Way back in 1990, Our Year of the B-Boy, the soon-to-pass period when hip-hop was still golden and Slick Rick was considered a political prisoner, I went to get some cash out of an A.T.M. as my girlfriend waited in the car with Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ ” playing on the tape deck. I was wearing my Fear of a Black Planet tour T-shirt (backward, with the eyepiece logo on the front), the last tour shirt I would ever buy, except for a Radiohead dickey I sometimes wear-ironically, you know, but it’s a joke no one ever seems to get, since I wear glasses just like the rest of their fans. Three African-American teens were sitting on the curb talking about pasta sauces. As I approached, one kid’s face turned sour, but I didn’t think much of it. My back to him, I heard him ask his friends, “How can that bitch wear a Public Enemy shirt?”
“But I like Public Enemy,” I threw out as I legged it back to the car without waiting for a response. When I told my girlfriend about the exchange, she laughed at me.
A “bitch” is, of course, an individual who, in prison lingo, has been “punked.” And to metaphorize: When one is punked, one is-how to put this gently?-entered by another, often with contempt. But one may learn to love this. The hold hip-hop had on my impressionable mind at the time was considerable, its slackening inevitable, and I have since reclaimed the term “bitch” in a similar manner to Ice Cube’s reappropriation of that well-known “N” word. The Beastie Boys are bitches, too, and will probably spend the rest of their lives creating work of worth despite (or maybe because of) this. Actually, pop music has a proud history of bitches: The Rolling Stones were bitches when they tried to sound like Muddy Waters, Tangerine Dream were bitches when they copped a Pink Floyd, and don’t even let me get started on the Specials.
Music allows us to lie about who we are. As a listener, one may air-guitar; as an artist, Billy Corgan can pretend he’s not a jock. It is impossible for me to listen to Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol), the Beasties’ latest album, without feeling that they really have done it-they’ve managed to live the lie, build themselves from the ground up. At the very least, they are as much librarian as library, punking as equally as they are punked.
The Beastie Boys have succeeded in the manner that the aforementioned Stones-whom they tend to resemble more and more in esthetic ideology-once flirted with, before succumbing to the insubstantiality of excessive success. Although the Stones’ original innovations were a result of their failure to master the blues, it took only a couple of years before a sitar showed up-which was, strangely, a pop gesture. Likewise, their use of youthful decadence was an esthetic tool: Properly misplayed notes were a result of drug use. The shambling rhythms once connected to poverty were transformed into a signal of moneyed indulgence, simultaneously timely and nostalgic. And most importantly, their recordings had the feeling that everyone in the room was blessed in some way, and if only the listener could be, too.
Hello Nasty possesses the same sort of noisy, Rat Packy feel of Exile on Main Street , the Stones’ greatest and last important album. It contains the sort of meticulous Anyone-in-the-Room-Can-Join-In-We’re-Tired-Anyway approach, which leads to a lot of meaningful filler, meaningful in that it reflects the total mindset of the artists. Which is why Hello Nasty , which sounds like nothing else out there at the moment, least of all hip-hop, will work as an artifact 20 years from now. It’s as much a reflection of its social type as Exile or Ian Anderson’s Aqualung or Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for Breakfast at Tiffany ‘s. It’s a snapshot of the reflectivity of our time: old school shouts mix with the lounge jazz the Boys no doubt experience in the lobbies of the European hotels they visit on tour. The echo on the album is a musician in itself. (Indeed, there are a lot of good sounds here, and I mean that literally.) Like the Stones, the Beasties traffic in the bricolage of Progressive Nostalgia: Every sound celebrated on this album is pretty much dead and equivalent. Lee Scratch Perry’s cameo on “Dr. Lee, PhD” reminds us that, at least in the studio, he’s been indulged as a museum piece by wishful thinkers for a decade and a half (his profile has taken on the appearance of an ancient coin). Even an organ bite from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” takes on a supper club feel in “Dedication.”
There’s also a lot of riffing on the early 80’s, just like in the fashion mags, although the funk sounds more Osaka than Ohio, as is the trend. Once people were attracted to hip-hop for its illusion of authenticity; like many, the Beasties now seem to prefer it for its evocative phoniness. What else is a brag? “I like my sugar with coffee and cream,” notes Ad-Rock on their self-sampling single, “Intergalactic.” Well, yes, of course you do. The Boys have been doing this for so long you don’t get any sense of irony (or improvisational accident) in their shouting. As MCA puts it, “In the next millennium, I’ll still be old school.”
“Intergalactic” is sonically as sentimental as Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is lyrically-even more so, since form trumps content any aging day. The Beastie Boys’ first appeal was as a form of adolescent rebellion, back when the macho outsider was still a novelty (Seattle would take care of that). They rode that jailbait line for all it was worth. Their concerns are now purely formal. When the Beasties rap about “money makin’,” it reflects an affection for previous styles. Money simply carries a different currency for them than it does for, say, Puff Daddy or MC Shan. This is the pure abstraction of the “ruff.” Nowadays, the rough is the smooth and the smooth (say, Brandy) reflects the rough with a C+ average in finishing school, finishing school being nothing more than reconfigured memory.
But any memory is a lot harder to find in pop today than a sense of craft. Even fans of Raymond Scott don’t seem to remember that deejays were sampling Bugs Bunny as early as 1981. Every record I hear nowadays-even Lucinda Williams’ Raymond Carver-influenced falseness-suffers from an extra year at finishing school. Having grown up early, the Beastie Boys have allowed us to watch them settle into a skin not many would wish to inhabit if they could see it close up. When they do attempt a switch-singing in a sub-Traffic-y manner, or letting their Grand Royal stablemates do it-as on “Song for the Man,” “I Don’t Know” and “And Me,” it’s just more evidence that artists should never stretch themselves. Pop fans they are, and under close inspection they might just dissolve into air along with the rest of us. Suffice it to say, Hello Nasty is impressive enough that I wouldn’t really miss them if they weren’t on it.