‘Ill Communication’ Turns 25

Could Beastie Boys’ wildly entertaining 4th album in fact be their best?

It was May 1994. I was a sophomore at a boarding school in western Massachusetts. Check Your Head had transformed my entire relationship with music two years prior. I probably hadn’t yet dyed my hair blond to match Mike D and Ad-Rock, but I was about to.

A few of us were hanging at the parking lot where we always skated after school and a friend of mine handed me a clear Maxell cassette with the words “Ill Communication” scrawled across it in black Sharpie.

I raced back to my dorm and popped the tape in the deck. That dog said “I love you” and that flute loop kicked in. I think I might have made it through Mike D’s verse (“…and everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey”) but it was just too overwhelming for me to take in. I stopped the tape right there, popped it out, and inexplicably bolted outside again.

I just couldn’t contain my excitement. I guess that’s what your favorite group can do to you when you’re 16 and there aren’t five hot new albums dropping every week like there are today.

Through the years, I’ve always debated whether Paul’s Boutique or Check Your Head is my favorite Beastie Boys album. Paul’s, of course, is the one many include in the conversation of greatest albums of all time, but I had such a personal relationship with Check Your Head.

I’m 41 now. I recently read the Beastie Boys book, so I’ve been listening to their whole discography again, and I’ve been starting to wonder if Ill Communication has actually been the best this whole time. And here’s why.

It’s such an entertaining listen from start to finish, jumping from hip-hop to hardcore to zoned-out instrumentals, as if that’s what would be expected of an album. Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, John Woo, Lee Perry, Les McCann, Billy Joel, Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef are all referenced. Q-Tip recorded a rambling freestyle at G-Son one day that they edited into one of the tightest, pass-the-mic songs of all time on “Get It Together.” Mike D cracks himself up about the guy from the Hefty bag commercial at the beginning of “Heart Attack Man.” Yauch made a song with Buddhist monks chanting on “Shambala.” Ad-Rock gets funky like diaper rash and hits 6.7 on the richter scale. Eric Bobo’s percussion is on point. It’s got the beats in Manhattan you can hear Westchester. “Ricky’s Theme” is one of the chillest grooves ever. “A little wine with my dinner so I’m the grape ape” is a great line. I can keep going…

Happy 25th birthday, Ill Communication.

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