Looking at the track listing for Check Your Head, this is the only Beastie Boys album where I have gone in completely blind. I don’t recognise a single song title, but Jimmy James is quick to let me know that I’m in familiar territory. It also does that in a way that doesn’t seem like a rehash of previous albums. There’s a lo-fo edge to the samples and production that make this immediately stand out from Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique.
It’s time for their classic mashing of hip hop vocals and beats, with dirty punk rock instrumentation on Pass the Mic. And it’s that backing sound that makes Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D bring an added edge of grittiness to their delivery as well. It’s an approach that’s turned up to almost Sabotage levels on Gratitude (and it’s nothing compared to Time for Livin’, which appears later). And when it breaks down to a funk organ fuelled extended outro, the weirdness only makes it even better.
Finger Lickin’ Good is one of the simplest, most to the point production sounds I’ve heard from the Beastie Boys. It’s driving, relentless and awesome. Actually, compared to other Beastie Boys albums, Check Your Head might be the most simple and to the point sonically of the lot. It’s as no frills as an album built on dozens, if not hundreds (thousands even?), of samples can be.
It might have been made three albums and almost 20 years earlier, but The Maestro is a real precursor for everything I liked most about 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two when it came out. This song, like so much of that album, is rough and immediate and gritty in a way that so much hip hop isn’t. It’s a genre that can be so tied to the studio, that I think hip hop producers sometimes can forget about the energy that comes from less polish, and more in the moment spontaneity. The Maestro (and later, Live at PJ’s) sounds like a band in a room together, not individuals laying down their parts separately in voice booths.
From what I can tell, Check Your Head is a little overshadowed in the Beastie Boys’ career, smothered on one side by Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique, and on the other by Ill Communication. One the one hand, I understand why that’s the case. Licensed is the debut that had the advantage of no expectations. Boutique showed that their debut was no fluke and that they had no interest in relying in tricks and tropes. Communication was the breakthrough that took them to the mainstream, where they’ve stayed ever since.
To me, Check Your Head is the work horse, the quiet achiever. It might not have the zeitgeist penetrating hits, but it humbly goes about its business, keeping its head down, and producing what might the most consistent Beastie Boys album. It may not have the nose bleed highs of the others, but it also never reaches the occasional indulgent, inessential lows of those records either.