in Obsessong

I’m just getting over listening to KEXP’s awesomely thorough dissection of Paul’s Boutique that went on all day Friday, and in general have just been in a Beastie Boys mood lately.  So I see no reason not to write about my absolute favorite song by this now-defunct band who somehow seem to grow more and more essential with each passing day.  Also, I realize this piece turned into a long rambling ode to the Beasties as a whole more than just this one particular song, but I suppose that’s the kind of passion these guys tend to evoke.

Song: “Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys
Album: Ill Communication
Year: 1994
Written By: Beastie Boys, DJ Hurricane, Mario Caldato, Jr., Jeremy Steig

My Relationship With This Song

Like a lot of artists as ubiquitous as the Beastie Boys, it’s hard to trace exactly the first time I’d heard of them or any of their music.  But the first memory that comes to mind was during some summer in the late ‘90s when I was attending this baseball day camp, which was probably born out of the fact that my parents wanted to get me out of the house after having just discovered Nickelodeon as a thing.  Anyways, I remember we were picking a team name for one of our scrimmage games, and one of the older, cooler kids at the camp suggested the name “The Beastie Boys”.  I didn’t get the reference, obviously, but from the way this kid and the other older, cooler kids were talking about the Beastie Boys, I could already tell that there was an innate aura of coolness surrounding these Beastie Boys, whoever they were.

But the first time I remember actually hearing the Beastie Boys’ music probably happened about a year or two later, in an elementary school music class on a day when everyone was encouraged to bring in one of their own CD’s and play a song off of it.  There was one kid (his name escapes me) who brought in a copy of Hello Nasty, the then-newest Beastie Boys LP, and he of course played “Intergalactic”, a song that now that I think about it seems like something that would easily appeal to a 10-year-old.  Once again, this exposure was coming from a kid that was older than me (the class was a 4th/5th grade split, and I was on the 4th grade side of that divide), and further fueled the idea that the Beastie Boys were a band that the “older, cooler kids” listened to.  Then I think I saw the giant robot-heavy video for “Intergalactic” a short while later, in what was probably one of my first exposures to MTV in the waning days of their whole “being a music network the plays music” period.

Then through my teenage years, I saw some of my contemporaries discovering License To Ill, but for reasons that I think are pretty reasonable (even its defenders have to admit it’s pretty dumb), I never really got into that album.  But regardless, the Beastie Boys where always one of those bands that were usually kind of there in the background, as I remember in the mid-00’s, Seattle rock station 107.7 The End started turning it’s playlists back to it’s ‘90s alt roots, which also would occasionally include a classic Beastie Boys cut every once in a while.  And even though I never felt a need to check out their albums, I couldn’t deny that they seemed like a lot of fun.  Of course, that all changed my senior year of high school when I heard Paul’s Boutique for the first time and realized, holy shit, these guys are artistes.

Then cut to about a year later, when I had just started attending the Academy Of Art University in San Francisco, and by that time I was immersing myself in art and creativity and expression in a way that seemed to fuel my lifelong music-obsession to an even greater level.  And a part of this period had me wanting to further investigate the Beasties, a band who seemed to be about nothing but art and creativity and pushing themselves to whatever outer limits of their own awesomeness that they could.  So I picked up the one-two punch of 1992’s Check Your Head and 1994’s Ill Communication, since those just seemed like the logical next steps from Paul’s Boutique thanks to this thing we call chronology.

I’m probably not unique in thinking that Check Your Head is the superior album, as it has that air of seeing the Beastie Boys reinvent themselves once again as this kind of LA-based funk/punk band, but still with the omnipresence of hip-hop running through their veins.  Meanwhile, Ill Communication feels a bit like Check Your Head vol. 2, and thus feels a little less fresh.  Though it does feature the career-defining “Sabotage” as well as “Sure Shot”, a song that starts off the album in such an ass-kickingly triumphant manner, that you might as well be dead if you’re not on board from second one.  And for that I initially ended up listening to Ill Communication more, particularly while waiting for the bus late at night for the one acting class that my school’s film department (of which I was majoring in) had required me to take.  And since at the time, acting in front of people was something I was nothing less than terrified of, I needed something that could get me so pumped up that my acting prowess would be guaranteed like Yoo-hoo.

Reasons Why I Love This Song

The Video Is Amazing Without Even Trying: I like to think that I am a connoisseur of Beastie Boys videos, considering I own the Beastie Boys Video Anthology that was put out by the motherfucking Criterion Collection, and also happens to one of those things I love owning for the sake of owning, rather than being something I actually return to a lot.  Anyways, there are few artists on par with the Beastie Boys’ magnificent videography, so much so that “Sabotage”’s place as the Beastie Boys’ crowning achievement as a song may have a lot to do with its video being the crowning achievement of the music video as an art form (and if you say otherwise I will fight you, son).  The video for “Sure Shot”, like “Sabotage” is another Spike Jonze collaboration, and though a lot looser and less high-concept, is just about as potent.  In fact, I don’t think there’s really any concept at all to this video.  Like a lot of Beastie Boys videos, it pretty much consists of MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D bouncing off of each other (literally and metaphorically), and somehow that’s enough.  Because that’s one of the beautiful things about the Beastie Boys — you could just put a camera on them, and because of the intense, loving chemistry that these dudes had with each other, they couldn’t help but be thoroughly entertaining and magnetic whenever they were together.

Flute Loops, Yo: If there’s anything that relistening to Paul’s Boutique has reminded me of, it’s not just that the Beastie Boys were great at utilizing samples (which of course they were), but that they were also great at utilizing samples that no one else would’ve touched.  The sample that defines “Sure Shot” is a jazzy little flute riff that comes courtesy of the song “Howlin’ For Judy” by jazz flutist Jeremy Steig.  If you can name me another hip-hop artist that would’ve dared to use jazz flutist Jeremy Steig as the basis for their second single on a major label album in 1994, please, indulge me.  But as for now, this is one of those beautiful strokes of crate-digging brilliance that no other group but the Beasties would touch, and god dammit I’m glad they did, because that flute is some tasty shit.

So Many Pop Culture References!: “Sure Shot” also serves as another example of the Beastie Boys’ M.O. of taking things that might seem far-from-relevant, and nonetheless making them cool, all due to their obsessive and all-inclusive relationship with pop culture.  Over the course of “Sure Shot”, we get references to Lee Dorsey, Kojak, Vaughn Bode, Doug E. Fresh, Dr. John, The Taking Of Pelham 123 and of course contains the immortal lines “I’ve got more action than my man, John Woo. / And I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew.”  Whereas in a lot of hip-hop songs, blatant pop culture references always come off to me as a bit lazy and usually dates any given song.  But with the Beasties, it always seems like there’s a genuine affection behind the movies and TV and whatever else that they ever dared to reference in their songs.  And in the end, it’s always made this band feel like a celebration of creativity and embracing both high art and low art while trying to filter these seemingly obscure things into something everybody can appreciate.

Because You, Well…: Because you can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop.  Is there any other chorus that expresses what it means to be a human being trying to move forward in life, but also is just a fun thing you can say to yourself to get pumped up?  I mean, probably, since that’s what a lot of danceable songs of this ilk are going for, but there are few I’ve clung on to as much as this instantly memorable chorus.  And I think this idea of to just keep moving forward, while having the most exhilarating, non-stop fun you could possibly be having is a perfect encapsulation of what made the Beastie Boys a group that all of us needed in our lives, and that we still need even in the wake of MCA’s untimely passing.  Because put simply, the Beastie Boys’ music was a celebration of life.  It was full of love and friendship and artistry and it was just a really beautiful thing that could’ve only come from those three guys feeding off of each other’s energy as musicians and as human beings.  It was just fucking beautiful, man.

Why I Will Continue To Love This Song

Because I can’t, I won’t, and I don’t stop.  And sure, I’d like to.  There are little voices in the back of my head that are constantly wondering what the fucking point of any of this is.  But then I hear a song as simultaneously badass and life-affirming as “Sure Shot” and I’m like, “Yup, that’s it.  That’s what it’s all about.”  Oh, and also this song is probably the only time I’ve ever heard anyone refer to their headphones as “ear goggles”, so it’s got that going for it as well.