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Gangs of New York

The Beastie Boys’ Latest and Hangar 18’s Debut Praise Their Big Apple

Deanna Staffo

By Craig Smith | Posted 6/30/2004

“I got more rhymes than I got gray hair/ And that’s a lot because I got my share.” To lend some perspective to the Beastie Boys’ remarkable longevity, it’s been a decade since MCA gruffly kicked that rhyme. Their wide-ranging career includes everything from flaunting an inflatable penis on concert stages to hanging with the Dalai Lama. But aside from the rhyme trio’s increasing need for bottles of Grecian Formula, not much has changed with the act in their last couple of records. To The Five Boroughs isn’t all that different than Hello Nasty, their previous album, which hit stores six years ago.

Beastie Boys
To The 5 Boroughs

Hangar 18
The Multi Platinum Debut Album
Definitive Jux

The new disc is a highly diggable party train of retro rap cuts, clocking in leanly at less than 45 minutes. At times, the group’s goofball B-boy posturing is even as preposterous as what was whined and rhymed on its major-label chart buster, 1986’s Licensed to Ill. The album forgoes punk rock and noodling funk instrumentals for turntable wizardry and electrobeat programming. Along with their signature wacky wordplay, the crew also devotes microphone time on the self-produced disc to politicking about politics.

Things erupt with “Ch-Check It Out,” where the Boys rattle off zany braggadocio in a way that if it were re-created by another rap outfit would be dismissed as straight booty—and we’re not talking pirate treasure. But this is a group that can transform a room full of frat boys who thumb their noses at rap music into a hip-hop frenzy. Their old-school verse-swapping might have passed its expiration date, but the Beasties are continuously forgiven by the masses with good reason—they’ve got a heck of a track record, they’re having one helluva good time, and pop culture provides them hilarious, if often nonsensical, lyrical fodder. In “Ch-Check It Out,” MCA jokingly shouts out “Trekkies” and “Klingons” while Mike D tosses in some old-fashioned grandstanding when he rhymes, “So believe when I say I’m no better than you/ Except when I rap so I guess it ain’t true.”

While several of the more Kraftwerkian tracks are too sparse to slam (“Right Right Now Now,” “Time to Build”), some minimalist bangers seemingly churn out of a time machine. “Triple Trouble” borrows the hook from Double Trouble’s memorable jam in the ’82 cult hip-hop flick Wild Style, and its recognizable beat owes a royalty payment to the Sugarhill Gang for “Rapper’s Delight” (and perhaps to Chic for “Good Times”). Call it laziness, but the Beasties have earned the right to rhyme Cheer laundry detergent with Mr. Belvedere over a well-known loop. In fact, folks have come to expect it.

The unsung fourth Beastie is DJ Mix Master Mike, who bolsters tunes like “Triple Trouble” by slicing records with more panache than most any other turntablist. When he supplanted the stunningly mediocre DJ Hurricane in 1998, it was like swapping Barry Bonds for Billy Ripken. Mike’s strength is the record’s weakness, however, as he lets loose too infrequently. If the Beastie Boys were truly returning to the old school, where DJs once nabbed equal billing, Mike should figure much more prominently into the sonic equation, as he does at their live gigs.

While they primarily kick fun-loving and rather inane couplets about celebs from Mike Piazza to E.T., the Beasties tackle political and economic issues on “Time to Build”—attacking SUVs and a “president we didn’t elect.” “We Got The” pleads for disarmament and encourages protest to bring governmental reforms. Stepping out of the political realm is the celebratory record’s most fascinating tune—“An Open Letter to NYC.” They tag the Big Apple as a city that blends, mends, and tests in an eloquently whimsical tribute to the five boroughs. “I know a lot has changed/ Two towers down, but you’re still in the game,” goes a sample lyric. The song paints meticulous images of a city like no other, warts and all.

Def Jux trio Hangar 18 also arises from that fabled metropolis, and despite the moniker, it’s got precious little to do with UFO cover-ups. The trio’s rookie full-length unleashes unconventional sonic blasts from producer paWL and pensive, quick-lipped talk from MCs Alaska and Windnbreez. The Multi-Platinum Debut Album surely won’t snag sales of Beastie-like proportions, despite the mythic name, but the jagged beat bouillabaisse and emotive rhyme styles make for an ingenious addition to the often stale indie-rap scene.

The crew’s reflective nature oozes out of “Take No Chances,” where the MCs tread in weighty words. “I only phrase my thoughts in ways that oughta paint a portrait,” claims Alaska on the tune. Windnbreez, who spends most of his daytime hours as a first-grade teacher, sprinkles the jam with a rapid-fire hook that erupts off his tongue at a NASCAR-like pace.

The album’s intriguing beatwork is peppered with feedback and computerized sound splotches—undoubtedly influenced by the group’s label boss and bombastic producer El-P. “Boombox Apocalypse” is another meditative joint, but Hangar 18 likes to get goofy like the Beastie Boys as well, veering into lyrical horseplay on “Saved by the Beezy.” The track loops cowbell pings, while names of Hollywood types like Suzanne Sommers, Tony Soprano, and William H. Macy are dropped for the album’s kookiest cut.

Hangar 18 producer/DJ paWL gets a minute to freak the turntables on “Itcherlude” with plenty of scratching. (If only the Beastie Boys would afford Mix Master Mike the same 60 seconds.) PaWL makes every measure count with rhythmic cuts over subterranean sounds that resemble a Tibetan monk’s prayer hum.

“Barhoppin’” finds the rhyme duo hitting various New York watering holes, engaging in a mini brawl, and doing their darnedest to scoop up ladies. The two swap terse tales with synchronicity, and the back-and-forth rap tossing fits them like a wet suit—which makes Hangar 18’s freshman set something underground rap fans should dive into.

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