Beastie Down, Part 3: Hello Nasty, where u been?

Part 1, Part 2, and now, this.

It was the spring of 1998. I was sixteen years old, and had a Ford Explorer that could fit most of my friends for a ride around and/or across town. We mostly rolled as a crew of six — three guys, three girls — bound by innocent and unassuming friendship and the Methodist church we all went to. We went to concerts, slept in each others’ basements, covered the houses of rivals in toilet paper, and on a tiny handful of occasions, got plastered. 

We had — for the first time in our lives — absolute freedom. We also had Licensed to Ill on perpetual repeat.

Sure. I knew the Beastie Boys. I had bought Ill Communication on CD so I could repeatedly listen to “Sabotage” a few years prior. But I didn’t listen to much else of it. I had Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head too, but only because I had seen them in the collection of someone whom I deemed much cooler than I. And of course I knew “Fight For Your Right.” You couldn’t emerge from the eighties without having the teenaged battle cry pounded into your conscious. Even if you didn’t know who the Beastie Boys were, you knew that chorus. 

You Gotta Fight! <insert two power chords>

For Your Right! <two more power chords>

To paaaar-tay!

Sure, it’s a good song. An epochal moment of rock n’ roll slamming into rap — but the other songs surrounding it on the album were beginning to scream into my soul. Deeply and often. I used to skip around CDs and only listen to the hits as a youth, but my friends insisted on playing Licensed to Ill front-to-back. I quickly realized why. Each and every song had moments and jokes and personality that demanded not only to be heard, but celebrated. Each ensuing track made riding around town all the more fun. Mike D, AdRock, and MCA were fast and furious and funny, but I began to wonder just who the hell these guys really were. The music was rich and dense and layered in samples and references to pick apart. I remember feeling stunned to realize there were actually only three dudes (and not thirteen) dropping all this knowledge, all these names.

By 1998, the Beasties had been in relative hibernation for almost four years. The musical landscape was still written, produced, directed, and mixed by corporate radio and Mtv playlists. Napster wasn’t a thing yet. Grunge had died off, 2pac and Biggie were dead, then here comes Marilyn Manson, Puff Daddy, and the Backstreet Boys claiming their place at the cultural zenith. Nothing felt very cool for very long. I bought a CD burner and was making my own mixes. I liked music a lot until the summer of 1998. 

I was about to fall in fucking love with it.

One June night, the sun was setting and I was driving my friend Ryan home. We scanned the usual radio stations, and something jumped out at us. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. It sounded like a trash compactor talking over a breakbeat, then, familiar voices flying at 100 mph. There was a feeling of shock in the car. Is THIS the Beastie Boys? We kept listening, on edge, glancing at each other, feeling every beat that was rattling the car frame. And then:

Beat-sie Boys known to let the beat… mmm… drop!

Serotonin flooded the car. We almost had a shared aneurysm. Holy shit, the Beastie Boys were coming back. Out of nowhere. We didn’t know what the song was called until we tracked it down that night in an mp3 chat room on America Online. It took thirty minutes to download “Intergalactic,”  the lead single for the Beastie Boys’ fifth album, Hello Nasty. The B-boys had returned from exile with a song that claimed the obvious: they were indeed out of this world, neck deep in another, and they solidified their argument for posterity in under four minutes.

Their three voices never sounded so clear-eyed, so full-hearted. The hiss and crackle of Check Your Head and Ill Communication had turned into something more alloyed and more refined. The Beasties had aged like wine. Older than most in the pop game, far from ready to cede the throne.

“Intergalactic” made me certifiably insane for the Beastie Boys. Hello Nasty was a few weeks away from hitting stores, so I tore the Internet apart to find anything and everything they had ever done. I purchased VHS releases full of their original videos and skits and jokes, then learned the biography of each emcee. I was never more happier to spend fifteen bucks than the day I drove to Blockbuster Video to buy that album.

Hello Nasty remained a highly curated mixtape in the vein of Check Your Head and Ill Communication. Afrika Bambaattaa makes a cameo on the dub-happy “Dr. Lee, PHD,” MCA whisper-sings over an acoustic guitar during “I Don’t Know,” and Ad-Rock gently meditates with a vibraphone on his eventual demise, closing the album with “Instant Death.” MCA’s apology to the female population on “Sure Shot” goes a step further on “Song for the Man,” when Ad-rock lectures the macho goofs the Beasties used to be: “What gives you the right to look her up and down?” Hip hop was the glue holding every other style of surrounding music together. Across the funkiest takes of jazz, rock, bossanova, and spacey ballads, the Beasties were still managing to do things they had never done on record, having more fun than they ever did on Licensed to Ill. 

Minus the drugs and alcohol. Plus greying temples. Plus motherfucking Mix Master Mike.

Mix Master had not only laid the beat for the Hello Nasty banger “3 MCs and 1 DJ,” he was touring the world as the Beasties’ hired gun disc jockey, chopping up their nightly performances into an unpredictable seven-course dinner. His hands flew across two turntables and a mixer, shaming any other DJ that had touched a pair of Technics 1200s.

Mix Master never played it safe, throwing any and all kind of beats at the boys during each song. “So What’cha Want” could turn into Ice Cube’s “Tonight’s Da Night,” and “Shake Your Rump” could morph into Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” Any live bootleg from the era is a white-knuckle rollercoaster, different from every other ride. (And yes, I still curse myself for not driving to a show in Atlanta, just a few hours away that summer. More on that later.)

In case anyone had slept on the Beasties’ fifth album and triumphant return, they amplified a couple of visceral statements to a national viewing audience during the night of the 1998 MTV Music Video Awards. First, an electrifying performance. With Mix Master Mike on the decks, the Beasties blew every other act away with a brief “3 MCs and 1 DJ” interlude that bled into “Intergalactic.” In matching red coveralls, Mike D, Adrock, and MCA slam danced across the stage, spit rhymes, and delivered one of the most charged television performances of their career.

Later that night, Chuck D of Public Enemy introduced the band and awarded them the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, placing the Beasties in the company of Madonna, the Rolling Stones, and Guns n’ Roses. Mike D made a few shoutouts, then, MCA stepped forward. Instead of basking in the limelight or making an absolute joke of the event as he did four years prior, he made a statement. A statement that can’t be heard in 2018 without a lump in one’s throat, blinking back tears, mulling over everything that has happened since. 

Yauch saw the world differently than anyone, even his brothers in arms, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. Three years before two airplanes flew into the World Trade Center of his hometown, MCA said to the world:

“Yeah, uh, in addition to thanking everybody that’s worked on all the videos and all the people that have worked with us over the years, it’s kind of a rare opportunity that one gets to speak to this many people at once. So, if you guys will forgive me, I just wanted to speak my mind on a couple of things. 

I think it was a real mistake that the US chose to fire missiles into the Middle East. I think that was a huge mistake, I think that it’s very important that the United States start to look to non-violent means of resolving conflicts.

Because if we… [crowd applause] Hang on, hang on, give me one second here. 

Those bombings that took place in the Middle East were thought of as a retaliation by the terrorists, and if we thought that what we did is retaliation, certainly we’re going to find more retaliation from people in the Middle East. From terrorists, specifically, I should say, because most Middle-Eastern people are not terrorists. I think that’s another thing that America really needs to think about is our racism – racism toward Muslim people and Arabic people and that’s something that has to stop. The United States has to start respecting people from the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that’s been building up over many years. 

So, I thank everyone for their patience in letting me speak my mind.”

This is yet another moment in the vein of MCA’s verse on “A Year and a Day,” taking a side step out of Beastie bombast, and shaking the listener to pay attention to what really matters. Exactly one year later, the B-boys won another Mtv video award for “Intergalactic,” and the band approached the dais. Ad-rock followed MCA’s lead by calling out all of the reported rapes a month prior at the Woodstock 1999 Festival, begging his peers to take notice of this growing trend at rock shows, and further more, take action to prevent this behavior. Before the turn of the millenium, Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA had become far more than pop stars — they were purveyors of what is and will always be cool.

And coolness is having courage.

Hit up Part 4, wont’cha?

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