Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 20: Beastie Boys, "Jimmy James"

Artist: Beastie Boys
Song: "Jimmy James"
Album: Check Your Head
Year: 1992

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Though one can make arguments for other cities "founding" various genres of music, from jazz to punk, New York City is one of many that can make a solid claim to this title.  Perhaps due to the unique geography of the city, perhaps due to the social realities, one cannot deny that the city has been a hotbed for all types of music for the entire history of recorded music.  However, there is one genre to which no other city on the planet can take credit for creation, and New York City remains the dominant force more than three decades after it gave birth to hip-hop music.  From the early days of Afrika Bambaataa to the crossover success of Run-DMC to the dominance of Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, as the decades have passed, the city has retained its space at the top of hip-hop towns.  Among the most original and successful of all the New York City hip-hop groups is a trio of Jewish white boys from Brooklyn who call themselves the Beastie Boys.  Truth be told, the group began in the early 1980s as a hardcore punk band, but in 1982, the group altered their lineup and with the help of Rick Rubin, "changed" into a rap trio.  After spending a few years playing in support of groups ranging from Madonna to Public Image, Ltd. to LL Cool J, the trio entered a studio and released their monumental 1986 debut, Licensed To Ill.  The album was a massive success, and the group toured in support of the record before releasing the more creatively impressive Paul's Boutique in 1988.  However, it is the third album from The Beastie Boys that shows the group at their creative height and completely re-wrote the books on hip-hop music.  There is perhaps no song that better personifies everything that makes The Beastie Boys great and captures the magic of their 1992 record, Check Your Head, than the albums' lead track, "Jimmy James."

In reality, when the song was first created by Adam Yauch (AKA MCA), it was made as purely an instrumental track, with the samples and record scratching all done by him.  However, since a majority of the samples he wanted to use were from Jimi Hendrix songs (as the song is said to be a tribute to Hendrix), the estate of the late guitar god denied him the right, so the band was forced into a position that would forever change the genre.  The Beastie Boys wanted to have the track on Check Your Head, and seeing no other choice, the trio picked up their instruments and created music very similar to the desired samples, and this is what one hears on the album release of "Jimmy James."  With MCA on bass, Ad-Rock on guitar, and Mike D on drums, the group laid down wonderfully funky grooves, and this would be the beginning of a trend that the trio would explore deeper and deeper with every album that followed.  Furthermore, the groups' use of "live" instrumentation paved the way for countless other groups to do similarly, and the approach remains alive and well nearly twenty years later.  Strangely enough, after the album was released, the Hendrix estate relented, and gave clearance for the samples to be used, and the group "remade" the song and released it as a single, so there are two very different versions of the song available.  Along with the Hendrix samples, both versions of "Jimmy James" feature samples ranging from The Turtles to Cheap Trick to The Fearless Four, and this diverse sampling group shows just how well rounded the musical tastes were within The Beastie Boys.

Though "Jimmy James" was originally created as an instrumental track, after Ad-Rock and Mike D heard the amazing groove MCA had created, they convinced him to put vocals overtop parts of it, and this addition made a great song even better.  On many levels, "Jimmy James" defines the style and approach of The Beastie Boys perfectly, as there are few groups that so perfectly trade lines with one another.  As they have nearly their entire career, the trio weave in and out of one anothers' rhymes, and this remains one of the most distinctive aspects of their music.  The fact that each of the three have a rather distinctive voice further drives home just how well they flow alongside one another, and there are few groups that better define the idea of a "group effort" on a track.  Yet the manner and attitude that they bring to the vocals on "Jimmy James" represents an almost complete opposite to the sounds of their first album, as the yelling and almost reckless abandon within their music was all but gone.  Throughout nearly all of Check Your Head, it is clear that The Beastie Boys were maturing and finding far more to rhyme about than girls and drinking.  While the upbeat mood of their songs persists, there is clearly "something" different in the way that they are delivering the lines, and in retrospect, the work on "Jimmy James" was a sign of a complete change in their style and subject matter that would follow on their next two records.  The "new" ethos of the group can be summed up in the songs' final line, when all three chant, "...but the music brought the people into harmony..."

Having survived the explosion of their first record, and the cooler reception to its follow-up, The Beastie Boys continued to make music how they wanted, and in the process completely changed the rules with their third record, 1992's Check Your Head.  Using heavy amounts of live instrumentation intertwined with the "standard" samples and scratching, one can point to this record as putting the "music" back into "hip-hop music."  Clearly, this was the focus of The Beastie Boys at the time, as on a majority of tracks, the lyrics are not up to par with their previous efforts, yet there were no other hip-hop records from ANY artist at the time that could compare in terms of both music and mood.  Regardless of "which" version of the "Jimmy James" you hear, the bassline brings a fantastic groove and the way the group mixes it seamlessly with the "classic" scratching and samples of hip-hop truly changed "how" rap music was made.  A far cry from the "women and beer" ethos of their first album, clearly by this point, all three members of The Beastie Boys were maturing, and their new focus on more positive fun and world peace began to appear as early as "Jimmy James."  It is this more universal feel that makes both the song and the album so alluring, and the lo-fi sound that is also present makes Check Your Head one of the most uniquely intriguing records ever made.  Setting high expectations for the rest of the album, many listeners were shocked by the hybrid sound and unexpected mood found on The Beastie Boys' stellar 1992 track, "Jimmy James."

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