You remember white rap, don't you? The beer-belch boasts of the Beastie Boys, the ersatz roughness of 3rd Bass, the Tinker-goy mewling of Vanilla Ice? Instead of dropping dead like any number of pop fads, the genre has done something much more startling: In the last year or two, what began as a suspiciously opportunistic novelty has come into its gloriously whacked-out own. And who can we thank? None other than those idiot savants the Beastie Boys.
The Beasties' quadruple-platinum debut, 1986's Licensed to Ill, took white rap to the malls and frat houses. The trio's two follow-ups, 1989's Paul's Boutique and 1992's Check Your Head, didn't reach those commercial heights, yet in retrospect, those records especially the latter have left a much bigger bootprint on pop than Licensed to Ill. Check Your Head may have been a bit of a mess, a dizzying and bratty patchwork of submerged-in-Jell-O barks, hip-hop rhythms, and urban psychedelia that was rewarding one moment and frustrating the next. Nowadays, though, it seems as if every white boy from their native New York to earthquake central wants to copy Head's melange of rapping-by-megaphone vocals, sardonic verbal non sequiturs, and slacker rap beats set off by guitar blasts steeped in hardcore punk. Everyone wants to be down, funky, and still trippy.
That same muckapalooza blend characterizes albums like Mellow Gold, Beck's brilliant, multilayered stoner symphony, and G. Love and Special Sauce, the recently released debut from a Boston trio-odes to basketball and love that sound like some marble-mouthed rapper accompanied by a street-corner pickup group. Not to be left behind, the Beasties up the ante on their own new album, Ill Communication. Call it novelty, slacker rap, or sheer white urban noise-whatever the tag, it's the most tantalizing ear candy in years, the incessantly inventive sound of brats dismantling pop and trying to reassemble it in their own ingeniously klutzy ways.
The difference between records like these and early white rap has to do with honesty. For years, acts like the Beasties and especially the defunct 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice, whose dreadlocked comeback album hasn't even charted grappled with a variation on the old '60s question of whether a white man can sing the blues. The Beasties and 3rd Bass' Pete Nice could rap pretty well, but what was lacking was the been-there-witnessed-that authenticity of the real stuff. The white kids still acted as if they were playacting to impress their uptown friends.
Instead of trying to imitate the music of roughnecks in a Jeep (as did 3rd Bass in particular), records like Mellow Gold, G. Love and Special Sauce, and Ill Communication sound like what they are: the work of snotty wimps fooling around in some technology-heavy suburban basement. The music is true to a certain rock sensibility Beck's use of a Neil Young-like harmonica or Dr. John samples, or the white-boy blues guitar riffs of G. Love and Special Sauce. The '90s twist is that unlike other soundtracks for this milieu Pink Floyd or ambient techno records theirs is music infused with the outsider stance, beats, and recycle-it-yourself aesthetic of hip-hop. As the Beasties sing on Ill Communication, "I'm that kid in the corner all f---ed up."
They should know: Jammed with 20 groping tracks, Ill Communication is even less cohesive than Check Your Head. The Beasties may not need an African-American producer to be cool, but they sure could use an editor. The album extends Head's heady, cluttered vibe, but not always to best use. When the words aren't buried in knee-deep distortion and echo, they're too heavy on old-school boasting (albeit clever "I've got sex rhymes like Victoria's got secrets"). The trio dabbles in instrumentals one of which, "Eugene's Lament," tosses world-beat drones into a musical Cuisinart but there are simply way too many of them for a group that speaks as much with its mouth as with its instruments. Even more incongruous are the Beasties' stabs at maturity; beneath the murk of "The Update" is muddled if well-intentioned talk (by MCA, otherwise known as Adam Yauch, the group's meditation-minded member) of how "the mother earth needs to be respected."
Yet if there was ever such a thing as a whitesploitation splatter movie, a good half of Ill Communication would be worthy as a soundtrack. The album is a cacophony of sleazy wah-wah guitars, voices screaming out from alleys behind buildings, and other joyful chaos, and the Beasties revel in it like kids in a crammed, smelly playground. When they grab hold of a scuzzball groove and verballyrebound off each other in their nasal-drip way, the Beasties can come up with gems like the hurling "Root Down" or "Sure Shot," which is built on a jazz-flute sample. Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest makes an appropriately mellow cameo on "Get It Together." And no one throws around pop-culture references as deftly as they do; they name-drop Yoo-Hoo, the '70s subway-hijack flick The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and Lee Dorsey and that's just in the first song.
Ill Communication doesn't break as much new ground as their previous records, but it's an entertaining musical Swamp Thing nonetheless. There's no question that the music of the Beasties will never be as gritty and enthralling as hip-hop by African-American musicians and rappers. But, like the new white stoner rap itself, that doesn't mean it can't have a mind-expanding, infotainment-crammed head all its own. B