Grandpa's Still Rappin'

The Beastie Boys' latest album walks the line between rap cliche and the attempt to breathe new life into them

"Here We Go Again." Those are the opening words on the Beastie Boys' new disk, "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" - and that it sums it up pretty well. How else could an album by a hip hop group that's already been around for a quarter of a century begin? The three New York Jews are still the busiest rappers around. Veterans? In this genre they are old retirees aged 44 to 46, which to many hip hop listeners is patently impossible. Illegitimate. "Oh my God, just look at me, grandpa been rappin' since '83," Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz ) raps, shocked, in one song.

The Beasties - Ad-Rock, Mike D (Michael Diamond ) and MCA (Adam Yauch ) - have some great albums behind them, starting with their second, the 1986 "Licensed to Ill" (it was preceded by an EP, an extended play recording, that no one remembers ). "Licensed to Ill" was the first to boldly connect white performers to hip hop in a way that was accepted briefly even among black listeners. The Beasties paved the way for a whole slew of white rappers, headed by Eminem, and without the Beasties it's hard to imagine any of them ever mustering up the guts to approach a microphone.

Beastie Boys April 24, 2011.
Beastie Boys member Adam Horovitz at Madison Square Garden in New York April 24, 2011. Reuters

If hip hop today is a cross-racial, expected phenomenon, much of that can be credited to the Beastie Boys At the same time, "Licensed to Ill" created an influential connection between rap, and punk and metal. Songs like "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" expanded the limits of the genre. They complemented the work that same year by Run-DMC, the Beasties' black colleagues, with "Walk This Way," a rap version of the Aerosmith song. Both bands were produced by Rick Rubin, another Jewish boy wonder who shaped rap in its early days. The big commercial success came with favorable reviews. "Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece," a Rolling Stone headline announced.

"Paul's Boutique," released in 1989, was even better. There had never before been such a hip-hop album: The Beasties, with the constant aid of the production team known as the Dust Brothers, redefined the meaning of sampling. The sound they created was immeasurably more sophisticated than the previous album, and its myriad of references and quotes could serve as an accelerated introduction to contemporary culture.

The next two disks, "Check Your Head" (1992 ) and "Ill Communication" (1994 ), were also nothing to be ashamed of. The Beasties recreated themselves a third time, this time as funk musicians. Their sophisticated sound also won over people who usually preferred alternative rock or even dance music. For a good few years, the Beasties looked and sounded like the three coolest white men on earth.

Since then, the trio has been mostly playing for time. Over the next 16 years they released just four albums whose passing grade left no real mark. "To the 5 Boroughs" (2004 ), a tribute of sorts to their hometown of New York in the wake of 9/11, was quite successful but was no competition for their past achievements.

"Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" followed the temporary shelving of the first part of the recordings. The name feels like an inside joke, but also reflects complicated times. MCA was treated for throat cancer, delayed the album's release by two years. In the end the Beasties decided to release the second part of the sessions, with a presumed future release planned for the first batch.

Fortunately, MCA recovered. His voice may be slightly raspier, but it still comes across - and that's more than can be said for other, similar cases, which ended the careers of, among others, Run-DMC. The group simply could not have gone on without MCA: The entire essence of the Beasties is in the interaction of its three members, who have been together since high school.

So much for the good news; in the more mixed news section, it should be mentioned that "Hot Sauce" contains no big surprises. They are the same Beastie Boys from the previous albums: an endearing funky sound, live music in a studio that includes samples from anonymous songs, purposely contorted microphones, distortion, the keyboard playing of their regular collaborator, Manny Mark, and a lot of quotes that salute "the old school," the good old rap that they grew up on and whose face they changed slightly with the release of "Licensed to Ill." The production is "dirty," intentionally rough.

Their cultural references show how much the Beasties belong to a different generation: They quote Bob Dylan, dedicate a song title to Lee Majors (the actor who played Steve Austin, "The Six-Million Dollar Man" ) and even mention the veteran country singer Kenny Rogers. Age, like the images and references, render them irrelevant to younger listeners, especially black ones. But it seems that the Beasties long ago stopped targeting this audience. They like their constituency, people who are their contemporaries.

"We got a party on the left a party on the right, we gonna party for the motherf-cking right to fight," they say in one song, quoting from "Licensed to Ill." To their credit, the Beasties have barely softened or gotten fat. On the other hand, the texts, in total contrast to the early albums, are flabby. It seems they have less to say these days.

"Hot Sauce" constantly operates on the seam between rap cliches and the attempt to revive and refresh them. Its success is partial. This album will not go down as a classic, but it is always good to hear the Beastie Boys after a long break; moreover, its reasonable length (just 45 minutes, perhaps because it's one of two parts ) does not allow for the experience to drag on excessively.

The Beasties are still intelligent, up-to-date performers, but their innovation is long gone. Unlike their earlier albums, "Hot Sauce" will at most make a small ripple; it will not echo around the world.