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What? Not Paul’s Boutique?

Before you get your VW medallion in a bunch — yes, Paul’s Boutique is a landmark album; dare I say a classic but it is arguably so production heavy, so reliant on samples and studio artistry to create its identity I contend it should really be credited as a Beastie Boys/Dust Brothers album. (The same argument could be made for Beck’s Dust Brothers-produced Odelay seven years later.) Check Your Head, released in 1992, finds the Beastie Boys raw and exposed with nothing to hide behind. The only thing on display is their creativity.

Fans and critics alike were surprised when Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D —Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch and Michael Diamond — dropped the 808 and picked up the guitar, drums and bass. The truth is it was hip-hop that made them put the instruments down in the first place. Before being bitten by the Def Jam bug they were an underground NYC punk band with enough of a local following to open for the likes of Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits. Of course, that all changed when they heard RUN DMC.

After a string of underground singles and EPs, the Beasties released their debut, License to Ill — a hodgepodge of simplistic hip-hop beats and sophomoric frat-boy raps with some presumably uncleared classic rock samples thrown in for good measure. The results polarized the urban hip-hop community: Some wrote them off as a novelty act while others accused these Jewish kids of hijacking their art form. The masses, however, voted with their wallets and crowned License to Ill the first rap LP to top the Billboard album chart. It would eventually be certified platinum nine times over.

If Ill’s motto was “keep it simple,” Paul’s Boutique was “more is more.” With even their original producer Rick Rubin and label, Def Jam, deriding them as “one-hit wonders” the Beasties set out to make a more mature, creatively deep album. The result is 105 sampled songs packed into 15 tracks. The vocals are fine, but it is really the Dust Brothers that are on display here. Allegedly, these masterful backing tracks were originally recorded to be a Dust Brothers club album but the Beastie Boys convinced them otherwise. The public’s reaction Paul’s Boutique was tepid at best, peaking only at #24, and at the time did little to shake the “one-hit wonder” label, although in the years since it has come to be considered one of the most groundbreaking hip-hop albums of all time by Rolling Stone and The Source.

One could say the Beastie Boys had to make (and fail with) Paul’s Boutique. In the three years between albums the band left their label, launched their own (Grand Royal) and moved to Los Angeles, determined to start fresh and no longer be overshadowed by production. Check Your Head would have to live or die on the strength of their raw talent and musicianship.

Augmented by organist Money Mark and co-producer Mario Caldato Jr. the Beastie Boys created virtually all their own grooves. The result is a record, in retrospect, only they could have created: a 70’s groove oriented, lo-fi, fuzz-toned, punk jazz album. (Of course, the album isn’t sample free — in fact the first sound you hear is Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander from Live at Budokan: “This next one is the first song on our new album…”)

That first song is “Jimmy James” and they plant their flag in the sand with the opening line, “People how you doing/There’s a new day dawning/For the Earth Mother/It’s a brand new morning.” From here on out the name of the game is musicality.

If License to Ill and Paul’s Boutique featured MCs, Check Your Head features musicians. Yes, there are over 50 songs sampled throughout but this time around the band uses them as instruments, not crutches. A flute flourish here, a bass loop there, even Jimmy Walker and Richard Pryor make cameos — all mixed in, tastefully, with live drums, bass, guitar and Mark’s B3 organ. The samples are the sprinkles on top, not the entire dessert.

The album’s standouts are “Pass the Mic” and “So What’cha Want.” The former is an old school hand-off but done seamlessly, both vocally and lyrically, and within that song Ad Rock, MCA and Yauch directly address who they were, who they are now and whether or not they give a shit with lines like:

“I give thanks for inspiration/It guides my mind along the way/A lot of people get jealous/They’re talking about me/But that’s just ‘cause they haven’t got a thing to say”

…immediately followed by…

“Everybody’s rapping like it’s a commercial/Actin’ like life is a big commercial/So this is what I’ve got to say to all/Be true to yourself and you will never fall.”

“So What’cha Want” is, simply put, badass. Live instruments and scratches combined with the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Ted Nugent and Southside Movement to create a pocket so deep it’s a wonder they ever made their way out. And great rhymes like “Where’d you get your information from/You that you can front when revelation comes?” and “I’m flowing without no stoppin’/Sweeter than a cherry pie with Ready Whip toppin’.”

And if you just want to chill you always have the vibe heavy/lyric-lite “Funky Boss,” “Lighten Up,” “Something’s Got To Give,” “Pow,” “Groove Holmes,” and “In 3’s.” The Beasties went from sampling grooves from Curtis Mayfield and Parliament to creating their own 70’s soundtrack. They may have made their bones urging you to “Fight For Your Right To Party” but this is the Beastie Boys album that might actually get you laid.

By taking off the sampling training wheels the Beastie Boys left themselves no option but to make the music the star attraction. They released great albums before and continued to after, until Adam Yauch’s untimely passing in 2012, but if you want one album that defines the philosophy, vibe and talents of three NYC kids that redefined hip-hop, then look no further than Check Your Head.

Adam Freeman is the former producer of MTV’s 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and Total Request Live. He is now the Creative Director of Thinkfactory Media. He tweets at @mradamfreeman.