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Hip Hop Appreciation 103: The Beastie Boys

There is no genre of music more laden with racial politics than Hip Hop. In the past thirty years, regardless of who produced, performed or consumed it, Hip Hop has been labeled as "black" music. It's been perceived as music made by black people for the exclusive enjoyment of black people, while those non-black people who have been involved with its creation and consumption have been dismissed as "trying to act black". That's why it's so interesting that one of the longest-lived and most influential Hip Hop acts in history consists of three very white, very Jewish boys from New York. That second descriptor is why The Beastie Boys weren't nearly as divisive in my household growing up as the Gangsta rap I covered last week. My folks grew up in Detroit, which in the 50's and 60's was a veritable melting pot of the Midwest. My mother has always been an especially big fan of the music branded "black music" of her own generation, namely Motown and other classic R&B. Still, rap always had certain unsavory connotations so it was frowned upon in my childhood. The exception came with The Beastie Boys, due in no small part because Jewish kids need their cultural heroes just like everybody else. From the early 1980's to this very day, there are plenty of kids convincing their parents that their rap is OK because it's being performed by three guys named Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz. Never mind the fact that the Beasties had the origins and retained the heart of irreverent punk rockers, doing their best to offend with lewd tracks like "Girls" sneaked into suburban homes with cheeky glee. But bits like that were really just the necessarily juvenile cherries on top of the truly impressive artistry of tracks like "Hey Ladies", a fine example of the emerging craft of sound sampling. Listening to 1992's Check Your Head and its stunning follow-up Ill Communication, I desperately wish the fusion of rock and rap had gone in a better direction than the one it took in the late 1990's. "What'cha Want" is frightening and hypnotic, its pounding rhythms giving way to the wail of an electric guitar like an imitation of a bad trip for all the people at home scared sober. As for "Sabotage", it's the best rap-rock track ever, period. It's relentless and it appeals to head-bangers and Hip-Hoppers alike. How the infancy of the genre could produce these two tracks and then result in Limp Bizkit is beyond my comprehension as a critic. Though they were passed over in 2008 for induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's only a matter of time before The Beastie Boys get their due. They're still recording, with a new, reportedly experimental album called Tadlock's Glasses coming out later this year. Aside from their formidable contribution to the art of pop, The Beastie Boys have been incredibly important in breaking the stereotypes that have kept Hip Hop from being taken seriously outside of its own circles.