#261: Check Your Head, Beastie Boys
This is an album you should play video games to. It was put out in 1992, but it’s almost like the Beastie Boys foresaw how awesome video game music would be in 2022. The first time I put this album on, I played it on a PS4 while playing Spider Man: Miles Morales. The game kept crashing (yet another reason to get the stupid overpriced PS5 — that and the new Ratchet & Clank, which I hear is otherworldly) but it was worth it. Listen to “Stand Together” and tell me it doesn’t make you want to kick bad guys in the face.
I didn’t recognize most of the songs on this record, so I was worried it would be beyond me somehow, too cool for me. Of course there are a few hits, like “Pass The Mic,” which mixes some badass guitar samples with a short sample from “Choir” by James Newton. (Fun fact, they were actually sued over that sample, but “the judge found that the sample [was] too small to require a license.”)
And we can’t forget “So What’Cha Want.” I remember when this song was featured in Rock Band, which my family bought back when we lived in a house with a video game room. Rock Band was the one where you can play the guitar, drums, and sing, and on this song, my sister did the rapping. She was eleven. Honestly, the B-Boys could learn a thing or two from her.
But the rest were foreign to me, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was an album that was both really fun and meta in a way that felt ahead of its time — see the opening to “Jimmy James.” Another track that steeped in meta, styled to sound like it’s in a jazz club, is “Live At P.J.’s,” which opens up with a polite jazz groove, then quickly morphs into a soulful, heavy rock-rap jam. By the end, when they give you the PSA about drunk driving, you’re light-headed from dancing.
The real reason I’m drawn to the Beastie Boys is that they’re hilarious, in a casual way that other rap groups work really hard to imitate. They get away with tracks that would be out of place on any other badass Nineties rap album, like “The Biz Vs. The Nuge,” a track that features Biz Markie riffing to a Ted Nugent electric guitar riff. (RIP the Biz.) “Mark On The Bus” is also hilarious, and was mixed in a single night by their keyboardist Money Mark Nishita.
They’ve just got a sense of humor that is so refreshing in the music industry. For example: Kurt Cobain would only let Weird Al cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” if he promised it wasn’t about food. Well, I think he should open up his world. Food songs are delightful. In fact, they’re “Finger Lickin’ Good.” Speaking of meta, you might have noticed that this song ends with a callout to Mario C. That’s Mario Caldato Jr., who helped co-produce this and several more B. Boys albums. (Do you think the Beastie Boys know too many people named Mark?)
The Boys have a knack for writing music that could be annoying, but isn’t, at all. They’re the only band that can get away with being so repetitive; see “Funky Boss,” which matches its one-liner lyrics with a repeating, climbing guitar riff. And “Lighten Up” has a similar guitar feature, with a whispering Adam Yauch trying to convince you to do something you don’t need convincing to do.
There are two things the RS blurb gets right about this record. The first is that the Beasties “returned to their rock-band roots” with this record. I did know that the group started out as a punk band (with a drummer named Kate!) but it’s so apparent on Check Your Head that it might as well be a punk record. “Gratitude” is all heavy guitars, as is “Time For Livin.’” “The Maestro” features a snarky voicemail, that nasty guitar, and a sneering, groaning declaration of power. Who is the man?/Who is the man?/Who is the man?/Etc. You know who it is.
And there’s also a jazz thing going on here. “Pow” meshes rock and jazz perfectly, slowing down and then speeding back up in a way that reminded me of the end of Whiplash. “In 3’s” is going on my list of songs to learn on the guitar — what a tempting rhythm.
The RS blurb also brings up the term “lizard lounge,” which I only started to understand once tracks like “Something’s Got To Give” came on, which grooved so low it reminded me of The Internet, a la Syd Tha Kid. “Groove Holmes” lives in that low register too. (Though at this point I was starting to get sick of slow, lyricless tracks. Give me more raps!) And the final track, “Namaste,” lullabies you out of the album with some weak, two-joint-in philosophizing that somehow fits on this record perfectly.
Finally, “Professor Booty” is a joke, but it’s also a jam. It’s about a minute and a half longer than the rest of these tracks — but since the rest are so short, this longer song feels earned.
There’s no shortage of great Beastie Boys albums. This record was released three years after Paul’s Boutique (#125), which everybody believes is one of the best albums ever (for some reason), and Ill Communication, which also made the list at #192. But there’s also Hot Sauce Committee Part II, which came out at the same time as Adam Yauch’s death, Licensed to Ill, and Hello Nasty. There’s so much to sift through, I always end up playing the same songs. It was delightful to hear their deeper cuts.
Other Highlights: “The Blue Nun” made me want to ruin a pretentious party.