Salute to the Past: RHCP’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
Hindsight, foresight, insight. Sometimes living in the past is the most fun, and we’re going to embrace that.
In hindsight, Blood Sugar Sex Magik — an album released by The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1991 — is one of the greatest rock albums ever produced. BSSM was RHCP’s fifth studio album, but this single composition is what absolutely catapulted the band into full on superstardom.
Made up of Anthony Kiedis (lead vocals), Chad Smith (drums), Flea (bass), and John Frusciante (guitar), the band exploded in popularity with this album as it hit top numbers on charts worldwide. The Blood Sugar Sex Magik Tour had a legendary opening show in Madison, WI, which started a roller coaster-like party of stops across the world that solidified the band as a top live show. Way to always do things the best way possible you weird, brilliant Madisonians.
What’s truly beautiful and magnetizing about the entire ensemble is that BSSM caught all four musicians in a creative peak, in a moment of absolute inspiration, dedication, and passion that bleeds heavily through each and every song.
The amount of creativity and uniqueness splashed all over BSSM is an anomaly. It’s fascinating that an album so complex with punk, funk, and metal became so popular. It’s a weird concoction of sounds; so unique, but still widely popular with the masses. In fact, it was so popular that John Frusciante couldn’t handle something so good being so damn popular and soon after quit the band. What a hipster.
However, as amazing as the Chili Peppers were on BSSM, it was producer Rick Rubin’s involvement that made it take off the way it did. His mission was to make the Chili Peppers accessible, and he overwhelmingly succeeded. The band wanted a hands-on, knowledgable producer that they could lean on for help. Rubin had the ideal experience working with ‘multi-genre’ artists, and it was his ability to craft sounds together — unique sounds — that blew up a lot of bands.
Rubin started Def Jam Records in 1983 at only twenty-years-old, and through his pure ability to identify talent, curate music, and push musicians to create, he helped catapult bands and artists into the spotlight. His production discography says it all.
(Editor’s note: seriously, if you haven’t actually seen a full list of Rubin’s productions, click that link. It’s mind blowing to see all those classics together in one place.)
Rubin was heavily involved with the success of Run-D.M.C in the 80’s. He would mix hip-hop with heavy rock, creating a catchy sound a wider audience was more comfortable with. He brought Run-D.M.C and Aerosmith together in 1986 to create a legendary collaboration, “Walk This Way,” which blew up as the hip-hop-hard-rock anthem worldwide. He soon after started working with the Beastie Boys, and they are the perfect example. His talent for making things work on a large scale, but most importantly keeping the roots of creativity and uniqueness as a main priority, made musicians sound catchy but never plastic. Rubin was solidified as an ‘untouchable’ producer early in the game, and at this point no one questioned him. He already had that “you’re a genius” type of respect while he was still in his twenties.
Warner Brothers, RHCP’s label at the time, needed to sell records. That loud, punky, heavy sound RHCP were so good at was not going to stick. They needed a tailored sound, and they needed some control. That’s what Rubin did. He found a way to control them. That had its effects, and I’m sure it polarized the fandom, but he didn’t compromise their oozing artistic creativity. The amount of emotion and intensity coupled with inter-disciplinary sounds and rhythms led to the best rock album I’ve ever gotten a chance to get into.
This is a unique blend of beats, lyrics, melodies, and instrumental experimentation. The impeccable, innovative production and talent behind Blood Sugar Sex Magik is evident in every single track. The magic is that the ground roots were not compromised. The musical talent, passion, and creativity was not drowned out. None of it took a back-seat. These were creative artists who found themselves in the heat of the spotlight.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik depended on passionate participation from every single band member. Every piece is instrumental in making this album as good as it is. Let’s get into seven of the songs. I hope you all enjoy this complex array of the most talented and unique bass, guitar, raps, and loud ass drum beats that have come together in our time.
1. “The Power of Equality”
This intro — to both the song and the album — is on point. The song as a whole is an excellent example of what the composition of the album is going to be like — the chaos that turns groovy. The loud, funky bass lines, the prevalence and importance of every performer. It’s all here. All the instruments and the singing have an intense, “I’m the front man” feel. It’s chaotic. It keeps its intensity but eventually starts to smooth out, and that noise becomes a bit more melodic. This is true of many other songs and a good reflection of the composition of the album overall.
The bass is right in the middle of things for the majority of “Equality.” Flea immerses himself in the funk, but it’s hardcore and metal too. He plays around with complex bass lines. Check out the transition at 1:00-ish. The amount of love the bass gets in this song, and album, makes it very fun to listen to.
Anthony Kiedis talks throughout the entirety of “Equality,” and well, that’s what makes the song so good. His raps are endless and sometimes seem mindless, but he directs the flow and overall feel the entire time. He changes pace at times. He changes voices or he gets to the hook. He really is the leader and is a big factor in why Blood Sugar Sex Magik is so melodic and catchy. His lyricism and poetry were at a peak.
Every song on this album has one very interesting similarity. Each one has a piece within it where the band loses its structure (and loses control somewhat) and they jam the fuck out. Every one is different, but at some point in each one, usually hidden later in the track, they get freaky and the instruments push their limits. These breaks and jam sessions show the potential behind each of the talented musicians. The breaks lead into drum solos, a monster bass solo, and most times a weird, emotional shredding by John Frusciante on guitar. Check out right around 1:47.
2. “If You Have to Ask”
BSSM was recorded to sound like those older one-track mixtapes. Some of the song transitions are the most powerful sound breaks in the album. Love that shit. Shout out to Rick Rubin, he made this album so easy to listen to. The intro guitar riff in “If You Have to Ask” is gold. So groovy.
The tone is generally different between the first two songs. The composition, not so much. Loud and in-your-face bass line? Check. Bars on bars of dark, dirty raps? Check. Quick snare-heavy drum beats? Check. High-pitched, catchy, and funky hook? Check.
At this point, if you have to ask what this album is going to be about you’re never really going to know. If you are feeling it, you probably already turned up the volume for the next chorus and that fun ass hook. Just in time for that late jam session.
Right around 2:09 the jam starts. All the instruments start losing control. First it’s Chad on the drums. He speeds up at about 2:19 and starts banging on his set more than ever. Then it’s the guitar. Frusciante goes on a hard, grungy solo where he pushes the sound of his guitar to its limit. It’s whiny and intense.
This becomes really common. The guitar goes on rare, weird solos. You can feel Frusciante’s frustration through the sounds the guitar makes. Almost as weirdly, he casually plays with synths early on — check out the riffs he drops at 0:50 and 1:49 (this was in 1991)!
It’s as if the hidden jams, like the one in “If You Have to Ask,” are where the producer and band give each other permission to show glimpses of the ability and passion behind their instruments and crafts. They are all people that push the limits. Those unique and emotional moments are what make this such a good album for a lot of fans. The most impactful and prevalent are with the guitar. The heavy, groovy bass lines are also a staple.
3. “Breaking the Girl”
All of a sudden we are tossed into an acoustic song. Such a big change of pace. It really doesn’t feel like it though. It flows perfectly with the overall balance of the album. Rick ya did it again, you a genius! That’s what’s impressive about BSSM — all the details both from a top-level and a micro-level. That’s what makes it so fun to listen to.
Despite being an acoustic song, “Breaking the Girl” still feels so strong and in your face. Everyone participates heavily. There is so much energy in their instruments. It builds up minute after minute, and then it all erupts at 3:02. Those moments make this album legendary (4:06 too).
4. “Funky Monks”
That intro bass line. Pay close attention to it the whole time. If any dipshit teenager ever asks for more bass, jam this deep into their soul. Those are fun sounds, someone is trying to have a dance party.
Even though it’s not as loud as the bass, the guitar is on par the entire time. It’s so funky it almost sounds like a bass. Like a really high-pitched, strung-out bass. It’s such a different sound, it’s almost like the guitar is singing. It hits individual notes in a really unique way. Check out the riff between 0:40–0:50. The bass is loud, but this album is littered with guitar riffs that are out of this world. Fun stuff.
“Funky Monks” is no different than the rest of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. At 2:36 things change. Jam time. Bass takes the lead. Then there’s a spacey guitar solo, freaky stuff, eventually leading to Kiedis saying, “What are you lookin’ at?” And all instruments lose control.
6. “I Could Have Lied”
“I Could Have Lied” is quiet but powerful. Frusciante shows off his broad spectrum of talent, and it sounds like he could probably do well with a classical guitar. This is another much needed and perfectly placed change of pace, just like “Breaking the Girl.” It’s an acoustic song, mostly about the lyrics, but that didn’t stop every instrument from joining in and trying to make interesting riffs and sounds.
Shoutout to Kiedis’ poetry, that can’t be left unsaid. He was, and is, a truly great lyricist. His words had some depth, but they had even more flow. Rhythm oozes out of him. He knows how to drive lines and repeat words, and he has the most powerful choruses out there. His hooks stick, but they make you sing along with a lot of emotion. You don’t get Kiedis’ lyrics stuck in your head; you choose to leave them in there.
Don’t miss out on the guitar solos in this one, they talk right back to Kiedis. It’s an awesome back and forth between the two.
8. “The Righteous & The Wicked”
That bass line rattles my bones. What an intro, so iconic of this album. The way the guitar chooses to come in, all dark and distorted, is completely different than the quick, uppity sound it actually has for most of the song. It’s those changes in energy, pace, and tone that make the album so good. This track has so many breaks and different rhythms and pieces, it’s a roller-coaster of pace. The contrast in sounds is magical. It can get nauseating and confusing, or it can unleash that energy that makes you dance, sing, and feel the emotions of the musicians.
16. “Sir Psycho Sexy”
This song is too good. I like long, dirty ballads. Someone’s parent said that… uh, I mean… Parental Advisory. Yeah, that. Have fun with this track, it’s their equivalent of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but way more LA-raised, punk-kids from the 80’s who have seen some shit and want to see some more shit. This song has so many different parts. It seems like it’s meant to have fun with. Its makeup is like it wants you to let go and get into the adventure.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a masterpiece of talented musicians, visionary producers, and the revamped early-90s rock scene. These four artists created perfect synergy, and all pushed their abilities to make a sound that was not just musically complex but fun and catchy. Rick Rubin was the perfect leader and the ideal mentor to take these extremely talented, raw artists and curate them into an emotional concoction that reflected their inner beings and still let audiences get into the groove of the music. These songs have a beginning, middle (which gets hazy), and end. At the same time, they are extremely creative, unique, and emotional.
What made this album so successful is that every artist played a huge role. The bass is imperative, but the guitar riffs give it even more funk. The lyrics are filthy, and that’s key. The hooks are all so catchy but so fucking emotional.
I can’t pin-point what I like the best or who stuck out the most. That’s truly what makes it so great. This group was at a creative peak and nobody was shying away or simply riding it out. This group of Funky Monks were on a mission to jam the fuck out and I just wonder if they were present enough to realize the magic they made when it all went down.
Keep an eye out for a new album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers this year. I’m not expecting something as beautiful as Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but that’s perfectly okay, because 24 years later I’m still discovering new piano riffs, trumpets, guitar licks, and synths inside this album. Salute to ‘91 and the mental state these artists were in that year.