DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.
It's been almost 25 years since The Beastie Boys released their album "License to Ill" for Def Jam Records, the company started by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. "License to Ill" became the first hip-hop album to reach number one on the pop chart. In the decades since, the group has earned critical acclaim for their albums, and in 2007, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We'll listen back to an interview Terry did with the Beastie Boys - Adam Yauch, Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond - in a moment. But first, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two," the first Beastie Boys album since their 2007 all instrumental collection, "The Mix-Up."
"Hot Sauce's" release was postponed a number of times as the trio dealt with the health problems of Adam Yauch, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Yauch is now healthy enough to have completed this new album. Ken says it's fresh and vital by sounding old-fashioned and defiant.
(Soundbite of music)
THE BEASTIE BOYS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).
KEN TUCKER: The Beastie Boys are all about noise. Their beats are big and booming. Their production style is intentionally fuzzy, frequently distorted. Their lyrics are the dense, articulate yammerings of wiseguys who will not get out of your face.
As has been true since they began as a joyfully crude punk band more than 30 years ago, The Beastie Boys make virtues out of what, from most other people, would be annoyances.
Listen to the groove they develop on "Funky Donkey," which contains one of my favorite couplets on the album: I don't wear crocs, and I don't wear sandals. The pump don't work because the vandals took the handles.
(Soundbite of song, "Funky Donkey")
THE BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) (Unintelligible). I don't wear crocs, and I don't wear sandals. The pump don't work because the vandals took the handles. (Unintelligible).
TUCKER: The theme of "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two," in case you haven't guessed by now, is aging: Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, Mike "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "MCA" Yauch embody the phrase old-school in a number of ways, and not just because Ad-Rock refers to himself as a grandpa who's been rapping since '83.
The album has almost no use for hip-hop as it has evolved over the past decade other than to ask a friend, such as the rapper Nas, to put in a cameo on one track.
Indeed, the Beasties are pre-hardcore hip-hop; they're rappers. What's the distinction? Their interest, as was true of virtually all first-wave rap from the late '70s and early '80s, is in verbal content set to rhythms filched from R&B, soul, disco and pop records.
Their artistic alliances remain with rap performers such as Spoonie G and Grandmaster Flash, as well as with pop-punk-disco acts of an earlier era, such as the "Heart of Glass"-era Debbie Harry.
Here's a good example: the bass- and drum-heavy "Lee Majors Come Again." It's a return to their punk-rock roots, with a driving tempo and a chorus that insists over and over that you, quote, "take a look around you."
(Soundbite of song, "Lee Majors Come Again")
THE BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) take a look around you (Unintelligible).
TUCKER: One of the best songs on a generally superb album is "Nonstop Disco Powerpack," whose opening I find touching even as the Boys steamroll over the emotion.
It begins with each member asking the other: How you feeling? In context, it's an intro, a way to rev up. On another level, however, I can't help but think it's an implicit checking-in with MCA about the state of his health after a battle with cancer. Either way, the vibrant life of the music, its disco powerpack, to use a typically cartoonish Beastie phrase, is exhilarating.
(Soundbite of song, "Nonstop Disco Powerpack")
THE BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Well how you feeling (Unintelligible)? Well, I'm feeling well. (Unintelligible). Well, how you feeling, Mike D? Well, I feel all good. (Unintelligible). Well, how you feeling, MCA? Well, I feel right (Unintelligible). Well, if you're feeling good and you're feeling right, somebody step off and grab the mics. (Unintelligible) microphone again. I (Unintelligible) just don't care. (Unintelligible) strainer. (Unintelligible).
TUCKER: On another track here, "Long Burn the Fire," The Beastie Boys speak of an ideal rapper, quote, "a soothsayer, not a player."
The music on this album is deceptively off-hand. It's a sustained piece of art-collage with a unifying sensibility, anarchy expressed through technical discipline. As one fan wrote on a Beastie Boys comments board I read online, this stuff is vintage but new. Long burn their fire, indeed.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.