Beastie Down, Part 5: Dear New York…

Hey! Wait? Did you read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4? Ok then…

After the Rhyme and Reason tour with Rage Against the Machine was cancelled in the summer of 2000, the Beastie Boys went into hibernation from the public eye. The calendar turned to 2001, and Ad-rock released another record with Eric “AWOL” Amery under their side project, BS2000 (the final release from Grand Royal Records before it closed up shop). 

Then, the unthinkable, the unimaginable. Until it happened. 

The Beastie Boys’ home turf of Manhattan was attacked on September 11, 2001. The twin towers came down, and no one knew what to think, what to feel. A long list of perennial radio hits were declared unfit to air in the wake of the tragedy; “Sabotage” not excluded. I have memories of MCA Adam Yauch appearing on MTV — dour, dire, searching for words of hope for the future to a studio audience. The next couple of years seem like a blur, maybe I prefer them that way. The US went to war in Afghanistan, and instead of America coming together in the wake of a tragedy, we were split apart by fear, propaganda, and warmongering. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys were for all intents and purposes inactive. They had aged into respected voices, yet absent, and needed more than ever.

The Beastie Boys emerged from a hiatus in March of 2003, releasing the track “In a World Gone Mad” on their website, right as the United States was about to attack Iraq. I could only listen to it once before wanting to forget it. The Beastie Boys were mad, fed up, and I guess, unwilling to sit back any longer without protesting. Like Phil Connors told the groundhog, “Don’t drive angry.” No other track in the Beastie Boys’ pantheon is as forced, wack, or forgettable. It’s a rare blemish in their three-decade playlist, but it does remain a moment of defiance when many other prominent voices remained silent.

Either way, “In a World Gone Mad” remains a political version of “Alive.” At least there wasn’t a video.

Just over one year later, the Beastie Boys officially returned from exile with a lead single, “Ch-Check It Out,” an augury of their sixth album, To the 5 Boroughs, to be released in the summer of 2004. Six years removed from Hello Nasty, the record lies far outside the heights of Beastie Mania, and functions as a snapshot of the latter-day Beasties who were about to enter their forties. With six years between albums, there was no excuse to not release a record on their own terms. For the first time since Paul’s Boutique, they fully invested in hip hop. No funky jazz cuts, no Biz Markie goofing off, no hardcore thrash. 

Just Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA trading rhymes over beats, once again.

To the 5 Boroughs isn’t a bad album. It’s mostly laid back fun, but hardly as intriguing as anything that came before in the prior five records. There is no huge radio hit here, no wanderlust, no epic music video that reincarnated them before the eyes of the audience. For the first time in fifteen years, the three emcees had to fill an entire album with non-stop knowledge. “Triple Trouble” was the second single off the album, riding on the strength of a chopped up sample from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” and the turntable chops of Mix Master Mike. Elsewhere, the rhymes are mostly overtly political or silly. The chorus hooks are merely passable. The beats are entirely underwhelming. Throughout the first five Beastie records, I commonly ask myself, “How the hell did they come up with this stuff?” and that question rarely poses itself at any point during To the 5 Boroughs. 

At the very worst, they sound like three guys trying to be the Beastie Boys. At the very best is “An Open Letter to NYC.”

This centerpiece of the record exposes most of the other songs for what they are: harmless, hammy fun. It is here the Beasties open their veins and release the trauma, the hope, and the defiance of New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11. Musically, lyrically, emotionally – nothing else on the record compares to it. “An Open Letter” champions the same spirit that instilled itself in the Beasties as they turned from boys into men, and filled their music with the versatility that could only be found throughout the city blocks of New York.

Personally, selfishly, I was just glad to have the Beasties back in 2004. Their presence on late-night television and magazine covers was a thrill after a long, uncertain break. And they were touring again. My six-year dream came true when I caught the Beastie Boys (with Mix Master Mike!) live in the fall of 2004. I couldn’t convince any of my friends to make the three-hour road trip with me, and I didn’t care. I got to the arena at noon and basically rushed the doors when they opened. Talib Kweli and a dog show functioned as the opening acts, and there was zero tolerance for moshing. I was right on the rail all night, watching the Beastie Boys live and in-person from six feet away. If I wasn’t rapping along with them, my mouth was agape, or smiling with pure, dumbfounded amazement. They were intent on putting on a show — there were costume changes, baby-blue tuxedos for the jazzy tunes, and a little side stage in the middle of the crowd where they performed a fiery take of “Intergalactic.” Mix Master let the beat of “Paul Revere” play while the crowd rapped the lyrics in unison, while the boys jumped around, chiming in at opportune moments. They closed the show with “Sabotage,” in full costume from Spike Jonze’s video, sending everyone home happy.

It had taken six years for me to see them, and I knew it was entirely possible I wouldn’t see them again for years to come. I never took one second of it for granted.

The Beastie Boys returned in 2004 with something that most people likely wanted from them — a straight up hip hop joint — but time had not made the hearts of fans grow fonder. Those six years between records instilled a separation from their audience, and for the first time in a long time, the masses didn’t hoist the Beastie Boys upon their shoulders and carry them around the field. They were still Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA, but they had not done anything with To the 5 Boroughs they hadn’t done before.

Still, I can’t call To the 5 Boroughs a failure. Perhaps it’s most significant shortcoming is it does not bring the impassioned reactions from myself, or anyone else for that matter, that came with every preceding Beastie album. Fans don’t hate on it, they don’t seem to love it. I’ve never heard much of a sniffle about it. Regardless, I consider it a vital snapshot of the band at a strange, mournful time where they may not have known what else to do other than vent their feelings en masse. I’ll gladly take this album in place of nothing.

For any lack of innovation on that record’s part, Adam Yauch donned his alias of Nathaniel Hornblower to direct a concert film, Awesome! I Fucking Shot That… enlisting dozens of audience members to film an October 2004 gig at Madison Square Garden with handheld Super 8 video cameras. Yauch’s film does more than capture the band’s live experience, he puts the viewer in the crowd’s shoes for almost two hours. Even in the toilet stalls.

2004 was a wonderful time for a hardcore Beastie Boys fan to reconnect with their favorite band, but it felt like no one else did. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA promptly receded from the stage, and wouldn’t return with another album for three more years.

One thought on “Beastie Down, Part 5: Dear New York…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s