Friday, March 19, 2004 | 8:27 a.m.
Conventional wisdom among critics holds that the Beastie Boys' first three albums -- 1986's "Licensed to Ill," 1989's "Paul's Boutique" and 1992's "Check Your Head" are the group's true masterpieces.
In succession, those discs 1) established Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D as legitimate rap stars, 2) created a how-to guide for the art of sampling and 3) proved that the three New York City MCs could also play actual instruments.
Groundbreaking and essential as those three releases are, however, "Ill Communication" has been the Beasties' defining moment to me since it hit shelves nearly 10 years ago.
No matter how many times I listen to it -- and I must have spun it hundreds of times -- it sounds as vibrant and creative as the first time I heard it.
In many ways, the album follows the same basic formula as its predecessor, if you can call a dizzying stylistic trip through hip-hop, hardcore punk and jazzy instrumentals a formula.
But whereas "Check Your Head" features a few of the trio's best songs ("Pass the Mic," "So What'cha Want," "Groove Holmes") scattered among some semi-forgettable material, "Ill Communication" stays solid throughout.
Nothing on the disc requires the skip treatment, but plenty of tracks will demand a few taps on the repeat button.
The opening "Sure Shot," for example, showcases not only the trio's immense rhyming skills, but also the group's underrated production techniques. With the assistance of producer Mario Caldato Jr., the Beasties weave a varied aural texture, equally rich with instrumentalism and sampling.
On "Tough Guy" and "Heart Attack Man'," the group travels back in time to its early days as a hardcore punk outfit, while tunes such as "Sabrosa," "Eugene's Lament" and "Ricky's Theme" create a mellow mood more associated with acid jazz than hip-hop.
Of course, no mention of "Ill Communication" is complete without mentioning "Sabotage," the hit single with the brilliant faux police drama video.
Even better is "Get it Together," one of the all-time great rap songs. Simple yet infectious, the track features standout guest vocals by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, whose presence also seems to elevate the lyrical work of the three Beastie Boys.
With five albums to their credit in 17 years, the Beasties certainly aren't the world's most prolific outfit. But when the results are this good, it's hard to complain. Album No. 6 is said to be on tap for a June 8 release.
Artist: Beastie Boys.
Title: "Ill Communication."
Year of release: 1994 (Grand Royal/Capitol).
Tracklisting: "Sure Shot," "Tough Guy," B-Boys Makin' With the Freak Freak," "Bobo on the Corner," "Root Down," "Sabotage," "Get It Together," "Sabrosa," "The Update," "Futterman's Rule," "Alright Hear This," "Eugene's Lament," "Flute Loop," "Do It," "Ricky's Theme," "Heart Attack Man," "The Scoop," "Shambala," "Bodhisattva Vow," "Transitions."