodstock ‘94 and Pearl Jam take on Ticketmaster.

Produced by Mario Caldato Jr. (aka Mario C.) and remastered by the Boys and Chris Athens, Ill is a relentless and remarkable mixture of cutting edge and old-school style hip-hop, cop-show themed proto-metal (“Sabotage”), jazz-funk fusion and Buddhism-inspired soundscapes (“Bodhisattva Vow”). It is available to buy on vinyl, 2-CD and eco-friendly digital formats.

Early standout “Sure Shot,” with its bluesy looped flute is a freestyle joint which name drops Rod Carew and Caldato, among others. And in an instance of lyrical maturity not found in a lot of mainstream rap records out there, it features a call by MCA for “disrespect to women” to stop, and an offer by him to respect all the “mothers” and “sisters” to the end.

Of course, the Beasties themselves threw in some immature (though admittedly fun) lyrics into some of its early, classic cuts (i.e. “The New Style”) but here and elsewhere, are lyrically bold and clever without being classless.

With CYH and I.C. having been released closer together than any other two Beastie Boys studio albums, one would rightly think they share some common characteristics (besides being multi-platinum records). For one, the cowbell-dominant “Alright Hear This” and “The Scoop” from I.C. have the same distorted mic sound that worked so well on C.Y.H. hit “So What’cha Want.”

Number two, both LPs contain short, raw skate-punk cuts.

I.C.’s rough and tough “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” aren’t too dissimilar from the prior album’s “Time For Livin.’” Even more important, both records also feature more organic sounds than the Beasties’ first two (‘80s) albums, because of the multi-talented rappers' ability to play their own instruments live, and sample their own creations.

Also, where the Dust Brothers were the secret to the success of Paul’s Boutique, producer Mario C. and keyboardist “Money Mark” Nishita were unheralded significant contributors to the Beasties’ next two records, with the latter shining on hits including C.Y.H.’s “So What’cha Want” and Ill’s “Root Down.” And on Ill’s many instrumentals (i.e. “Sabrosa,” “Futterman’s Rule,” “Shambala”), session musicians like percussionist Eric Bobo and Nishita gel well alongside MCA on bass guitar/upright bass, Ad-Rock on guitar and Mike D on drums.

From the downloadable hour-long audio commentary the Beastie Boys recorded to accompany this remastered LP, you learn among other facts that the many sounds of “Root Down” were “chopped up” from just one record, and the group’s favorite loop on this album is the one that carries the ultra cool (and foul-mouthed) “Get It Together.” This bass and beat-heavy track, featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, was one that could’ve fit just as well on a Tribe record as this one.

“Get It Together” may have an old-school feel to it, but with the four-man tag team trading rhymes back and forth here, it still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1994. Speaking of old-school, friend of the Beasties Biz Markie cameos on the standout body movin’ track, “Do It.”

On the half hour-long bonus disc, you get rarities like a laugh-filled live acoustic version of “Heart Attack Man,” b-sides that should’ve been album cuts like the killer telephone signal-looped “Resolution Time” and “Dope Little Song.” And if they could have cleaned up the rough production of the rockin’ punk of “Mullet Head,” which features one of the first known uses of the term “mullet,” it too would’ve been a solid album track for this or any Beasties era.

There’s amusing but non-essential filler too, including “Atwater Basketball Association File No. 172-C,” which is just audio of the Boys playing an intense game of b-ball, a favorite pastime of theirs. But flaws like this are few and far between on this release.

Ill Communication was then, as it is now, a record full of the cool, crossover and kickass hip-hop you’ve come to expect from the NYC trio.

As a re-issued set with a bonus disc of rare mixes and some golden b-sides, this essential collection of 32 tracks has even more gems now than you bargained for. All told, this LP was the Beasties’ third instant classic in three tries and listening to it all over again without hitting the skip button once only confirms that it was and still is one of the top hip-hop records of the 1990s.

To get more info on the remastered Ill Communication, stream all 32 remastered tracks and download the Beasties’ recent audio commentary on the making of the album, visit this link.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.