Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head has been a dorm-room staple and cultural touchstone for so long that it can be easy to overlook how staggeringly odd it actually is. It was just as radical a reinvention as its predecessor, Paul’s Boutique, but listeners by then were expecting the Boys to take big chances. They embraced the group’s strangely organic evolution into adventurous sonic astronauts who segued effortlessly from punk (“Time For Livin’”) to Meters-style funk to trippy psychedelia to ominous metal-infused rap-rock (the monster single “So What’cha Want”).
Head was a homecoming on multiple fronts, as the group headed back to New York after a fertile sojourn on the West Coast, and simultaneously returned to using guitars, drums, bass, and Money Mark’s powerhouse organ to recreate the sounds in their heads and record collections. With Head, the Beastie Boys treated the studio as their favorite instrument. They went a little crazy with the studio motherfuckery, though given the optimism and infectious good humor that pervades the album, it’s altogether likely that they piled on the distortion to avoid losing hip-hop credibility and revealing what nice, responsible young men they’d become. The remastered two-disc Head reissue includes a bonus disc of goofy outtakes and B-sides, though for every essential track like the Soul Assassin remix of “So What’cha Want,” there are a few ragingly inessential novelty numbers like “Boomin’ Granny,” “Honky Rink,” and an endless live jam with Biz Markie. The second disc compiles a lot of the silliness the Boys apparently had to get out of their system before they could release an album this (relatively) mature.
1994’s Ill Communication found the Beasties refining and perfecting their funky retro aesthetic, embracing punk and hip-hop both as genres and as broad, expansive philosophies rooted in community and a DIY aesthetic—which they smuggled into the big-money major-label world. They pledged allegiance to the old school and revisited their back pages on “Root Down,” teamed triumphantly with Q-Tip on “Get It Together,” and combined the screaming intensity of hardcore punk with big-ass hooks on “Sabotage,” the song/video that helped kick off the ’70s nostalgia boom. (But don’t hold that against them; it also launched Spike Jonze’s career.) The remastered edition of Ill Communication contains a nifty second disc of remakes, outtakes, and random ephemera. Some of it is deliberately pointless, like audio of the Beasties playing basketball, or the giggly acoustic goof through “Heart Attack Man.” But these grand old men of hip-hop have earned the right to fuck with the fans they’ve long treated with generosity and respect.