Today, as promised on the landing page of the Beastie Boys’ website, they’ll be releasing the Collector’s Edition of their 1992 album, Check Your Head–featuring digitally re-mastered tracks, as well as bevy of b-sides and rarities. Apparently the Beasties couldn’t wait three years to give Check Your Head a proper 20th Anniversary party, like they did for Paul’s Boutique earlier this year. And though the third official LP from the Beastie’s catalog may have some thunder stolen from an Ill Communication re-issue and a new studio album supposedly dropping later this year, I think it’s important to point out that Check Your Head capped off one the most creative–and diverse–trifectas in music history.
Check Your Head is proof that good things do indeed come in 3’s (coincidentally, also the title of track #19). Who would’ve ever imagined back in 1986–when the Beastie Boys were squirting beer on each other and fighting for their right to party–that just six years later they’d be playing instruments, jamming out on funk instrumentals? Heck, who would’ve thought back in 1989–when the Beastie Boys moved out west and were rhyming over Dust Brothers beats–that they’d soon retrace their hardcore/punk-rock roots? Put the Beastie Boys’ first three major releases (Licensed To Ill, Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head) side-by-side with any artists’ first three albums, and it’s safe to say that no one has been able to flip-the-script quite like the Beastie Boys.
Each of the first three Beastie Boys albums has it own unique feel. Licensed To Ill is straight up, old-school rap. Paul’s Boutique marks the creative apex in sampled hip-hop, an album so unique in its creation; it originally alienated most of the Beasties’ fan base. And then there’s Check Your Head–an album where the Beastie Boys dusted off their instruments, went multi-genre on us, and confused record store clerks around the world. After just a few listens to each disc, even a novice music fan could probably tell you which track goes with which Beastie album. Do you think they could they do that with The Beatles or U2’s (other well-known script-flippers) first three albums?
Though it’s like arguing about favorite flavors of ice cream, Check Your Head is the best album the Beastie Boys have ever made–an album that salvaged their career and enabled them some 17 years later to still sell out arenas and headline any outdoor festival they sign up to play. Without Check Your Head, there’s a very good chance that–instead of being heralded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time–a collection of Paul’s Boutique CDs could be gathering dust (and not the kind the Beasties use to rhyme about), sitting in a discount bin.
(right: Is Check Your Head the Beastie Boys’ crown jewel?)
Released in 1989, Paul’s Boutique was not an instant commercial success. Those hoping for a repeat of Licensed Ill were shocked. Imagine expecting to hear a song with the immediacy of “Brass Monkey” and instead getting a track like the ultra-funky, ultra-layered, ultra-trippy “Car Thief.” Paul’s Boutique didn’t meet expectations, people at Capitol lost their jobs, and the Beastie Boys didn’t even tour to support it. Was it just a sophomore slump? Or would the Beastie Boys forever be remembered as an old-school-rap novelty act?
The Beasties took an even more radical approach on their next album. For 1992’s Check Your Head, MCA, Mike D, and Adrock decided to play instruments once again (like they did when they were teenagers), and in the process, created the most punk-rock, hip-hop album of all-time. C’mon, what’s not punk-rock about a rap group playing hardcore songs (“Time For Livin'”), enlisting the help of a keyboard-playing carpenter (Money Mark), creating instrumental jams dripping with 70’s funk (“Groove Holmes”), and purposely distorting their vocals on one of the most loved hip-hop songs of the decade (“So What’cha Want?”)?
Inexplicably, Check Your Head clicked with the times. Maybe people missed having the Beastie Boys around? Maybe freethinking bands like Nirvana–who were suddenly receiving mainstream love–made it easier for fans to accept the mixtape-like format of Check Your Head? Or maybe the shock of Paul’s Boutique helped lessen the blow for the surprise of their next release? Whatever the case, kids were wearing Beastie Boys shirts in the mall again and every college kid (and skateboarder) in the 90’s owned Check Your Head, who then decided to give Paul’s Boutique a second chance, and surprise, finally fell in love with its genius.
Besides putting the Beastie Boys back on the map, Check Your Head (with its accompanying music videos and photo shoots) also made it cool to go thrift store shopping again, turned a whole new generation of kids on to suede sneakers, made it acceptable to wear a sock cap in the summertime, brought ringer t-shirts back into style, and gave hip-hop heads a good excuse to listen to punk rock music (and vice versa).
Not only do good things come in 3’s, but Check Your Head also proves that the third time is a definitely a charm.
(BTW: We didn’t even get to talkin’ about how great the album cover is for Check Your Head…)