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The Riff

Beastie Boys: Three MCs and Their Songwriting

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Three Mcs and their one DJ (DJ Hurricane or Mix Master Mike, pick one), “The King” Ad-Rock, Mike D, and the late great MCA, better known as the hip-hop trio “Beastie Boys” have become one of the most influential and important groups in the genre, breaking down barriers as white rappers with their debut Licensed to Ill, reevaluating what you can do with sampling with their follow Paul’s Boutique and redefining what the genre could be by blending live instrumentation and merging punk, alternative, funk, jazz, and reggae into their music, whether for jam tracks or samples for their subsequent releases. Complementing the uniqueness of their music, their lyricism and songwriting feel to be one of a kind to themselves, which often get doesn’t get a closer look. While they’re not lyrical swordsmen like a Wu-Tang Clan or storytellers in the vein of Slick Rick or Kendrick Lamar, however, the Beastie Boys over their 25-year run had molded their songwriting from their three common elements, that would form their B-Boy Bouillabaisse.

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-(Pop Culture) References

Growing up in the diverse city of New York, the B-Boys would develop a repertoire of culture whether it be from music (eg. Punk, Hip-Hop, etc), film, history, whatever it may, be the trios knowledge and infatuation of culture would be a vital part of their lyricism, which referencing can be considered another form of sampling. However, it goes beyond the typical name drops as many rappers tend to lean towards, as the Beastie Boys were often more witty and esoteric. From the gecko, that was apart of them, as their pirate-themed opening track, Rhymin and Stealin, from their debut album, opens with a reference to Fletcher Christian rebellion against Captain William:

Because mutiny on the Bounty’s what we’re all about

I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out

Later in the song to compliment the heavy metal samples of Black Sabbaths “Sweet Leaf” and Led Zeppelins “When The Levee Breaks”, they reference the Clash’s punk song “I Fought the Law” with a bit of subversion as they say:

*I fought the law* and I cold won

MCA would do the same tactic of flipping a line regarding the Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five song Superrapin, later on, the album on No Sleep til’ Brooklyn

Like a lemon to a lime, a lime to a lemon

I sip the def ale with all the fly women

The same track, the Beasties would reference The Beatles song “Eight Days A Week”, yet it wouldn’t be the last time they would reference the Beatles they would be referenced on their Pop Culture galore of an album, Paul’s Boutique. They’re a prime example of rap about what you know, which is something they may wear with pride. Case in point, their track “Egg Man” where they rap about their endeavors in the fun act of egging people, which itself is a reworked song they made during their stint as a hardcore band called “Egg Raid on Mojo”. Revisiting the concept for their hip-hop career, they even reference a couple of lines from the original:

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We all dressed in black, we snuck up around the back

We began to attack

Their second LP “Paul’s Boutique “ as a whole exemplifies their skill set as referencing as a key to their songwriting and lyrical ability. From the novel Fear and Loathing Las Vegas to the film Taxi Driver to Donavan’s “Mellow Yellow” to Marty Robbins, from The Patty Duke Show to countless references throughout the album whether it may be at face value or more cryptic that some, or many, may not catch on to unless they’re just as keen. Which to be fair, I’m pretty a 16 year old in 2021 getting into hip-hop won’t catch on to lyrics such as: “Welcome back Kotter”. Do you know what “James at 15”? If so… Good for you, if not, that’s fine, you’d have to Google the reference like the rest of the future generation……and me. It’s something that’s carried throughout their career being a trademark of their, from Pete the Puma to Minnie the Moocher, their referential cabinet is filled through the brim to their final show in 09. On some occasions, the Beastie Boys have had their music to speak for them….literally, as they would sometimes let samples as references to finish their lyrics for them. A perfect example is a song Finger-Lickin’ Good off of their album “Check Your Head”, where Mike D is the B-Boy to get the final line but’s a Bob Dylan sample that finishes it for him as his final segues to a sample of Bob Dylans “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”:

“ I’ll sell my house, sell my car, and I’ll sell all my stuff

“I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough”

-Braggadocio

With a sense of humor and a tie into their references, they have a bucket of braggadocio lines, whether about their skills or lifestyle. Now their not the only rappers that do this, bragging and flexing have always been apart of hip-hop whether people want to admit it or not, stemming back to Rappers’ Delight:

“I got bodyguards, I got two big cars, that definitely ain’t the wack

I got a Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac

So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which is really on the wall

I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball

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Yet, Beastie Boys’ brags feel like an idiosyncrasy of theirs, that can include their references as well. From “Dogs love me cause I’m crazy sniffable”, reminders on every album of how their good dancers (as B-Boys would), you can get a lot of brags and b-boy lines that may come off more comical, but comical in the vein of the clown Prince of Biz Markie or punchline heavy Eminem: “I’m supersonic like J.J. Fad Got crazy-ass shit pullin’ out the bag, Don’t forget the tartar sauce, yo, cause it’s sad, All these crab rappers, they’re rappin’ like crabs”. Now that’s not to belittle or undersell the group as their lyricism is quick-witted, charming, but still potent as songs like Get It Together, Intergalactic, Professor Booty, and many other tracks highlight:

“Yes, I got more bounce than the fucking bump

And then you want to know why

Because I’m motherfuckin’ truckin’

I’m in the pocket just like Grady Tate

Got supplies of beats so you don’t have to wait

Cause I’m the master blaster, drinking up the Shasta

My voice sounds sweet cause it has to”.

-Consciousness

While they weren’t Public Enemy, Digable Planets, or Ice Cube, but whenever they can they would drop a moment of enlightenment. Whether it be the topic of racism, feminism, or self-evaluation, the Beasties have tackled and approached these sorts of topics. As their first album portrayed them as frat-boy, womanizing, White-Castle loving assholes, infamously with their track Girls we were gifted lyrics such as:

Girls — to do the dishes

Girls — to clean up my room

Girls — to do the laundry

Girls — and in the bathroom

Girls — that’s all I really want is girls

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However, the trio’s career is an epitome of growth in terms of artistry and personality. In their documentary from 2020, AD-Rock explained that during their Licensed to Ill run, they had become the people that they had once hated and made fun of. Yet, in their catalog to match their growth in music as they would soon begin to tackle and become more in tune with commentary. Expressing gratitude towards communities that they once were essentially an enemy of. In particular, being more attached to the feminism movement, a key example on their 1994 single “Sure Shot” as MCA, speaking for the group, expressed love and admit wrongs towards women but from here on out, disrespect towards women will not be tolerated:

I want to say a little something that’s long overdue

The disrespect to women has got to be through

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I want to offer my love and respect to the end

The track “Song for the Man” in 1998 is an anti-sexist song that Ad-Rock wishes that his mom was around to hear, as he states in a 1998 Rolling Stone Cover Story: “It would have been nice for her to be alive and to see some of the stuff that I’ve learned,”. “She always knew there was more going on with me than just being a fuck-up. And it would have been nice for her to see that she wasn’t just dreaming that up. But, you know, what can you do? That’s life. That’s why life sucks.” Later on, in 2004, they would tackle political issues on tracks like Right Right Now Now, acknowledging the need for gun control, war, and attacks on other nations, and discussing the controversial election of 2000 with George Bush on It Takes Time to Build:

“By the time Bush is done what will be left

Selling votes like E-pills at the discotheque

Environmental destruction and the national debt

But plenty of dollars left in the fat war chest

Whether feminism, racism, political commentary, the Beastie Boys have moments of using their voice to build others up instead of tearing other down. As Mike D says on Putting Shame in the Game:

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We’re all connected like a Lego set

One equals one together like a croquette

Whether we have or have not yet met

Well, it ain’t no thing and it ain’t no sweat”

Now the Beastie Boys aren’t Bob Dylan or Stevie Wonder (but they are fans) as songwriters but the group figured themselves out and garnished their style in terms of sampling, lyricism, and writing, hence why their songs are one of a kind that not many can emulate. Lending to why a Beastie Boys song is a “B-Boy” song.

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Matthew Spence

Matthew Spence

What's up, I love to write about music and other pop culture topics I enjoy. Hopefully, I'll go far with this!