The massive success of their debut set them up as hard partying bratty rap-rock pranksters. Then they threw a major curveball with their slick and sample heavy follow up. In 1992, yet again, Beastie Boys defied expectations with their third record Check Your Head.
Hilltop Hoods MC Suffa (Matt Lambert) remembers the very early influence of the Beastie Boys in his development and first forays into hip hop.
“Someone gave me a copy of [debut album] Licensed To Ill on cassette tape in primary school, and my brother found it in my stereo and told my parents and, yeah, I had it confiscated.”
He says second album Paul’s Boutique was influential too.
“The use of samples on it was like nothing we’d heard before.”
But Check Your Head is Suffa’s all-time favourite Beastie Boys album, largely because they surprised everyone by playing their instruments. They fashioned everything from blindingly furious hardcore riffs (‘Time For Livin’) to slippery funk instrumental grooves (‘Pow’, ‘In 3’s’).
“We were flabbergasted, it was something that we thought was frowned upon in New York,” Suffa says with a laugh. “It was just amazing that these guys that we grew up on had this other set of talents – that were obviously there all along from their punk days – that we didn’t really know much about because we didn’t have access to media like we do now.
“So, when that album dropped and they were playing their own instruments, it changed not only the way that we looked at them, but how we looked at hip hop music.”
When asked to explain the various inspirations that fed the making of Check Your Head for a 1992 Uncut interview, MCA and Mike D responded partially jokingly.
“Ska style, hot sauce style, with a little bit of salsa, hip hop flavour, bossa nova in there, Norwegian blue, we got some hardcore flavour thrown in there, punk rock rhyming skills, kung-fu trampoline style, South Caribbean, North African, West Cuban, New York style, Atwater Village [where their G-Son Studio space was located] style skills basically.”
Distinct new flavours were also added by keyboardist Money Mark and producer Mario Caldato Jnr, who had a hand in helping the trio set up their studio. Without the ticking clock of a hired recording facility on their minds, Beastie Boys had time to play basketball, skateboard and play their instruments.
“There was talk of making it an instrumental record for a while,” Mike D recalls in the 2009 re-release commentary. “For the first year-and-a-half we just came into the studio and played our instruments every day. We didn't even mess with vocals for a long time.”
With plenty of full length instrumentals as well as spacier, psychedelic tonics in ‘Something’s Got To Give’ and ‘Namaste’, Suffa is still a little bewildered as to why he and band mate MC Pressure got so heavily into Check Your Head. He admits nostalgia and the influence of their peers in the suburbs of Adelaide had a lot to do with why this album remains an important document.
“Where we grew, we bounced around with a lot of older kids [who] were graff writers and we were MCs. Sort of the first generation from our area making the music we were listening to,” he recalls.
“They’d always put us onto records because we were kids. We didn’t have money, we didn’t know where to buy vinyl or whatever. I remember one of the guys from the crew here, called Nasty Arts, put me onto the album.”
And it’s stayed with them throughout their rise to the top of Australian hip hop. They covered ‘So What’cha Want’ in a smashing Like A Version. They still like to play ‘The Biz vs The Nuge’ as a warm up track before their gigs. Opening track ‘Jimmy James’, Suffa says, still makes the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
Hilltops also sampled ‘Professor Booty’ on a track on their award-winning album The Hard Road which they initially didn’t get clearance for.
“This is 2006 and we were a hip hop act from Australia and we weren’t expecting The Hard Road to do what [breakthrough 2003 release] The Calling did, so we weren’t clearing anything, except for a few important things. But, as it rolled up to it, we thought, ‘oh no we’ve got to clear everything!’”
“The future of sampling definitely is in the hands of all the kids that are kids now,” Mike D said in a Much Music interview in 1992, reflecting on the problems they’d encountered with using samples on their albums.
“We didn’t really grow up with computers. So as sampling gets cheaper and cheaper and easier and easier to use, that means there’s generations of kids that are going to be doing all kinds of stuff with sampling that we don’t know about.
“It would be a shame for all these kids to be financially stifled in terms of their creativity because of a sampling lawsuit.”
Mike D foresaw how technology would improve access to resources to enhance creativity. It has also led to the rise of more individualistic artistic pursuits and sadly, by extension, the gradual decline of hip hop groups with MCs who rap, rhyme and bounce instinctively off of each other like the Beastie Boys did.
Suffa knows all about the challenges of a group’s unique dynamics.
“It’s like a marriage, you’re committed in so many different ways,” he says. “You’re committed from all your life experiences you’ve shared, you’re also committed financially to each other. So you’ve got to manage those relationships over the years and Beastie Boys were able to do that.”
Check Your Head was a vital artistic step for the New York trio and, 25 years on from its release, it’s ingenuity and playfulness still give us reason to marvel.