Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy takes a closer look at some of the lesser-known albums put out by well-known musicians.
Over a year ago, the world lost a crucial cog in the wheel of pass the mic hip-hop. Adam Yauch (MCA) was relieved of his duties as MC by a resilient case of cancer. Def Before Dishonor is a memento he left us to remember him by in the form of an early, bootlegged Beastie Boys mixtape. Does this album stack up to the rest of the well-established musical resume of the B-Boys? Sort of.
In the early 1980s, three white Jewish boys from Brooklyn started a punk rock band. You read that right. A punk band. Check out Aglio E Olio or Some Old Bullshit, if you don’t believe me. After a few years of trial and error (mostly error) in the dirty under-taint of the punk world, the Beastie Boys made a more drastic genre switch than The Goo Goo Dolls: they started rapping.
What caused this sudden switch? A prank phone call. In 1983 the Beastie Boys made a prank phone call to the Carvel Ice Cream Company and recorded the conversation that would become the track “Cooky Puss.” It was a joke. A joke that the entire world should be grateful for. After the song became an underground hit in the clubs, a permanent switch to hip-hop became the obvious answer.
One crucial piece of the puzzle was missing, though: a producer. After joining the once-punk trio as their new DJ for live shows, the now-famous Rick Rubin founded Def Jam records and immediately signed the Beastie Boys. “Rock Hard” was the first single released on Def Jam records (and subsequently the first track on Def Before Dishonor), and was well received by both critics and fans. In 1988, the Beastie Boys released their first full-length hip-hop album, Paul’s Boutique. After the enormous success of the album, Def Jam records became merely a way to reminisce as Capitol Records made a move on the B-Boys.
But, in 1989, an unofficially released album by the name of Def Before Dishonor filled the cassette slot of boom boxes across the country. To be honest, I couldn’t find too much information about this album. No one is talking about it. No one has reviewed it. But, some people are selling it ($66 on Amazon, if you’re interested). Hell, I don’t even know how I acquired the album. But I’m glad I did.
Def Before Dishonor is a glimpse into a Beastie Boys past that Paul’s Boutique just doesn’t equate to. Don’t get me wrong, Paul’s Boutique is an incredible album, but the underproduction of Def Before Dishonor really speaks to the origins of this punk born hip-hop trio from Brooklyn. It’s not about showy, smooth flow. Not that the B-Boys were ever about their flow. No, Def Before Dishonor is about in-your-face rap. It sounds like a bunch of drunk college students with Garage Band installed on their computer.
“Rock Hard” starts the album off with a relentless barrage of heavy guitar riffs, a drum machine that is a few notches too loud and chantable lyrics. Well, the riffs aren’t theirs (sampled from AC/DC’s “Back in Black” – and like most B-Boys samples, was not acquired legally). In typical Beastie Boys fashion, the entire album is filled with samples used without the original artists’ consent – including Black Flag’s “Rise Above” featured in “And What You Give is What You Get.” Black Flag probably threw less of a hissy fit than AC/DC did when they heard their song being sampled without authorization.
King AD-Rock kills it on “Beasty Groove.” Probably the best track on the album. Oddly, the majority of the tracks are seemingly self-aware. Their titles command not only what they are about, but also what they actually sound like. “Party’s Getting Rough” is practically nothing more than a drunken party chat over a quiet beat. Awesome. “Caught in the Middle of a 3 Way Mix,” sounds exactly like that: being caught in the middle of all three Beastie Boys singing at you. Out of sync. But, there’s something about this humble attempt at hip-hop that really works. Think of those guys on the street trying to hand out their free mixtapes, collecting donations, and repping their freestyle abilities. That’s Def Before Dishonor.
The album also contains a collection of five different instrumentals, some of which even appeared on later albums as fully realized tracks. Both “It’s the New Style” and “Paul Revere” were released with vocals on License to Ill. Unless you’re looking to create your own freestyles over the beats, these tracks don’t add much to the album. But other instrumentals like the funky “33% GOD” showcase the ingenuity of Rubin and the creativity of the B-Boys. Worth a listen, but not a replay.
The album itself suffers from many of the problems that the majority of 1980s mixtapes presented. The song intros run on for far too long, thus becoming a little pedantic and redundant. Although Rubin was mixing some mad shit, the album comes off as almost a set of notes for the Beastie Boys and their upcoming albums, a list of what and what not to do.
Maybe it’s the self-aware track titles. Maybe it’s the mixtape feel. But I like this album. It’s not the Beastie Boys’ best album, not by a long shot. This is not the Beastie Boys album to put on at a party. Stick with Ill Communication or Licensed to Ill if you want to please a crowd. But Def Before Dishonor is a good album, it’s an album for the fans. The money may not have been there yet, but the talent and passion sure as hell were. There are a few skippable tracks on the album, but overall it has a great variety of 1980s mixtape hip-hop. We miss you MCA. I’m sorry I never had a chance to see you perform.