Four albums and over a decade into their career, Ill Communication found Beastie Boys at a crossroads. Not that they were looking for a new direction; rather, they were stretching out in any direction they chose. Fully ensconced in their G-Son studio, in the Atwater Village district of Los Angeles, MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D had the luxury of time and space to develop whatever thoughts came to mind.
Released on 23 May 1994, Ill Communication came just two years after its predecessor, Check Your Head – a quick turnaround in Beasties’ world – and it built upon that album’s move towards live instrumentation, simultaneously expanding forward and backwards: the hardcore punk of their early 80s incarnation (‘Tough Guy’, ‘Heart Attack Man’) sat next to newly-forged rare-groove-styled workouts; old school hip-hop melded with the 90s’ postmodern aesthetic so that a track such as ‘Sure Shot’ could mix jazz flute (a loop from Jeremy Steig’s ‘Howlin’ For Judy’) with a crisp drum beat and lyrics that cycle through references to 70s crime movies (The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three) and sonic pioneers the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry, with Beasties adding to their patented goofy humour a support for feminist politics.
Despite the high-concept elements woven throughout, Ill Communication is founded on Beasties’ inimitable, anarchic DIY vibe. From the distorted vocals to the what-happens-if-we-stick-this-with-that? approach, it’s an album shot through not just with the urge to experiment, but with the wide-eyed curiosity that keeps the whole enterprise fun. And then there’s the video for ‘Sabotage’: thrift store clothing and an almost guerrilla-style shoot on the streets of LA led to one of the greatest songs of the 90s also getting one of the greatest videos of the era; there’s a reasonable argument that its 70s cop-show spoof did more than anything else to kick-start the decade’s retro fashion craze.
More than anything, Ill Communication is a microcosm for the 90s – a decade that’s hard to pin down, but whose true innovators refused to play by the rules, breaking boundaries and forging ahead with their own unique visions.