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Absence of malice
Beastie Boys turn down the heat on To the 5 Boroughs

Whether you believe the media hype or not, you canít deny the heat generated by a certain release that hit the streets last week. It sold out everywhere in my blue-collar, rock-and-roll home town of Cleveland. This isnít the first time this name brand has hit big, of course, but when it first thumbed its cookie puss at the man in the 1980s, it was often dismissed as a snot-nosed, party-crashing novelty gag. It wasnít until later releases that the plebian culture the early stuff had exploited for yucks was championed with dignity. And today, the stakes are so high that the question is whether this latest release can burst the brandís fan base and finally earn the respect of mass plebian culture in return.

In case you havenít guessed, Iím referring to filmmaker Michael Moore and his eagerly awaited anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. As it happened, Beastie Boys also released an eagerly awaited, explicitly anti-Bush project last week, the trioís seventh studio album, To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol). But despite the media attention, the heat generated by this new disc will probably never reach anything like the swelter of Mooreís documentary. Spin gave the Boys a cover story, Rolling Stone honored the disc with five stars (in a lead review that bumped Wilcoís, no less), and you could catch something about the album on every media outlet that makes music a mainstay. But aside from David Frickeís Rolling Stone review, every piece I saw acknowledged to some degree that the coverage was largely in reaction to the fact that Beastie Boys hadnít dropped a new album in six years. And this was news, I suspect, only because there arenít enough stars in todayís downsized market to fill the void the Boys had left. Some of these stories also suggested that the music biz isnít even sure the Beasties can fill their own void any longer. Given everything thatís happened since their last studio album, 1998ís Hello Nasty, those fears are at least as justified as the hopes for Michael Mooreís film.

For starters, thereís the downsizing that the absentee artists have themselves committed. In 2001, the Beasties closed their ambitious label and culture magazine of the same name, Grand Royal, and got busy doing plenty of nothing ("We ate a lot of sandwiches," says Adam "King Adrock" Horovitz in one video interview). Last year, they reappeared with the free download "In a World Gone Mad," a simple ditty with skip-rope electronic beats and an anti-W rap. The combination was so lightweight that it seemed less hip-hop than hippie: "Murder going on all day and night/Due time we fight the non-violent fight" went the sing-song chorus, which was delivered with extra passivity to stress the desired result. And then a few weeks ago came To the 5 Boroughsí opening cut, "Ch-Check It Out." The video is a mildly amusing revival of Beasties video characters from the past, and the song itself is equally inconsequential, laying out old-school catch phrases and TV Land similes that suggest the Boys are now full-fledged boomers. The chorusís climactic couplet: "Work-wa-work it out/Letís turn this motherfuckiní party out."

Now in case you non-boomers donít know, the Beasties were the first rap group not to work it out; instead, they wrecked shop with their bad attitudes and badder imaginations. Their mission was partly to remake rap in their image, partly to remake their image any way they liked. In the beginning, they played the aforementioned snot-nosed party crashers, rhyming and pillaging to the dismay of everyone from old schoolmarms to old-school masters. Whatís more, unlike Michael Moore, these purported suburban lowlifes were actually the sons of successful, cosmopolitan professionals (Horovitzís father is Gloucester playwright Israel Horovitz). Which means they were the first whites to exploit rap as a vehicle for bohemian slumming ó a rite of passage for Americaís adventurous scions of middle-class comfort ever since Tom hitched a ride with Huck down the Mississippi. And then, after theyíd proved themselves Licensed to Ill in 1986, they spent the next dozen years rebuilding a spacious, quirky, thoroughly stylish home from that wreckage.

So why would they want to go back to the prefab housing they originally took the sledgehammer to? The short answer provided by the compact To the 5 Boroughs is that itís "Time To Build." Partly thatís because weíve now got a "president we didnít elect" who has proved to the world that "itís easier to break things than build it correct." Partly itís a response to the other downsizing that occurred in 2001, the one that all New Yorkers felt so deeply. The cover artís lovely line drawing of the New York skyline dates from 2000, and the Beasties made sure that the section with the Twin Towers fell onto the albumís front panel. Despite its narrow focus, the rest of the album is just as lovingly structured, offering up a fantasy of the past that reflects the concerns of the present. Gone are the instrumentals with which the Beasties once padded their hodge-podge mansion, and also the whumping bass and chattering guitar that helped them live so large. In their place is a stark, jittery backdrop of electronic grooves that nestles halfway between yesteryearís electroclash fad (Miss Kittin, Felix da Housecat) and the Neptunesí easy sleaze. In other words, it sounds something like the early í80s, but itís also thoroughly contemporary. In their urge to purge, the Beasties have also jettisoned all outside producers, which means this is their first self-produced album in 21 years of recording hip-hop ó another forward step masked as a backwards move.

The disc is rife with these progressive regressions. The Boys indulge in the dumb disses and bald boasts of their youth ("Hereís a match: my ass and your face"), but the raps are modulated with a softness of tone and a subtlety of timing these three rappers have never dared before. And if "3 the Hard Way" and "Crawlspace" are paeans to the battle raps of yore, theyíre interspersed with political messages like "Right Right Now Now" that build to the centerpiece, "An Open Letter to NYC." Riding a haunting sample of the Dead Boysí "Sonic Reducer," that song sweeps through New Yorkís geography, honors its diversity, and mourns its losses with sweet swiftness and ease.

Which is exactly why it doesnít quite take the album home ó when but in a fantastic dream does anyone sweep through New York with swiftness and ease? If the Beastiesí New York fantasy is as finely drawn as their cover art, it also feels as empty, distant, and passé. Worse yet, it seems mildly delusional. The most vibrant hip-hop today ó like almost all the most vibrant pop since the dawn of post-WW2 youth culture ó is constructed on the margins, even when it looks back to some golden era, the way Muslim albino rapper Brother Ali does on his righteous Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers) or Bostonís own Akrobatik does on his race-conscious Balance (Coup díÉtat), or Beastie BoysĖinspired female trio Northern State do on Dying in Stereo (Star Time). All those discs were released during the latter half of the Beastiesí long hiatus, after the towers fell, when underground hip-hop exploded across this continent with a political acuity that belies the necessity of the Beastiesí "canít-we-get-along" passivity.

Itís easy to see why the crew felt backed into that stance. The Beastiesí own career has shown them too well how unbridled testosterone can be a menace, how quickly popular musicís rebellion can turn into a blunt instrument of oppression. The same point is driven home by Fahrenheit 9/11 when US soldiers in Iraq talk about how they blast a Bloodhound Gang CD inside their tank to pump themselves up as they mow down the enemy. But Mooreís messy, sometimes brilliant documentary also shows the value of fighting fire with fire, of answering Dick Cheneyís "Go fuck yourself" with art to that same effect.

Even so, the slight, easy-flowing, nostalgia-ridden To the 5 Boroughs may still be one of Beastie Boysí bravest discs. The last time they made such a momentous change in direction was 1992, when they decided to play their own instruments on their third album, Check Your Head. Although that album became a touchstone of the alterna-rock era, it was a bong-water-stained throw rug in comparison with the dense tapestry of the Beastiesí previous release, Paulís Boutique. After Check Your Head, it took the group six years to find a style that could survey the heights theyíd reached on Paulís Boutique. That was Hello Nasty. Now, if they want to start from scratch once again, in penance for having moved hip-hop from the projects and into the dorms, for having lost touch with their urban roots, they need to do the exact opposite. Weíre all sorry the towers are gone. But itís time to let them go and come back down into the shout of the streets.

Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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