Anniversary Album: 30 Years of ‘Ill Communication’ by Beastie Boys

What the Beastie Boys managed with Ill Communication in 1994 would probably be labeled today as a flex. Operating at the peak of their powers, the trio proved that they could do it all with the album, which was their fourth: Rap, produce, play their instruments, play TV cops, you name it.

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Their loose approach and willingness to throw everything at the wall resulted in their second masterpiece record in just four tries. Let’s look back at how Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA put it all together.

Road Warriors

The Beastie Boys released Ill Communication in 1994, just a shade over two years after its predecessor Check Your Head. This was a shorter stretch between albums than the band had previously entertained. The concern might be that a quicker turnaround would lead to a rushed product. If, that is, the album’s creation had been in lesser hands.

But the fact that the trio was on the road touring behind Check Your Head while devising songs for the new album provided an advantage. On Check Your Head, they had played their own instruments for the first time. Since they were playing live with regularity, their skills were rapidly expanding, and that came to the fore whenever they went into the studio.

On top of that, the jump made on Ill Communication could be attributed to simple growth. The Check Your Head project instilled in them an abundance of confidence in their skills as record-makers. With producer Mario Caldato Jr. helping to synthesize all their disparate influences, the samples they were collecting, and the pieces of music that they slowly began putting together, they started assembling the album on both coasts.

A Little Bit of Everything

In many ways, Ill Communication turned out to be the culmination of everything the Boys had done on record to that point. Although they sampled more sparingly on this record than they did on Paul’s Boutique, their first masterpiece, they had learned well how just a single rip could make a huge difference, such as the sinewy flute that formed the foundation of “Sure Shot.”

After beginning to play their own instruments on Check Your Head, they found an excellent groove throughout Ill Communication. The funk/soul instrumentals induced head bobs with stunning consistency, and the punk raveups raucously battered eardrums. Without that instrumental ambition, they might never have stumbled upon the riff for “Sabotage,” which became their signature song.

Last, but not least, there’s the MC’ing, and this is the area where the development really stands out. Going back to Licensed to Ill, they always could throw down battle raps, deliver hilariously left-of-center comparisons, and trade off on the mic from one to the other in strikingly clever ways.

But the sexism from that debut record was long gone (actually flipped 180 degrees by MCA on “Sure Shot”), and they found new ways of being funny without being sophomoric. Their epic team-up with Q-Tip on “Get It Together,” for example, shows just how far they’d come with their lyrical abilities.

The Legacy of Ill Communication

With “Sabotage” (and its unforgettable video) as the driving force, Ill Communication returned the Beasties to the top of the album charts. But this time around, they were respectable artists instead of anarchic kids (although they’d probably chafe at the word “respectable”). Their ability to combine all of their myriad skills and interests into a cohesive whole could no longer be underestimated.

You’ll find Ill Communication on lists of greatest hip-hop albums of all time, but that’s a bit inaccurate. It’s great, of course. But the variety and virtuosity displayed by the Beastie Boys on this LP is way too vast for it to be pinned down to any one genre.

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Photo by Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

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