Beastie Boys’ ‘Check Your Head’ Is a Trip

Artist and producer Mark Ronson on the group’s legendary record

On October 20, 2022
Photo by Ari Marcopolous

It was a Tuesday evening, a school night, but against better judgment I was lying fully clothed in a bathtub tripping on acid. My best friend, Daniel, was sprawled out across the black-and-white porcelain tile, staring up at the ceiling. He seemed to be tripping pretty hard, too. 

We were on our 23rd consecutive listen of “Skills to Pay the Bills,” and it showed no signs of getting old yet. We were lost and engulfed in this blast of funky cacophony and its layered sonics: hard drums over sampled breaks, Beastie Boys’ brand new (but already iconic) distorted vocal sound and an unidentifiable, repeated sound in the chorus that could best be described as Snuffleupagus keeling over to take his final breath. And the intro vocals, with their unusually short reverb, sounded like they were recorded in a bathroom. 

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Beastie Boys were probably in a bathroom just like we are right now! Our minds were beyond blown.

Only two hours prior we had entered the HMV megastore on 72nd Street and Broadway with the sole intention of picking up the “So What'cha Want” CD single that was released earlier that day. Record stores have always been my happy place. I could waste hours upon hours rifling through bins, but there’s also something exhilarating about entering the joint knowing exactly what you want: going up to the info counter, asking, locating, purchasing, exiting. As we walked out of the glass doors into the perfect June night, I felt a palpable giddiness clutching this plastic-wrapped little jewel. The acid was starting to kick in. I read over the tracklist.

“Whoa. There’s a Soul Assassins remix and some unreleased shit, too!” I said.

“Let me see,” Daniel said, more of a demand than a request as he snatched it away. I could see his eyes widen as he ingested the tracklist. 

Few things were more exciting than being a teenager on a Tuesday (the day new music came out in the U.S.) and returning home with a CD or cassette that you could not wait to get into the player. Before the internet era, you really had no idea what you were about to experience — except for a single or two you might’ve heard on MTV or the radio.

There we were, walking across West 72nd Street, knowing we were only moments from experiencing four virgin pieces of music by our favourite fucking band in the universe, Beastie Boys.

I was 11 years old when Licensed to Ill hit, smack dab in the prime demographic to be titillated by the naughty, hooky anthems I saw on MTV. Throughout middle school, the entire school bus would echo and boom with word-perfect a cappella renditions of “Paul Revere” on the way to soccer games and track meets. But the Beasties would famously soon swear off the juvenile posturing of the Licensed era, en route to their second album. Their brilliant left-of-center masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique, went completely over my head at the time. It’s hard to imagine a 14-year-old Mark — captivated by Lenny Kravitz, Mötley Crüe, Tom Petty and Guns N' Roses — having the bandwidth to grasp this pause tape-inspired jewel, with its hundreds of samples majestically interwoven. That would come later.

Safe to say, Beastie Boys were no longer occupying much space in my brain until one seismic afternoon in 11th grade when I came home from school, turned on the TV and stumbled upon Ricky Powell’s public access TV show, Rappin’ with the Rickster. There are three or four moments in my life that I remember being truly stopped in my tracks by something I saw and heard on the TV: The first time I heard “Stop Me” by The Smiths on 120 Minutes, Miley Cyrus singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on SNL (which led to me chasing her for four years until we eventually made “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”). This was one of those moments. I was spellbound.

I tried to decipher what I was seeing: It was grainy home video footage of what I recognized to be the Beastie Boys jamming on instruments in what resembled an indoor skate park. And they sounded fucking amazing. I had recently dispensed my interest in hair metal and moved on to bands like The Meters, Ohio Players, Average White Band. I was blown away by how Mike D sounded on the drums. He was a groovy fucking bastard, and his kit sounded good — like an old breakbeat, but with some extra gnarliness to it. Ad-Rock looked cool as ever, guitar slung low, playing some dope-ass, funky wah riff. And MCA was the glue, as always, holding it down and holding it all together. The video footage cut to a guy playing a Hammond organ and some other guy behind a mixing console, offering his input and occasionally messing with an MPC drum machine.

Are they making an album?! Will I be able to purchase something like this someday? I truly hope so, because THIS is all I want to listen to from now on.

I was witnessing a new musical language being forged, a language built from the best of the old: The mastery and knowledge of obscure records the Beasties had absorbed while making Paul’s Boutique, the scrappy feel of their early punk days playing live and all the other stone and psychedelic shit they had picked up living on the West Coast. 

There were no vocals yet but from the music alone, I was sprung. I waited until the end of the TV show and scribbled down a contact number for Ricky Powell, the dry, funny host and the documentarian of this scene. I had to know everything about it. 

After getting hold of Ricky, we met in Washington Park, and I interviewed him for my high school paper. We sat in the middle of the park, which has very little shade; the beaming sun caused Ricky to squint through most of the interview, which only exaggerated his Rickster-ness. Ricky often squinted while you talked, in that Larry David way — trying to suss out if you were talking bullshit or not. He was also usually pretty stoned, so that could’ve been part of the reason. He was a hilarious interview, and we stayed friends over the next 30 years until his sad passing last February. He was a remarkable dude, a brilliant photographer, a Greenwich Village fixture, sometimes a clown, usually a clowner.

When I asked specifically about Beastie Boys and what they were up to, he didn’t spill too many beans, I’m sure out of respect for them. He just intimated they had some new shit coming that was going to blow everyone’s minds. 

“This next one is the first song on our new album!” 

The way “Jimmy James” kicks off with that Cheap Trick snippet into the Hendrix breakbeat gives me chills every fucking time. And by the time MCA welcomes us — “People how you doin’? There’s a new day dawnin’” — with more warmth, hope and spirituality in one line than in some people’s entire catalog, you’re aware that this is some other shit, some next shit. Everytime I hear it, I feel like my adrenaline is spiking to the point I could punch through a wall. But I’m also incredibly happy, uplifted, and I’ve got this dumb grin on my face while usually dancing alone in my room. You cannot stay still when that beat drops. 

The sonic evolution of Beastie Boys is very clear from Check Your Head’s first track. Yes, there are the funky breaks and the scratching we’ve come to know them for, but the breaks are no longer slinky and refined, preserved in their original form. Instead, they’re blown-out, causing a beautiful distortion as if every meter on the recording console was going into the red. And layered with the live instrumentation, it creates an unbridled excitement and energy that never touches aggression. Making music exciting and charged without making it aggro is truly one of the most difficult achievements. Beastie Boys keep this up across an entire album, and the rest of their career from here on out.

Check Your Head has a range of tempos and feels. There are introspective moments like “Something’s Got to Give,” but, to me, joy is the running thread. I imagine that was for a number of reasons: Coming off of the commercial flop of Paul’s Boutique meant there were no longer any sales pressures, and they could truly do whatever they wanted. Yauch’s recent spiritual awakening gave the new music a real positivity. Mario C.’s serendipitous purchase of some shitty Realistic microphones gave the Boys a crunchy vocal sound, which they wore as a coat of armor over this new, heavier sound. Money Mark’s virtuosic keyboard playing added gravitas to all the instrumental pieces. And, maybe most of all, you had three immensely talented, smart, sensitive, never-not-cool visionaries who took the time to find their own thing. 

Their live funk evolution turned me on in a way I couldn’t have expected. At the time, I was a big fan of The Brand New Heavies and the new number of bands recreating the rare groove era. Beastie Boys were not trying to copy a sound or era note-perfect — or maybe they were, but they didn’t have the insane chops required to sound like an old Blue Note break. Instead, they were reinterpreting obscure jazz-funk tunes like The Crusaders’ “The Well’s Gone Dry” with 9:30 Club energy. It made it relatable. Oh shit, I could do that! Or at least I could try. 

I didn’t know shit about Bad Brains or punk, but songs like “Gratitude” and “Time for Livin’” gave me permission to channel my adolescent rage in a way that didn’t feel meathead-ish, either in my room or at the many Beastie shows I would attend over the coming years.

1992 was a ridiculous year for albums, and Check Your Head competed in my CD player with Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother and Gang Starr’s Daily Operation, as well as Rage Against the Machine’s insane debut. But as a Jewish kid living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it was silly to deny the kinship I felt to the Beasties. They were like us. We could one day be cool like them. 

One typical Saturday night in the spring of ’93, Daniel and I found ourselves in a narrow little bodega by Lincoln Center buying 22 ounces of malt liquor. We’d usually go sit on the steps and drink them out of brown paper bags: It felt cool. Daniel was in line ahead of me and showed his fake ID to the man behind the counter. We looked closer to 12 than 21, but the dude didn’t care. He took Dan’s cash, handed him some change and closed the register drawer. It was very quiet, almost silent. Dan motioned to grab his beer, and at the exact same instant, in full unison and without any precedent, Dan and I broke the silence, rapping, “You got, you got, you got, you got, you got.” 

Whoa.

We both looked at each other suddenly — eyes wide, Bill & Ted-style — stunned and weirded out by this psychic mind meld, where out of nowhere and for no reason, we both decided to recite the 10 opening words of Mike D’s verse on “Professor Booty” at exactly the same time, at the same tempo and on beat. This wasn’t a line either of us had ever said out loud before or even harped on, so it was undeniably strange that we were both thinking of this same lyric from a deep cut at that moment. But it was absolutely uncanny that we picked that precise moment to rap it out loud, together. We walked around for the rest of the night, slightly tingly, feeling like we had scraped up against the supernatural. A skeptic’s answer might be that we had been listening to way too much Check Your Head. While that was true as well, our love for Beastie Boys and our bond over this record had transcended fandom: It was etched into our subconscious.

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Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson is an internationally renowned DJ and five-time-Grammy-Award-winning and Golden Globe-winning artist and producer.

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