Shaking Rumps, Rebellious Parties and Brass Monkeys
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beastie Boys/PHOTO CREDIT: Glen E. Friedman
The Beastie Boys and Me
EVERY one of us can recall…
the sounds and albums that struck our ears at a very young age. We might not be able to locate that first moment; when music stuck in the mind and the world seemed like a much more interesting place! I can recall the sort of music I was listening to when I was in primary-school but, by the early-1990s, there was this strange, awesome force of nature: the Beastie Boys. I first discovered them when the band’s album, Check Your Head, was released in 1992. The album – the third from the clan – was met with critical praise and acceptance. There were some who felt the vastness of the cross-pollination was, at times, confusing – they admired the ingenuity and boldness. Stormers like Gratitude and Jimmy James were atom bomb-sized mindblows that sounded unlike anything else I had ever heard. My only exposure to Hip-Hop and Rap at that time was with the likes of Arrested Development and De La Soul – two U.S. outfits that were more ‘Flower Power’ and peaceful in their mantras. They combined wit and humanist outlook with something less controversial and more colourful. I would be greeted with the opposite end of the spectrum a bit later down the line: Public Enemy, N.W.A. and their ilk would open my eyes in a very different way! Check Your Head fascinated me because of its sheer number of tracks (twenty) and the fact it possessed economy – there were short numbers and no song really drags.
After having something genuinely thrilling to talk about in the playground; I went back and ‘caught up’ on the Beastie Boys. Their 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill, contained their hits, Fight for Your Right and Brass Monkey – stone-cold classics that could be chanted, sung and hummed without too much disciplinary backlash! Paul’s Boutique – the 1989 masterpiece that, at first, divided critics – seemed to suggest what Check Your Head would be but, in a way, reached further than any Beastie Boys album. It remains untouchable and, when I heard it around age eleven, I could not believe all these samples and sounds fusing together to create something cinematic, biblical and head-melting. I still get the same feelings and effects at the age of thirty-five. The reason I am bringing up the Beastie Boys’ work now is that their memoir, Beastie Boys Book, is out on 30th October:
“A description on the Beastie Boys’ website called Beastie Boys Book as “a panoramic experience” and “a book as unique as the band itself.” It will cover the entirety of the group’s career, “revealing and very funny accounts of their transition from teenage punks to budding rappers; their early collaboration with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin; the almost impossible-to-fathom overnight success of their debut studio album Licensed to Ill; that album’s messy fallout; their break with Def Jam, move to Los Angeles, and rebirth as musicians and social activists, with the genre-defying masterpiece Paul’s Boutique.” No doubt the book will also touch on the Beastie Boys’ later years, including the tragic death of MCA in 2012”.
I will be rushing out to get it for a couple of reasons: the fact the band is, sadly, without all of their founding members makes me wonder how they address the death of MCA (Adam Yauch). I wonder, too, whether new material will come in the future – is it possible to have a Beastie Boys record without Yauch?! Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond and Adam ‘Ad-Roc’ Horovitz would be able to capture some of the spirit - but I wonder whether there would be a very discernible and noticeable gap?! (More on that later). Anyway…back to my experiences. Growing up in school meant inevitable discussion of Pop titans like Michael Jackson and Prince (bit of Soul and Funk in there) and, by the early-1990s, we had Grunge and Britpop coming in – the former died, I’d say, when Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) did in 1994; the latter sort of peaked a year later. There was that inevitable class-clash of Oasis (northern, working-class) and Blur (southern, lower-middle-class) and the styles each possessed – the more empathic, weed-infused togetherness of Oasis (that would be more coke-fuelled by 1997’s Be Here Now) and the cerebral, anthemic sounds that were always more Pop than Rock. Beastie Boys were the illicit and thrilling conversation that would bounce between buddies and newly-initiated – they were an American band and, at a time when British sounds were celebrated; it was almost taboo to mention a U.S. group with such passion!
Ill Communication and Hello Nasty (1994 and 1998) were the two albums when my love was cemented and indelible. The former record was not as lauded as previous efforts but, with the mighty Sabotage among its twenty tracks; who could resist the empathic and exhilarating song?! Its video, too – at a time when MTV was a thing and videos could only be seen on T.V. – raised plenty of laughs and school-yard parody. Gone (almost) were the samples and heavy use of older material: the boys brought more live instruments to the party and, whilst more organic in feel; the record still had that kaleidoscopic and cut-and-paste feel. Music at that time, from my experience, was a lot different to what the Beasties were serving up. Grunge was introverted and, at times, bleak whilst the Britpop shakers – throw Suede and Pulp into the blender! – were talking about their modern lives and the adventures, joys and missteps of existence. Beastie Boys went outside the nucleus and introduced people like me (and my chums) a side of America – and, for that matter, the world – we had never seen. From the early days (Beasties) of fighting for their right to party; the band were talking about strange characters, throwing in impressions, jokes and samples. It was more street-tough than the British alternative and, at the same time, seemed like a cooler and more elicit taste.
Almost like looking through the slat at a neighbourhood speakeasy: me and my clique knew the password and, as such, were welcomed into this heady and delirious world. Beastie Boys stood in the middle of the fire of Public Enemy and N.W.A. – black groups who were concerned with police violence, social injustice and discriminatory leaders – and the ‘ice’ of De La Soul and Arrested Development – an ethos that promoted coolness, fun and greater harmony. I am not suggesting Beastie Boys are/were the ‘warm water’ – although, if one stuck their hand into the Beastie Boys trough they’d pee themselves (I’ll drop the metaphor!). Regardless: the mid/late-1990s was a time of transition, discovery and growing up, for me. I was moving through high-school and, with it, the first tastes of what it was to be an adult. Holding my hand and keeping me company was the music of the Beastie Boys. One of my fondest memories of their music was listening to Intergalactic (Hello Nasty) in a school mate's, Stefan, bedroom. The window was open, the sun was shining and a game of footie was imminent – the pheromones of an enduring five-a-side swept through the neighbourhood like the smell of doughnuts at a fat camp! That song was the tip of an iceberg that combined Latin wiggle (Song for Junior) and Longue-Pop (Song for the Man). Intergalactic was the city-stomping, machine-processed gem that combined a sample from the 1985 film, The Toxic Avenger (as adapted from Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain) and a sound effect one can trace to Resonator from the 1986 film, From Beyond.
The fact a single song could combine such disparate and unusual sources shows how far ahead of their time they were. Their eclectic and scattershot (in terms of sounds) albums made me look more closely at music and compositions. It was not only about big choruses, familiar tableaus and the sounds of the top-forty: now, as adolescence academic took a big grab of the testicles; Beastie Boys were there ensure I got through things and strode on. I can trace my discovery and passion for music to the likes of Kate Bush (a true icon of mine) and The Beatles. Beastie Boys was my first real taste of American music: something far away from the scents and sights I was raised on and grew up around. If song titles like The Negotiation Limerick File (Hello Nasty) didn’t provoke further investigation then I/we knew you weren’t that cool. I had a lot of love for the chart-approved sounds but the Beastie Boys were the cool boys bringing beer to the bike sheds and cracking awesome jokes – it was a wonderful experience, indeed. The 1998-released record was the end of the ‘traditional’ Beastie Boys sound. I often associate To the 5 Boroughs as a new era and phase. Not only was it the first Beastie Boys album to be released in the twenty-first century (2004) but it came after a six-year gap (the longest between any Beasties album). Songs like Ch-Check It Out and An Open Letter to NYC harked back to the earlier, innocent sound of the band and led many to proclaim (To the 5 Boroughs) the most complete and stunning album since 1989’s Paul’s Boutique.
IN THIS PHOTO: Adam 'MCA' Yauch
2007’s The Mix-Up and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (what happened to the first part, you may wonder!) fared pretty well – the latter especially so; considering the cancer diagnosis delivered to MCA, it is amazing it got made at all. In fact, the reason there is no ‘part one’ is that of Adam Yauch’s cancer diagnosis. The band shelved the planned Hot Sauce Committee Part One and released Hot Sauce Committee Part Two instead – they were going to do a two-disc release but, following Yauch’s death in 2012, that was scrapped. I was five days shy of twenty-nine when MCA died and it felt like losing a long-term friend. It was a heartbreaking moment and I can only imagine how much shock and loss there was in the Beastie Boys camp. It was, to them, like losing a brother: the much-praised Hot Sauce Committee Part Two had a bittersweet quality. The boys were on top form and it seemed like they were producing the most exciting and natural work since their inception. Yauch’s death, aged forty-seven, was the last time I truly listened to the Beastie Boys. I felt things were over and it was a long time before I even heard one of their songs. The reason I have got back into them in a big way goes beyond the forthcoming memoir. I am, sure, fascinated to see what the surviving members have to say and get an idea of how Beastie Boys formed and how influential New York was in the 1980s.
Mike D and Ad-Rock have promised not to perform under the banner of Beastie Boys out of respect for MCA – one wonders if that means both artists will cease recording altogether. Although it is sad we will never get another Beastie Boys album; the fact they enjoyed four decades of fun, success and brotherhood is a huge achievement! Not many artists in this day and age can boast that longevity and sense of meaning – there is nobody quite like Beastie Boys. It is the fact Beastie Boys are unique and blew open the doors of Hip-Hop. From touring with Madonna (1985) and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (only a month before Adam Yauch died); it was a wild and amazing time that changed the world. It is a shame there is nobody like Beastie Boys out there in the world: maybe they were this celestial one-off that laid such a benchmark that nobody could legitimately follow it! I am pumped to get their memoir in my hand and bring back some tremendous memories. I have recovered from the gloom that filled my heart following MCA’s death in 2012 and (am) finding endless pleasure in spinning Beastie Boys L.P.s to my heart’s content. Right now, Ill Communication and Check Your Head are top of the pile – Paul’s Boutique is never far away and always there if I need an instant blast of gratification. If you are unaware of the Beastie Boys – or have been a bit neglectful regarding their albums and what they mean – I urge you to get back into the swing and let their music do its work. A perfect afternoon would be listening to their albums and laughing, cheering and singing at the embarrassing riches that come forth. Whilst one of its founding brothers has departed the world; it is clear the spirit and genius of Beastie Boys will live on…
PHOTO CREDIT: Lynn Goldsmith
FOR generations to come!
The Beastie Boys’ memoir, Beastie Boys Book, is available from 30th October through Spiegel & Grau/Random House
ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Associated Press