This article originally ran in 2016, but we’re dusting it off for Mike D’s birthday on November 20th.
Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.
It may be hard to believe, but over 30 years have passed since the Beastie Boys’ debut, Licensed to Ill, introduced the world to Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D. Long before Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit dominated the intersection of rap and rock, the New York trio brought the nasal goofiness and hardcore energy of their former punk band to bear on the hip-hop world, effectively helping to break through an otherwise hard barrier between the genre in the mid-to-late ’80s.
They fought for the right to party, drank brass monkeys, and said hey to ladies, merry mischief-makers having a good time and pushing boundaries. They would, however, grow out of the adolescent provocation and come to bring a real artistry to their rhymes, eventually leading to a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A lot changed between 1986’s Licensed to Ill and their final record, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Rap evolved and changed, and the three MCs did as well, lyrically, musically, and as people. Over the course of eight full-length records, the Beastie Boys audibly grew from punk teens to elder statesmen, tail-chasers to feminist allies, punch-line obsessives to artists with genuine messages. Luckily, all of that growth and change was captured on tape, their lives changing along with those of their listeners.
Here, we’ve attempted to boil their expansive career down to 10 representative songs. These aren’t their best songs, necessarily, but the ones that represent key moments or aspects of their career. Check out the list below, and scroll to the end for a playlist of all 10 tracks.
— Adam Kivel
The Punk Rock Roots
“Heart Attack Man” From Ill Communication (1994)
It’s a commonly known part of the Beastie Boys legend, but the group was initially founded as a hardcore punk band. Initially composed of Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch, John Berry, and Kate Schellenbach, the outfit even did well enough to open for Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys, and the Misfits. Adam Horovitz later joined the band, and eventually the Boys incorporated a jokey rap track (“Cooky Puss”) into their repertoire in addition to the hardcore.
The new genre infusion suited them, and they eventually all but ditched the punk — except for the occasional hint of it, the most straightforward of which being “Heart Attack Man” off their fourth record, Ill Communication. The track infuses some samples and gets into a scratching break towards the end, but this is mostly a burst of hardcore energy that finds their nasal voices in perfect form. Their instrumental strength would remain a constant thread, but this is a peek at what might have been had they never picked up the rap monikers.
Best Lines: “Heart Attack, Heart Attack Man/ Lungs full of tar and a stomach full of Spam.”
My Name Is…
“Paul Revere” From Licensed To Ill (1986)
There’s a reason that the “Well, my name is BLANK and I’m here to say” format became such a cliche, and the Beasties’ early work was no exception. (Seriously, Ad-Rock introduces the fact that he’s a Scorpio on no fewer than five songs.) But, then again, when you’re a young outfit trying to make your way in a burgeoning genre wave and you can put together a fun narrative, you go for it.
“Paul Revere,” off of their 1986 debut, tells the story of the Beasties, complete with early collaborator Rick Rubin (yes, that Rick Rubin) on production. Sure, it’s a cheesy story that involves a horse with a historically significant name and ends with robbery and murder that pales in comparison to older records when it comes to skill and creativity, but it also introduced the world to the goofy fun of the Beastie Boys — not to mention that Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, and Adam “MCA” Yauch introduced a lot of people to rap in general.T
hough they’d been a band for a while (more on that later), the Beasties were only finding their footing when they exploded and had a lot of lifting to do when it came to introducing themselves, and “Paul Revere” conveys their goofy, murky commitment to character clear.
Best Lines: “I did it like this, I did it like that/ I did it with a whiffle ball bat.”
“Brass Monkey” From Licensed To Ill (1986)
The masters of ecstatic dynamism turn an infinite trick with a bold 808 beat dipped in Wild Sugar sampling on “Brass Monkey.” They wash you in a flood of pulsating lunacy, as if you’ve been integrated into and obliterated by pop culture all in one go. The Rick Rubin-produced rollicking tumble through “Monkey and parties and reelin’ and rockin’” is a deliciously cutting gawk-fest, with Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA spitting buffoonery that may be cheesy, but the technicality of their rapping is anything but.
If the hardcore slapping boost of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” is a Beastie battlecry, “Brass Monkey” is the hip-hop party goldmine at the end of the rainbow. The song itself is masterful, blending obnoxiously catchy rhymes with booze-smashing swagger. Even without conceptual trappings, it produces a lot of sound with a very small source. But the chauvinist excess looms large (“It did begin, the stuff wore in, and now she’s on my tip”) of which the Beasties later disowned. But it still remains the perfect distillation of the trio chronicling day-in-the-life stories and sharing them in an honest, open way, as if inviting you to check your coat at the door, pour a drink, and party the night away.
Best Lines: “We got the bottle, you got the cup/ Come on everybody let’s get fff”
— Lior Phillips
Deep Groove Chasers
“Shadrach” From Paul’s Boutique (1989)
The Beastie Boys were students — of the genre, of music history, of history in general, of society. On the excellent “Shadrach,” they do a little bit of it all. Musically, the track samples everyone from Sly Stone to James Brown to the Sugarhill Gang, paying homage to those that laid the groundwork. Lyrically, the three Boys dig in and compare themselves to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Biblical characters thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow down to the king.
Both are prominent trios of men with Jewish heritage, and the Beasties had to have seen something they like in the story of men surviving being thrown into a fire. The track also shows the group’s increasing comfort with more experimental beats. Co-written by the Dust Brothers, the track’s slinky guitar, funky horns, and out-of-this-world soul vocal sample are miles ahead of Licensed to Ill, running into far deeper veins of artistry. It also should be mentioned that it reveals just how seriously they took rap.
Essential Tracks: “Because I’ve got more stories than J.D.’s got Salinger/ I hold the title and you are the challenger/ I’ve got money like Charles Dickens/ Got the girlies in the Coupe like the Colonel’s got the chickens.”
Punk Rap Fusion
“Sabotage” From Ill Communication (1994)
It’s 1994 and the Beastie Boys potion consists of two parts rebel punk and one part rap. Before Ill Communication, they were hardcore but transcended the genre before they even invented it. Just resuscitate that mind of yours with “Heart Attack Man” for a moment, then click back to “So What’cha Want,” which opened the vault to their confrontational rap-inspired lyricism washed with bass-heavy rhythms and distorted grunge.
But neither punk nor rap stood as strong as they both do on “Sabotage.” Each element punched holes into the other: Those biting, rock-tinged yelps, crashing rap rhymes, and hybridized bass guitar riffs orbit underneath screeching turntables — and even a Buddy Rich lyrical homage thrown in for extra power. The song kicks you in the gut, but the Spike Jonze-directed music video pushes you off the bridge, its parody of ’70s crime dramas caught in an adrenaline-pounding action sequence is unforgettable.
The striking concoction flipped the switch, the result generating an urgent, overloaded thrust into a new Beastie world. Forget to push the switch back to the start, though, and “Sabotage” would never stop, its overloaded potency irresistible.
Essential Line: “WHHHYYYYYY!!”
“Sure Shot” From Ill Communication (1994)
As the Beastie Boys grew in power and experience, their goofy shtick became incredibly witty jokes and sublimely dada nonsense. The references became knotted and intricate, far more cerebral than details on how to party with some orange juice-based cocktails. From the barking dog at the track’s open through the last couplet, “Sure Shot” is jammed with essential lines, the kind of song that thousands and thousands of teenage boys memorized. (I had plans with two good friends to pull this out at karaoke some day, but it’s sadly yet to happen.)
Mike D can jam together references to New Orleans legends Lee Dorsey and Dr. John within seconds and never tip his hand as to what connects them. It also features a real turning point in their active role as feminist allies: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/ The disrespect to women has got to be through,” MCA begins. “To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” But just when you’re afraid that they’ll get all sappy, MCA reminds you that he uses elastic to keep his underwear up — keeping it Beastie.
Best Lines: “I’ve got more action than my man, John Woo/ And I’ve got mad hits like I was Rod Carew.”
“Body Movin'” From Hello Nasty (1998)
Ooh, the mood’s one of hard-earned contentment here, where little things — body-rocking, backbone-flipping, and spine-unwinding — turn into triumphant victories and the Beasties are free to be as straightforward and affecting as ever. The cross-pollination of samples and genres buoyed by ’70s drumbeats, McDonald and Giles rock, and Graham Central Station’s soul funk disco melts beneath the weighty call-and-response lyrical lines — while never peeling the glitch-and-hiss havoc too far from the baseline.
The funkiest passages here pulse and throb with infectious rhythms, Amral’s Trinidad Cavaliers’ “Oye Como Va” spreading across the crunchy base and the Beasties splitting and slowing down, rushing and collapsing. The track’s featured on 1998’s Hello Nasty and hits a deep groove before pivoting between short rests and big blasts of propulsive, rhythmic beats. There’s not a chance in hell your body won’t move, so “Let me get some action from the back section!”
Best Lines: “The ship is docking, inter-lockin’/ And up-rockin’ electro-shocking/ We’re getting down computer action/ Do the robotic satisfaction”
“Intergalactic” From Hello Nasty (1998)
1998’s Hello Nasty curbed the punk and gobbled up psychedelia, reggae, and Tropicalia and ran instead with “Intergalactic” and its unstoppable hook, vaporous beat, and stylistic frisson erupting into an ether above everything they’d ever attempted to do. A transfixing space odyssey (bolstered by one of their most iconic videos) is crammed full of robotic vocoder and synth fragments that shatter in an astral euphoria. The Beasties fork together a beatific concoction here of lyricality that reroutes their hip-hop into a mesmerizing. head-banging dance groove.
While it earned the group a Grammy Award in 1999, the retro-futurism was always lurking in the walls, and that adventurous perseverance has a lot to do with why the boys are so successful. They committed more to the value of a concept than their own reputation, adding a new immersive dimension to their output. Don’t blame me if you’re suddenly in another dimension still humming the non-verbal instrumentals.
Best Lines: “If you try to knock me, you’ll get mocked/ I’ll stir fry you in my wok/ Your knees’ll start shaking and your fingers pop/ Like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock”
Voices for Change
“Song for the Man” From Hello Nasty (1998)
This song’s apologetic sentiment contained a crucial kernel of change for the Beasties. No matter how improbable considering their past lyrical tomfoolery, it was finally time for a shift in perspective. While “Boddhisattva Vow” and “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication rang in the changes for MCA, finding the beer-swaggled buster turning toward his Buddhist brethren, it’s clear that his pursuit of founding the Milarepa charity to raise funds for the Free Tibet Movement and curating the Tibetan Freedom Concert paid off.
This track’s anamorphic drum machines, guitars, and philosophical ramblings were inspired by the sexist men that Adam Horovitz saw harassing women on the subway — an everyday occurrence that felt violating and harshly dismissed. They rose above it, carved out a song for change, and pleaded with men around the world to catch themselves and figure their shit out. A refreshing nugget of wisdom, wit, and tenacious skill brings the Beasties to the forefront, meshing fame with compassion and chutzpah.
Best Lines: “What makes this world/ So sick and evil?/ You figure it out”
“Make Some Noise” From Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)
Rap stars trade on being vital and current (or at least ignore the fact that they’re aging), but the Beastie Boys aren’t your typical rap stars. After spending years away while MCA was publicly fighting cancer, the trio reconvened for Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, completely ready to address their reality. “My rhymes, they age like wine as I get older/ I’m getting bolder, competition is wanin’/ I got the ball and I see the lane,” MCA drops, his voice a little scratchier after the disease attacked his throat.
His later notes on scalpels and dissection are particularly tragic in the light of his untimely passing, but they’re a beautiful sign of the trio’s (relatively) matured approach. They were no longer fighting for the right to party; they were partying for the right to fight. They want you to make some noise if you’re living, to celebrate precious life while you have it. The Beastie Boys grew up but retained their ridiculous, fun-loving nature, the best of both worlds.
Best Lines: “Leggo my Eggo while I flex my ego/ Sip on Prosecco, dressed up tuxedo/ Sipping coffee, playing keno in the casino/ Want a lucky number, ask Mike Dino
Beastie Boys in 10 Songs Playlist: