Is ‘Ill Communication’ The Best Beastie Boys Album?

Ad-Rock doesn’t like Ill Communication.

In the Beastie Boys Book, the surviving Beastie Boys Michael Diamond, AKA Mike D and Adam Horovitz, AKA The King Ad-Rock, perform autopsies on all of their albums except for Ill Communication. They single out “Sabotage,” the album’s biggest hit and reprint an idiosyncratic jazz magazine album review instead. Elsewhere in the book, Horovitz calls Hello Nasty the best Beasties record. In a documentary marking the 25th anniversary of Ill Communication, Horovitz shorts the album for lacking hits other than “Sabotage.”

Beastie Boys fans shouldn’t take Horovitz’s dismissal of Ill Communication and endorsement of Hello Nasty too seriously. Horovitz admits he’s biased towards Hello Nasty as it was their last album before 9/11 and when the responsibilities of adulthood started to weigh down him and his bandmates. And he’s built his career on prankish humor and defying expectations. When he downplays Ill Communication, he’s almost certainly joking.

Still, Ad-Rock is wrong. He’s overpraising Hello Nasty and sleeping on the greatness of Ill Communication.

I’ll admit that Hello Nasty holds up far better than I expected. I planned to drag it in this article until I listened to it again and was immediately swept up by the energy of the opening track, “Super Disco Breakin.’” But the album’s too long and it’s rife with missteps and dead spots. The out of character indie rock excursions like “Song for the Man” should have been relegated to b-sides or the cutting room floor. Despite its choice electro funk bridge, “Remote Control” is lower tier Beastie rap rock where they sound like they’re imitating themselves. The version of “Three MCs And One DJ” on the compilation “The Sounds of Science” is the definitive version of the song (so too is “The Sounds of Science” version of “Jimmy James”) And while “Intergalactic” is great—I’m not such a joyless idiot I can’t recognize its greatness—it’s probably the weakest signature Beastie songs thanks to its most stilted rapping. The “DON’T you tell me to SMILE” cadence they maintain throughout the song gets tiresome.

Hello Nasty’s good, but Check Your Head, Paul’s Boutique and Licensed to Ill are more consistent and have better hits. Meanwhile, Ill Communication seems more and more like the Beastie’s crowning achievement.

I’ll admit that Ill Communication a rambling, messy album. It has its share of filler. It contains the Beastie’s greatest all-time hit, “Sabotage,” but otherwise lacks for hits. Check Your Head has a similar feel as Ill Communication but it’s tighter.

But in its sprawling ambition and lack of discipline, Ill Communication captures the greatness of The Beastie Boys better than anything they’ve ever done.

With its ratty, windy sounds, distorted vocals and mix of live performance and sampling, Ill Communication is in many respects a continuation of Check Your Head. And it’s easy to dismiss Ill Communication as Check Your Head’s sloppy follow-up. But while every song on Check Your Head is either good or great, nothing pops like “Sabotage” or Ill Communication‘s uptempo hip hop songs “Sure Shot,” “Root Down,” “Flute Loop” and “Alright Hear This.” Ill Communication arguably features the Beasties’ career best MC-ing (they brought in a ringer with Q-Tip but you can’t argue with the results). And, importantly, on Ill Communication, The Beasties are comfortable being funny again.

On Ill Communication, the smartest kid in detention humor of Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique sneaks back into their songs. Nothing’s quite as funny as “They got a committee to get me off the block,” the lead-off of “Slow Ride,” but that’s an unfair standard—MCA packs the entire plot of Animal House into 10 words. Nonetheless, when Ad-Rock’s spits rhymes like “my girl’s got cheeks for weeks and I’m happy,” and “I drive like a maniac on the streets and I don’t give a fuck because I got the beat,” it’s like a veteran pitcher with an inning-ending curveball.

But the humor’s changed. The Beastie Boys had grown and matured. They still shout out weed, horniness and partying but they’ve outgrown the line-crossing grime of Licensed to Ill lines like “did it with a wiffle ball bat.” The growth was most evident in freshly-minted Buddhist Adam Yauch, AKA MCA, who injects wokeness into his rhymes decades before wokeness existed. With wisdom borne from having more rhymes than he’s got gray hairs, he offers respect for “all the sisters and the wives and friends” on “Sure Shot.” And on “Alright Hear This,” he anticipates contemporary concerns about cultural appropriation, giving respect for “what’s been borrowed and lent” and recognizing his white hip hop band’s music “comes down from African descent.”

MCA’s newfound Buddhism was most obvious in the Tuvan throat singing-sample driven “Bodhisattva Vow” is one of the Beastie Boys’ greatest works even though it shouldn’t work at all. It’s a rap song about religion set to a sample of religious music. I shudder to think of a born-again Christian rhyming about the Sermon on the Mount over “Sadness (Part One) by Enigma. The Tibetan chants hit the ear with the growl of a Moog synthesizer while MCA’s distorted, scratchy voice bounces like an EKG graph and to make a face-melting argument for compassion.

I always suspected The Beasties were embarrassed by how hard “Sabotage” rocks. In The Beastie Boys Book, Horowitz admits that when they were Lower East Side punks, they resisted heavy metal and classic rock for being corny and burnout-ish. Long Island suburbanite Rick Rubin had to convince them to embrace Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Despite its turntable scratches, samples and rap-inflected lead vocals, Sabotage” is pure rock ‘n’ roll energy–the best rock hit of the 1990s, in fact (“Song 2” by Blur is probably second). After “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ‘90s rock bands overemphasized dynamics and recorded a decade of songs with loud rock riffs offset by boring quiet parts. “Sabotage” starts loud and stays loud until it pauses for half a breath before cranking the volume up even louder.

Ill Communication doesn’t flow as an album like “Paul’s Boutique,” where each sound seems to build logically from the last and into the next. It has some perfect stretches, like the three-punch combo of “Bobo on the Corner,” “Root Down” and “Sabotage,” but overall it’s a hodgepodge of wildly varying moods and styles, which is clear from how the smooth flute sample vibe of opening track “Sure Shot” is eviscerated by the manic hardcore of the second track “Tough Guy.” It’s an early warning that the album’s driving at top speed through a track full of hairpin turns. And those sharp turns make the album interesting. It feels like a mixtape by someone really excited about the different music they’ve discovered. It’s not cohesive but it’s exciting.

And that overstuffed exuberance gets close to what’s so exciting about Ill Communication. By its release, the Beastie Boys had become more than a band; they’d built a funky little empire. Like the Beatles’ ill-fated Apple Corps, only successful, the Beasties leveraged their success to foster musical fellow travelers like Luscious Jackson and Cibo Matto, published the surprisingly great magazine Grand Royal (side note: The Oxford English Dictionary cites Grand Royal as the first printed appearance of the word “mullet”) and their signature clothing line X-Large. And they ran their empire from a ramshackle studio with an indoor basketball court and skateboard park. They didn’t grind out work. They fucked around and had fun. But fucking around meant playing basketball, jamming on a groove inspired by Pangea-era Miles Davis or putting out a magazine.

Ill Communication is about possibilities and following messy, ambitious and possibly foolhardy ideas through through to completion. Twenty five years on, with MCA, the driving musical force of the group long dead and Mike D and Ad-Rock so engaged in looking back on their past, in a world diminished by the global war on terror, wealth disparity and the looming threat of climate change, Ill Communication’s untroubled celebration of potential seems more valuable than ever.