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A Postmodern Analysis of Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach”

By David Sklar

Postmodern cultural texts abandon traditional notions of content and continuity. A text does not tell a single story–it may be fragmented into many different messages. References and examples are to other media creations and images, as recursive copies of copies abound. In addition, a postmodern piece may exhibit a kind of self-consciousness. While traditional texts adhere to standards of construction or objectivity that aim to make the creator invisible, postmodernist texts often reference themselves. These elements are found on “Shadrach,” a song on Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, an example of postmodern culture.

Self-reference is evident in multiple places in the text. The most striking example is in the song’s title and its chorus, “We’re just 3 MCs and we’re on the go / Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego.” The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is told in Chapter 3 of the biblical writings of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Jews living under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. The king built a golden statue and decreed that all of his subjects had to bow down to it when they heard official sacred music. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as Jews, refused to worship any such idol. The king, incensed at their behavior, ordered them cast into a burning furnace. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego consented, believing that their god would save them. To the king’s surprise and amazement, the three Jews were not burned; instead they danced gleefully in the flames. Seeing this display of the power of the Jewish god, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the flames extinguished, and commanded all in his realm to obey the god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Similarly, the three members of Beastie Boys, Jews in the predominantly non-Jewish world of rap, resisted the temptation to make an album like all of its contemporaries. Paul’s Boutique was a strong departure from the daily bread of the 1989 rap scene. It pioneered the dense usage of samples and beats that predominated rap just a few years later. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego won over the Babylonians by staying true to their beliefs, Beastie Boys attempted and succeeded at the same maneuver in the rap world by staying true to their (then) unconventional musical ideals.

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