“Listen all y'all it's a sabotage!” How the riotous, raucous and joyously irreverent Ill Communication put the Beastie Boys back on top of the world

Beastie Boys
(Image credit: Larry Busacca/WireImage | Capitol)

In the late '80s, Beastie Boys were one of the world's most successful rap acts, largely thanks to their 1986 debut album License to Ill, the first rap album to top America's Billboard 200 chart. But while that album would go on to sell over 10 million copies in the US alone, achieving 'Diamond' certification in 2015, it also made the New Yorkers one of the most despised and controversial groups on the planet, garnering tabloid headlines due to its sexist, frat-boy jock themes, which quickly transitioned into maliciously fabricated, but not entirely unfounded allegations about the trio's obnoxious behaviour.

Of course, plenty of artists have felt the wrath of middle America since the birth of rock 'n' roll, but the difference here was that the  trio  - Mike D (aka Michael Diamond), Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and MCA (Adam Yauch) - seemingly agreed with much of the negative feedback they received, spending the closing years of the decade trying to distance themselves from a record they had originally considered calling 'Don't Be A Faggot'.

The years that followed found Beastie Boys changing radically, leaving Def Jam, and releasing what we now know to be an all-time, game-changing classic in 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, which failed to come anywhere near the sales of its predecessor, peaking at a disappointing number 14 in the US. As the '90s dawned, many viewed the trio as a spent force commercially. In reality, the band's greatest days lay ahead.

After the disappointing sales of Paul’s Boutique meant Capitol Records were reluctant to underwrite the group's touring plans, the band decided to use what little money they had to set up their own studio, G-Son in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, where a month's rent would have paid for a single day in an expensive studio.

They realised that the sample-heavy collages they had painstakingly created for Paul’s Boutique would be impossible to recreate live, and decided to go back to their punk rock roots, writing and playing their music themselves going forward.

“Because we were listening to so much music, from James Brown and Sly and The Family Stone, we had this lightbulb moment where we decided to pick up our instruments and make the records all on our own,” Mike D recalled.

In April 1992, the band released their third album Check Your Head via their own imprint, Grand Royal. With Ad-Rock on guitar, Mike D on drums and Adam Yauch on bass, Check Your Head showed another new side to Beastie Boys. Musically eclectic, more organic than they had ever sounded before and full of now classic bangers, including So What’Cha Want and Pass the Mic, it made those who had written the band off sit up and take note.

The album peaked at number 10 on the Billboard 200, and the band were further invigorated by a series of live shows in clubs across the US, where they learned to tighten up as a band and improve their craft on their chosen instruments. 

“We sucked at first, we really sucked,” Ad-Rock admitted, “but what was fun is that we eventually figured out a way to do it for ourselves.”

Emboldened by the positive reaction to the tour, Beastie Boys decided to head straight back into the studio and create their next record. At this point a more confident, tighter, braver and more accomplished band were in place, but the main driving force for what was to become Ill Communication was the late, great Adam Yauch.

“By the time we get to Ill Communication we’d kind of figured things out a bit, but Yauch, of course, is taking it next level by getting this upright bass and trying to get on some Ron Carter shit,”  Mike D remembered.

Yauch had recently found Buddhism and was living, what his bandmates described as a nomadic lifestyle, travelling the world in his free time, learning as much as he could about different cultures. As such, he helped pushed the Beasties forward spiritually and morally as well as musically. “He kept his eyes and ears open,” keyboardist Money Mark commented. “Making sure he was receptive to what was going on in the world.”

If Yauch was the architect for much of Ill Communication, nothing showed the growth and development of Beastie Boys more than his line in the album's opening song Sure Shot: “I wanna say a little something that’s long overdue, that disrespecting women has got to be through, to all my Mothers and Sisters and wives and friends, I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.”

For a band that, less than a decade earlier, were touring with strippers in cages onstage and pleading for girls to “do the dishes” and “clean up my room” on their breakthrough album, this felt like a significant change in attitude and direction. With hip-hop in the midst of the macho guns, fronting, drinking and pimping of the gangsta rap movement, it felt genuinely subversive a sentiment to express. 

Ad-Rock remembers being in awe of Yauch, stating “In the middle of one of these verses, your boy says some really heavy feminist shit, in the early 90’s!”

Although that may well be the record's most important moment, the album's first single is unquestionably their most well-known song. Released in January, Sabotage was a smash, a furious, bass-heavy punk rock number with an iconic Spike Jonze video. Its music had been written by Yauch and recorded by the band in one day, but the song sat dormant until a furious Ad-Rock was confronted by paparazzi at actor River Phoenix’s funeral and immediately went to the studio and spat the lyrics out. The song ended up being nominated for 5 awards at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, though winning none, at a ceremony mostly remembered for Yauch rushing the stage and interrupting a winning speech by R.E.M. as his alter-ego Nathanial Hornblower.

When Ill Communication was released on May 31 1994, it debuted at the top of the US Billboard 200 and breached the top 10 in the UK: it would go on to become only the second Beastie Boys album to go triple platinum (three million sales) in America.

This new iteration of Beastie Boys were as big as they ever were before, but now success came on their own terms, a fact cemented when they headlined the 1994 Lollapalooza tour alongside Smashing Pumpkins, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Green Day, George Clinton and more. 

Thirty years after its release, Ill Communication still sounds as fresh, funky and fun as it did the day it dropped. From the second the big beat drums and jazz flute of Sure Shot ushers the album in, it’s a stunning ride. From the double-time hardcore of Tough Guy and Heart Attack Man to the deep bass and shuffling drums of Get it Together, to the instrumental 70’s funk of Flutterman’s Rule, to the strutting, walking bass and propulsive call-and-response rhymes of Root Down, it's as perfect album as hip-hop produced during the '90s. They may had to fight hard for their right to do what they wanted in that decade, but this time around, everyone was invited to the party.

A special deluxe edition of Ill Communication is being reissued on triple vinyl on July 26.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.