Beastie Boys More Rhymes Than Grey Hairs
Published Jun 01, 2004It was a joke. At least that's what most people thought when a trio of obnoxious Jewish teenagers who rapped about "wenches on benches" and "bitties with titties" first emerged. Who would have thought they'd transform into one of hip-hop's longest-running and most respected crews? They were whiney brats whose fans joined frats; sexist and obnoxious videos offered perfect accompaniment to their beer-swilling party image. In short, the Beastie Boys were considered a black eye on rap music. But when the joke got stale and the press had a field day, Adam Horovitz, Michael Diamond and Adam Yauch headed for the underground. Since then, they've dropped a series of genre-surfing recordings that have been bronzed as true classics. They founded a record label and a magazine, and raised awareness for Tibet all while releasing jazz, hardcore and bluegrass records. It's been almost 20 years since we were first introduced to the crashing Led Zeppelin break beat that opens Licensed to Ill. With To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys return – to the studio after a long hiatus, and to their NYC roots. They're pushing 40, but still pushing the musical envelope.
1979 to 1981
Young Aborigines drummer Michael Diamond meets Adam Yauch at a Bad Brains show in New York and the two become close friends through their love of hardcore music. Yauch begins showing up at Aborigines practices; when founding bassist Jeremy Shatan goes home to do his homework, Adam takes over. When Yauch is on bass duty, the Aborigines (including percussionist Kate Schellenbach and guitarist John Berry) call themselves the Beastie Boys, a purposefully stupid name for their joke attempt at being one of New York's first hardcore bands. The new line-up debuts at Yauch's 17th birthday party. Record store owner Dave Parsons asks them if they'd be interested in releasing their first record on his new label, Rat Cage.
1982 to 1984
The Beastie Boys record at Studio 171 A and emerge with their first EP, Polly Wog Stew, in early 1982. Guitarist Berry becomes less interested in the band and starts showing up to rehearsal high on crystal meth. He eventually leaves the group and the remaining members call on Young and the Useless guitarist and Beastie Boys fan Adam Horovitz to take his place just as the band begins to discover Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang. This new love for hip-hop results in "Cookie Puss," a recorded prank call to Carvel Ice Cream Cakes with sloppy beats and scratching, over which Diamond insists on speaking with Cookie Puss, the name of one of their character cakes. The single starts getting some rotation on college radio; the group decide to incorporate more hip-hop imagery into their live show and they ask friend Rick Rubin to DJ for them. Rubin's sexist attitude rubs off on the three male members of the band and disgusts Schellenbach. When she returns from a weekend getaway to find that Rubin has purchased matching Adidas jumpsuits and do-rags for the rest of the crew, she realises she's being phased out. In 1984, Rubin teams up with Russel Simmons to start Def Jam Records, and they sign Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, who've adopted stage names Mike D (Diamond), MCA (Yauch) and the King Ad Rock (Horovitz). The record label is run from Rubin's messy NYU dorm room, which is littered with numerous demo tapes sent in by hip-hop hopefuls. A cassette mailed in by a 16-year-old James Todd Smith is fished out by Ad Rock and brought to Rubin's attention; Smith's subsequent record deal with make him famous as LL Cool J. Mike D demonstrates his business acumen by successfully suing British Airways for $40,000 U.S. for using portions of "Cookie Puss" in one of their commercials without permission. The trio uses the money to move into a dodgy Chinese sweatshop next door to a Korean whorehouse in Manhattan's lower east side.
After failing to get Run DMC as an opener, Madonna asks the Beastie Boys to join her Virgin tour. Excessive use of the word "fuck," crotch-grabbing and on-stage beer drinking are met with constant boos from Madonna's young fans, and MCA has to ask the Material Girl herself for permission to stay on the tour. Being a fan of the Beastie Boys' antics she agrees. While on the road, the trio unveils their first Def Jam release, the Rock Hard EP, but it's withdrawn just as quickly due to an illegal AC/DC sample. The Beastie Boys drop their "She's On It" twelve-inch, which reeks of Rick Rubin's love for cheesy heavy metal. They shoot their own video, a ridiculous story of the boys using Loony Tunes tactics and Spanish Fly to try to catch the eye of a bikini-clad woman on a beach. The b-side of "She's On It" is a discarded Run DMC song called "Slow and Low," which Beastie Boys cover word for word, only changing "D sees real well 'cause he has four eyes" to "White Castle fries only come in one size." With radio DJ Doctor Dre now manning the decks, the crew starts to build a fan base while on Run DMC's Raising Hell tour, finally exposing them to an intrigued yet sceptical hip-hop audience.
Licensed To Ill, the Beastie Boys' debut effort, is finally released and becomes the first hip-hop record to reach number one on the charts. Produced by Rick Rubin and originally titled Don't Be a Faggot, Licensed To Ill is a groundbreaking effort, helping to expose hip-hop to the mainstream. Though the record spawns hip-hop tales such as "Paul Revere" and "Slow Ride," it's the heavy metal-tinged singles "Fight for Your Right" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" that connect with non-rap fans. The lyrics are sexist and the flows are grating, but the energy is undeniable and Licensed To Ill becomes a rebellious teenage anthem. The record originally contains a hip-hop version of the Beatles' "I'm Down" but it is refused clearance by Michael Jackson, who owns the rights.
The boys set off on their own tour with Fishbone, incorporating a girl dancing in a cage and a 25-foot inflatable penis into their stage show. DJ Hurricane replaces a departing Doctor Dre halfway through the tour. The Boys live out their rock'n'roll fantasies by smashing up hotel rooms and tossing furniture into swimming pools. Freshly-signed Def Jam artists Public Enemy replace Fishbone on tour as the Beastie Boys become increasingly popular with frat boys, thanks to idiotic music videos that depict the crew as womanising party animals. "The shows were sold out," MCA would write in the liner notes to 1999's Sounds of Science anthology. "It seemed like there was nothing to do but keep coming out on stage every night drinking beer and playing the role. By drinking so much beer and acting like sexist macho jerks, we actually became just that." Poor management by Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons leads to the cancellation of a planned Beastie Boys movie, written by MCA, entitled Scared Stupid. The relationship between Def Jam and the Beastie Boys starts to dissolve.
1987 to 1988
The Boys arrive in England and find apprehension from those who've been following their antics in North America. Russel Simmons plays up the "bad boy" angle by having MCA punch Run DMC's Jam Master Jay in the face in order to get headlines. During a show in Liverpool, fans throw bottles and cans at the stage and Ad Rock hits them back with a baseball bat. A full can allegedly hits a female fan in the face and Ad Rock spends two days in jail as a result. After being turned down for an autograph request, one woman tells the group that she's going to spread lies to the British press. The next day, The Daily Mirror runs a front page story claiming that the Beastie Boys taunted terminally ill leukaemia patients under the headline "Pop Idols Sneer at Dying Kids." "It's an obvious lie," Ad Rock tells British teen magazine, Smash Hits. "Someone's out to get us for some reason. They've got it in their minds that we're these raving lunatics." Radio stations urge listeners not to buy their records and Def Jam/Columbia begins receiving death threats.
Rick Rubin urges the band to begin recording a follow-up in order to capitalise on their momentum, but the band is mentally and physically exhausted – not to mention increasingly frustrated with Rubin and Def Jam. After a year of legal conflict, they manage to wrangle themselves away from the label. The group moves from New York to L.A., where Ad Rock begins dating teen movie superstar Molly Ringwald and makes his acting debut in Lost Angels with Donald Sutherland. Now considered a one trick pony, they sign a very cheap deal with Capitol records. At a party, Ad Rock hears production team the Dust Brothers play elaborate, multi-layered hip-hop beats.
1989 to 1991
Though at the time considered commercial suicide, the Beastie Boys manage to make a legendary album with their sophomore effort, Paul's Boutique. With the Dust Brothers handling production, the album is a drug-influenced nod to funk, soul and classic rock that samples everything from Johnny Cash to the Beatles (to date considered off limits to sample seekers). Despite the lack of commercial success, Paul's Boutique is a musical breakthrough that completely sheds the Beastie Boys' macho image and paints them as gifted songwriters with far smarter lyrics than anyone could expect. The record company decides not to provide tour support unless Paul's Boutique goes platinum and produces a hit single, which it doesn't. The band, pleased to have a record to be proud of, rent a house in Los Angeles that they dub the G Spot, after the couple who owns it, the Grasshoffs. The Boys raid the couple's closet and find numerous funk outfits, which they often wear in public, giving inspiration to their disco-themed "Hey Ladies" video. The band releases a rare EP entitled Love American Style, which contains the singles "Shadrach" and "Hey Ladies," but it's the flip side of instrumental remixes by the Dust Brothers that are the most jaw-dropping. Mike D drunkenly crashes his car into the wooden gate of G Spot and Paul's Boutique engineer Mario Caldato Jr. suggests they hire his carpenter friend, Keyboard Money Mark. The piano-playing woodworker also lends a hand in the construction of the Beastie Boys' recording studio, G-Son, which includes an indoor skateboard ramp and basketball court.
1992 to 1993
Money Mark joins the Beastie Boys line-up prompting them to pick up their instruments again. The band's third record, Check Your Head, is yet another transformation, blending jazz and punk with lo-fi hip-hop and songs about spirituality. The album is produced by Mario Caldato Jr., who insists the boys deliver more hip-hop tracks when the record is heavily weighted by the band's high output of live instrumentation. The album's artistic merits are in part a product of having their own studio, where they experiment with offbeat recording techniques, giving life to grainy beats and now-signature vocal distortion. Fans unaware of their hardcore history are surprised by Head's instrumental dexterity. Check Your Head reaches number one and the Beastie Boys tour for the first time in five years.
Ad Rock takes another stab at acting with a lead role in 1992's Roadside Prophets. Long-time friend and former Young and the Useless member Dave Scilken dies of a drug overdose and the Beastie Boys head back to New York for the funeral, where they reconnect with Kate Schellenbach, who is drumming for a new band called Luscious Jackson. The Boys start a record label, Grand Royal; while Check Your Head sports its logo, Luscious Jackson's In Search of Manny is the label's first official release. (They would go on to release a diverse range of albums, from Ween to the Ben Lee-fronted Noise Addict.)
Grand Royal is also an ambitious magazine – brimming with inside jokes, flexi singles of Biz Markie singing Elton John and iron-on transfers – that covers a range of topics, from Bruce Lee to Lee Perry, but issues are sporadic and oft-delayed. Mike D helps launch a clothing line and store called X-Large and helps Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon with the start-up of X-Girl. Ad Rock is falsely accused of hitting a Hard Copy cameraman during a private ceremony at his house for friend River Phoenix, who had died from a drug overdose. Mike D marries CB4 director Tamra Davis while MCA travels to Nepal, where he becomes very connected with Tibetan culture.
1994 to 1997
Riding the success of Check Your Head, the band puts Ill Communication together in six months, their shortest gap between releases. Their fourth record is also the first time the band sticks to a formula and delivers more live instrumentation, punk rock and bugged-out hip-hop. "Instead of reinventing the wheel, we rotated the tires," Mike D tells Toazted. The album provides glimpses into Yauch's newfound love of Buddhism with two musical tributes; the royalties of these songs are used to launch the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit organisation to raise awareness of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Spike Jonze-directed video for "Sabotage," an homage to '70s cop shows, drives their biggest single since "Fight For Your Right," launching Jonze's career into the stratosphere as well. After losing the MTV Music Video Award to R.E.M. (for "Everybody Hurts"), MCA's Swiss alter-ego, Nathaniel Hornblower, storms the stage and declares the award show a farce as Michael Stipe looks on in confusion.
The Boys co-headline Lollapalooza with the Smashing Pumpkins, playing to increasingly diverse crowds. "It's all crossing over," Mike D tells Toazted. "You've got b-boys moshing and wearing Doc Martins and punk rock kids doing the hip-hop pogo and rocking old school Adidas." Aglio e Olio, a tiny hardcore EP, is released and they perform a series of shows decked in orange jumpsuits under the name Quasar. Yauch organises a two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco with the Beastie Boys headlining, drawing 100,000 people; it's the largest benefit concert in America since Live Aid. Paul's Boutique finally goes platinum.
After two records in two years, the Beastie Boys take their longest break yet before dropping Hello Nasty. It features their return to New York, and world champion scratch DJ Mix Master Mike replaces Hurricane on the decks. Ad Rock's love for old school electronic hip-hop takes centre stage – the beats are large and the raps sound like their Licensed To Ill days. The crew even ropes in Lee Perry to drop knowledge on one of the band's more confusing songs, while Luscious Jackson's Jill Cuniff and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori are the first women on a Boys record. The Hello Nasty tour is large scale, with a revolving stage, stiff choreography in matching lab coats and dozens of television monitors as well as a substantially heavier DJ presence by Mix Master Mike.
1999 to 2003
The band releases The Sounds of Science, a two-disc anthology chronicling the band from punk to present, as well as a DVD anthology of videos. The trio gets animated on Futurama, playing themselves as floating heads in a jar. Ad Rock writes an apologetic letter to Time Out New York: "I would like to formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record," the letter stated. "There are no excuses, but time has healed our stupidity. We hope that you'll accept this long overdue apology." The band plan to kick off the Rhyme and Reason tour with Rage Against the Machine in the summer of 2000, but Mike D injures himself in a biking accident, postponing the tour. When he's healed, the tour is cancelled altogether due to the internal problems amongst the members of Rage Against the Machine, who split up. For a laugh Mike D records several bluegrass songs under the name Country Mike, which make the rounds as a bootleg before getting a formal release by Grand Royal in 2000. It turns out to be one of the label's last releases; they shut their doors in 2001 due to "mounting debts, decreasing assets and exceedingly harsh industry conditions," according to Mike D's official statement. The label goes up for grabs on the online auction site Bid4Assets.com. For a minimum bid of $10,000, potential purchasers have the chance to gain the label's entire inventory, including master tapes and loads of merchandise. After the terrorist attacks on New York City, the Beastie Boys and Milarepa organise the New Yorkers Against Violence two-day benefit at the Hammerstein Ballroom, followed by an anti-war protest song from the Boys called "In a World Gone Mad." The track is free to download from the Beastie Boys' website, but it's universally agreed that the song is crap.
With the release of To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys squash any rumours of a possible break-up and finally drop their follow-up to Hello Nasty, now six years old. The lead single, "Ch-Check It Out," makes its debut on teen soap opera The O.C; it's along the same wavelength as Hello Nasty – old school raps and galactic break beats. For the first time ever the album is produced entirely by the Beastie Boys and doubles as a tribute to New York. The Beastie Boys are entering their 40s and MCA and Mike D are now fathers, but they don't seem to be letting up anytime soon as fans still look to this trend-setting trio to deliver the next shit.
THE ESSENTIAL BEASTIE BOYS
Paul's Boutique (1989, Capitol)
No one really expected the Beastie Boys to even release a second record, let alone a groundbreaking masterpiece. Everyone from Eric B to KRS One bugged out when they first heard the Dust Brother's ability to mash hundreds of samples into one track, and the boys themselves had increased their lyrical game to complement the energy. Recorded at a time when sample clearance was less restrictive, the Beastie Boys had no limitations and nothing to lose after their Def Jam days.
Check Your Head (1992, Grand Royal/Capitol)
Their first departure from strict hip-hop. Check Your Head defined the sound they still follow today, delivering slow-paced jazz and funk while combining deliberate fuzz and static on the mic to give life to aggressive rap attacks. A record with so many b-sides, Check Your Head could have been a solid double disc.
The Sounds of Science (1999, Grand Royal/Capitol)
An anthology of their career that includes all the hits, but more importantly a good dose of alternate mixes and rare b-sides that are amongst their best tracks. Over 40 songs are mashed together out of chronological order, but given the diversity of the Beastie Boys it seems to flow. Of course not every essential cut is present, such as "Rock Hard" or the Love American Style epics, but it's the best way to round out your knowledge.