Nevermind (sic) what you’ve heard, this is the most important album of the 90s. Released on April 21, 1992 with relative quiet, it was the sneaker album of the summer of ‘92 and raised the bar for both alternative music and hip hop and obliterated the lines between in the process.
I remember clearly when this album hit me–and it was at least a month or two after I bought it at Crazy Larry’s, the video/music shop where I worked in Grand Rapids. I was visiting my friends at Kalamazoo College where Jake Brown was on campus for a summer session and we were all lazing around the kiddie pool we’d set up to get through the midwest humidity. The pool’s name was Tony and we were very clearly the cool kids on campus, even though I wasn’t even enrolled. So it was no surprise we were blasting the latest Beastie Boys album, but what struck me was when some bros rolled up in an orange Jeep Wrangler with the rag-top removed and “Pass the Mic” at full volume. The alternative was about to become the mainstream.
At the time, I was derisive. I mean…that’s what we were supposed to be. This was the era when worlds were colliding–uncomfortably, sometimes. Alternative and hip-hop were subversive, the whole point was to side-step the mainstream. But good is good and greatness transcends. There is no better soundtrack for the cultural collision of the early 90s than Check Your Head, itself a collision of sounds, ideas, vibes, culture.
It has everything: Hip-hop, punk, jazz, funk, inside jokes. And it was the B-Boys stretching as musicians with fewer samples and much more contribution of musical tracks from Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA. Rather than sampling groovy tracks from obscure 70s soundtracks, they were creating their own. That’s some meta shit and it was what we were all doing in some way. We were borrowing clothes from our dads’ closets and pairing up wide collars with Pumas. It was a pu-pu platter of clothes, music, art, film…everything. I didn’t quite realize (let alone appreciate) at the time, but it was a time of creative explosions where the weird was valued and applied as a hue to our post-adolescent awakening. I don’t know what any of that means, but it was a vibe.
And so thirty years on I still listen to Check Your Head a lot and unlike other albums of that time, it doesn’t fill me with much nostalgia. I think it’s because it still sounds revelatory. It still sounds new. Sure, it still brings me back to that kiddie pool in the middle of the quad were college kids were experimenting with new ideas and stumbling along the way. But it’s almost as if it’s a movie, not a memory, playing in my head. And every time I watch it, I see and hear something new. That’s genius.