When the Beastie Boys broke in 1986, they made chutzpah a subgenre.
MCs Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz stood at the busy intersection of gluttonous youth, Jewish guilt, Manhattan bumming, punk rock, and hip-hop. While the Beasties had the outward appearance of a slapdash industry experiment, they doubly had the musical chops to back up their fiendish rapping zeitgeist.
I mean, the Beasties have classics. They’ve made history. Their debut album, Licensed to Ill, was the first rap record to top Billboard charts. Paul’s Boutique rewrote the rules on sampling in hip-hop. But what about their fifth studio album, Hello Nasty?
During an interview with Mike D for Vulture, writer David Marchese aptly pointed out that many fans skim over Hello Nasty when recounting the Beastie Boys mythos. Mike did not so much dissent as provide context for the record’s importance and commercial success.
Yes, Hello Nasty was critically acclaimed, 3x Platinum, and chart-topping. But 20 years on, the album is also a testament to the longevity of the Beastie Boys’ experimental and irreverent spirit. In 1998, the album was forward-thinking to an arresting and haphazard degree, and two decades later, the album still summons the same shocked reactions from first-time listeners and longtime fans. In their three-decades-long career, the Beastie Boys have proven a number of things, but on Hello Nasty, in particular, they proved that time is simply an illusion.
Hello Nasty is steamy and sprawling, an album that traps you in the guts of an arcade cabinet. The game in question? Three Jewish Boys Sustain a Rap Career—cult classic. The record is deceptively globetrotting. Really, it’s a survey of New York streets, of the boroughs as we remember them from childhood, teeming with vibrancy and indiscriminate yelling in a handful of languages. Arguments over checkers in the park, spats about lox in the deli, the car-horn fallout of no one looking when they cross the street; all of these localized cacophonies inform Hello Nasty.
This comely flavor of chaos is the essential Beastie Boys schema. “Unlike nearly all white rap acts, the Beasties aren’t white boys in blackface,” wrote Touré for Rolling Stone. “They’re the embodiment of the modern lower-Manhattan street kid. If hip-hop is as much a New York thing as it is a black thing, if keeping it real means faithfully representing your social aesthetic, if it’s another way of saying perfect pitch, then the Beasties keep it as real for their peoples as Jay-Z and Snoop do for theirs.” For all of its reach, then, Hello Nasty is the Beasties' of-the-earth album—and the earth just so happens to be massive, spiraling, and wonderfully overburdened with life.
The album is a labor of b-boy love, with the instrumental breaks alone accounting for some of the most innovative twists the Beasties have taken in their career. Or, as AllMusic so graciously detailed, “Hello Nasty is their first record to build on the multi-ethnic junk culture breakthrough of Check Your Head, instead of merely replicating it.” We can thank long-time collaborator and Hello Nasty co-producer and engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., and the addition of DJ Mixmaster Mike, for the group’s uncanny ability to be dense and erratic at once on this album.
With the Beasties, form follows content just as well as form follows creation. We can credit much of the sonic ambling and sprawl of Hello Nasty to the nine studios and myriad board games the Boys played while crafting the LP. “Boggle figures very heavily in the making of [Hello Nasty],” MCA told Rolling Stone in 1998. Immediately, both group members began disputing which games were actually in rotation during recording. It’s a brief, childish, and brotherly exchange that emphasizes everything right with the Beastie Boys.
Their eccentric spirit is a necessity. At the aggregate age of 30, punk is not enough to carry a Beastie Boys record, and while some critics slam Hello Nasty for lacking energy, they’re doing a disservice to the other limber and spry elements of the LP. For instance, only the Beastie Boys could make wading through psychedelic licks on the heels of free jazz a whimsical and accessible affair (“Song for the Man”) on the same project they curiously upheave hip-hop from their dank basement recording studio and drop us off in Latin America (“Song for Junior”).
The album is altogether unafraid, and perhaps that extra slather of candor and burst of disarray is what allowed the record to be the Beastie Boys’ biggest commercial success, save for the astonishing sales of their debut Licensed to Ill. Hello Nasty debuted at No. 1 and secured the group their first-ever GRAMMYs: Best Rap Performance by a Group for “Intergalactic,” and the entire album won Best Alternative Music Album.
Five albums in and with a lion’s share of cultural relevance attached to their work, a GRAMMY seemed long-overdue for the Beastie Boys, but if any record was going to bring it home, it would have been this one. There are classic, explosive, b-boy breaks and Beastie moments abound on this album—“Super Disco Breakin',” “Just a Test,” “The Negotiation Limerick File,” to name a few—but there are also glossy textures that could scream pop music if they weren’t as ambitious and comically heady.
With that, Hello Nasty boasts a polish and finely stitched quality. “Three MC’s and One DJ” is the only track where the ragtag, live jam session approach permeates and marks the tune. While the Beasties were known to record sessions to tapes, only to run them back later and expand upon gems, Hello Nasty’s tape sessions are thoughtfully baked into the already programmed drum patterns. That’s not to say the album is free of off-the-cuff big beat brainstorming sessions, but rather, everything is hewn with more tact. It has to be, considering the Boys are shooting for the moon on over half the tracks.
More often than not, then, it sounds as if the Beastie Boys were gunning to make rap music for a boozy space age. Lead single “Intergalactic” is our most potent bit of proof, but beyond the song, it’s the way the instrumentals themselves worm and travel, the way pitches shift and voices fall out of the hemisphere of the album, that has us wondering where exactly the Beastie Boys’ Star Wars parody is being held hostage.
Not exactly the space age, 2018 is a different world from 1998. In a handful of ways, Hello Nasty and the Beasties have been able to predict the future by test-driving it on their album. “Flowin’ Prose” boasts the distant and melancholic air that’s guided everyone from Future to Juice WRLD to stardom. Aurally, the track plays like a lost recording or stitching of broken transmissions, something unearthed and endowed with wisdom by circumstance alone. These are the little tricks the Boys employ to fall in and out of time. They craft, bury and dig up their own time capsule across an hour’s worth of material.
Equal parts harrowing and rattling, album closer “Instant Death,” though 20 years old, could have dropped this week and we’d be none the wiser. The track tackles drug addiction, overdoses, death, and oblivion in less than 10 bars, with a lo-fi soundscape that's quickly proving to be timeless. Does this mean that Hello Nasty fathered SoundCloud rap? Almost. What we can assuredly say, though, is Hello Nasty honed in on the freewheeling rancor that made the Beastie Boys household names while simultaneously opening our eyes to the depth and ire of rock star life.
Alternative rap stardom is not all its cracked up to be, but the music will endure. As AllMusic wrote, “What makes [Hello Nasty] remarkable is how it looks to the future by looking to the past. There's no question that Hello Nasty is saturated in old-school sounds and styles, but by reviving the future-shock rock of the early '80s, the Beasties have shrewdly set themselves up for the new millennium.” There’s an unaccounted-for wisdom to Hello Nasty, then, as the Boys crafted a timeless brew that dissolves our basic conceptions of time and place.
20 years later, the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty still boomerangs time and has a foothold in the modern rap conversation. Check back in another 20, and we’ll likely be reporting more of the same.