Listen to this track by three-cornered rap-rock pioneers from New York City, Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Mike “Mike D” Diamond; Beastie Boys. It’s “Sabotage”, a single as taken from their 1994 record Ill Communication. By this time in their career, their reputation preceded them, and this record debuted at number one.
By this time in the early to mid-90s as well, they had branched out stylistically speaking, including a wide range of musical styles. This included playing live instruments along with samplers, matching a rock arrangement with rap delivery. This would spawn a number of lesser (to say the least) imitators during the decade. That wasn’t pretty. But, the Beasties showed how versatile they were as a unit, doing what most bands who dealt in alternative rock and hip hop could not do; bring out the strengths of both of those musical poles without betraying one for the other.
But a deciding factor as far as the audience was concerned how they were able to hook into an emerging phenomenon in the 1990s; the rise of the “alternative” tag.
From their debut and onto to other landmark records like Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head, Beastie Boys had made a journey from being a party band (fighting for their right to do so!), to a group that borrowed from a wide variety of musical sources in order to create songs and albums with plenty of hooks, but also revealing each member’s interest in the details, the subtleties of what made the music great, whichever kind of music happened to be in their sights. This was a band who paid no attention to genre. As such, there was no telling what they would deliver next, which was one of their key strengths.
Luckily, the musical climate of the early to mid-90s was with them, with the gates to all kinds of music opened by the success of alternative scenes all over the country and beyond. By the ’90s, there were bands on major labels that would have been unheard of in the 1980s, exploring textures and genres that defied easy categorization. The Beasties were a part of the vanguard of that shift, never fitting in with any one scene even when they started. They had built a following from the ground up. This was in part thanks to their relationship and work with Rick Rubin and Def Jam, not to mention the New York hip hop scene in general that had lured them away from being a hardcore punk band. Speaking of Rick Rubin, I think his work on Run DMC’s take on “Walk This Way” as an early, and certainly most widely known example of rap style against rock instrumentation must also be mentioned as a specific formative influence!
Over their catalog from their debut and up until this point, their varied musical interests in hip hop and in punk rock energy would serve them well. But, it would be Ill Communication where they would gain the ground that would solidify them as a singular force to establish themselves in several musical camps all at once, charting on the rock charts, urban charts, and dance charts the year it came out. And “Sabotage” is one of their defining statements from that record. This is a petulant and defiant rock assault mixed with the acrobatic vocal punch of rap, a stand-up example of what made them great.
The impact of this single is erroneously blamed for souless and cynical cash-in bands trying to mix these same influences of rock and hip hop in order to capture markets, rather than to make art. But, “Sabotage” was always the real thing. It was honest, and never to be duplicated in quite this way. What they do on this song, and on many others, could not be imitated because it is a very, very difficult balance to strike. They own this sound even today.
Beastie Boys would break up in 2012 upon the death of founding member Adam “MCA” Yauch. They served as one of the longest lasting hip hop act in history.
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