Nooowwww, here’s a little story I got ta tell about three bad… wait. Scratch that.
King Ad-rock was lying in “Paul Revere.” There wasn’t once three. There were four. Sing along to it all you want, but here’s how it really went. The Beastie Boys formed on MCA Adam Yauch’s seventeenth birthday in August of 1981. Yauch held bass duties, Mike D was on lead vocals, John Berry was on guitar, and Kate Schellenbach was on drums. Teenagers banging out chords and screaming over them, as they always will. A clever acronym for B.E.A.S.T.I.E. turned out to be a helluva lot more than a juvenile joke. It was the guiding mantra for the band for the next thirty years.
Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence.
Anarchy did reign, at least creatively. The foursome didn’t last, but the name and modus operandi did. Berry got hooked on drugs and quit the band in 1982, and a sixteen-year-old Adam Horovitz was waiting in the wings to replace him. Horovitz played guitar and had his own band, The Young and the Useless, and joined the ranks, immediately shaking up the formula.
By now, the Beasties had released one hardcore EP, Polly Wog Stew, but the rich, creamy musical palette smeared across the city blocks of New York was drawing the band toward hip hop and reggae. Instead of Bad Brains, the Beastie Boys wanted to be the white man’s Treacherous Three. As Horovitz tells it, he went to the guitar shop one day with an envelope of money, and instead of a Rickenbacker, bought a drum machine. The fork was in the road, and he took it.
With Horovitz’s new toy, the Beastie Boys forsook hardcore music and made a song that is as unclassifiable as much as their catalog. It wasn’t hip hop. Not rock n’ roll. Not like anything I’ve ever heard. It was called “Cooky Puss.” More like a squirt of jism; an embryonic cluster of cells holding the DNA of everything the Beastie Boys would produce afterward. A silly, catchy, offensive inside joke — worthy of being examined endlessly. A breakbeat plays throughout. There’s no rapping, just bored teenagers dialing up a Carvel ice cream parlor, harassing the person at the other end of the line and trying to find “Cooky Puss.”
The beat doesn’t sound like a Roland TR-808, or any other notable synthesizer. The four-note riff that plays on a loop might be a guitar, might be a keyboard. (Beastie Boys Book confirms this is actually Yauch playing bass!) There isn’t even a chorus. Anarchy reigns throughout with samples of Steve Martin, and the prior Beastie releases “Transit Cop” and “Beastie Boys” chopped up and mixed in. When a record starts scratching, it sounds as if a teenager has gotten a hold of a turntable for the first time — eager, naive, oblivious as to what might happen to move the needle back and forth in the groove.
“Cooky Puss” is a record that only could have been made by kids with nothing to lose. I can picture them all laughing their asses off as they put the song together, entirely not caring about what the world at large would think of it. At least they were amused, and so goes much of the three-decade story of the Beastie Boys.
After “Cooky Puss” was released, Schellenbach was kicked out of the band, right as the three about-to-be emcees befriended one Rick Rubin. Rubin was digging “Cooky Puss” and cozied up to the band, and began producing their records and deejaying their gigs. Epic feature films couldn’t properly dramatize the next string of developments, and the scope of their impact forevermore on the pop music landscape. The foundation of Def Jam Records was laid in Rubin’s NYU dorm room, and the Beastie Boys dressed the part, walking around town and showing up to gigs in Queens with matching jumpsuits and do-rags. A wonder they didn’t get killed.
The Beastie Boys reintroduced themselves to the world in 1984 with a 12” single for “Rock Hard.” A colossal rudimentary drum beat lays the groundwork, and then the riff for AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes in. The rhymes are nothing to write home about. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA claim they can play the drums and play guitar. They make a ton of tall claims, with no prior hip hop resume to back it up with. There’s little substance, but this passable track gave the band style and three voices to expound upon.
The Beastie Boys were also failing to imitate the Treacherous Three by doing something entirely unheard, undone, untried. Were Run-DMC and Aerosmith following in their footsteps in 1986 with “Walk This Way?” It’s a fair question.
It was the follow-up 1985 single, “She’s On It,” that truly set the template for next year’s Licensed to Ill. Huge, gritty guitars ring out, and the Beastie Boys start rapping about their ideal woman. They eventually turn on her, ticking off every list of their petty grievances. The hook is catchy, the guitar solo provides a scorching bridge, but singing along to it in 2018 carries some harsh contradictions to the future image of all things Beastie.
Even when I’m chillin’, she acts retarded.
It gets annoying, so high on the tip.
Her bedroom eyes, they start to twitch
But she won’t front cause she’s got that itch.
She’d drop to her knees, if we’d only say please.
It’s nothing that Kanye wouldn’t say these days, but difficult to contrast with who the Beastie Boys ultimately became. The video takes everything a step further. The three emcees crawl and grovel for a woman in a gold bikini, then after advice from Rick Rubin, they attempt to ply her with alcohol. Mike D, Ad-rock, and MCA look like kids in the video, because only one of them could legally drink.
As the Beastie Boys incorporated into the Def Jam crew, they landed a spot opening for Madonna on her Like a Virgin Tour in 1985, with only a small handful of songs in their repertoire. The kids didn’t get it, the parents really hated it, and the Beastie Boys developed their bratty stage personas via trial by fire on a nightly basis.
The following year, the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill took every single characteristic from “She’s On It” and refined them further. The beats are louder, the storytelling is crisper, the voices are more confident and assured, and the guitars provide a hair metal sensibility. A white version of Run-DMC, two-timing as Motley Crue.
The production on Licensed to Ill wasn’t as predictable and formulaic as “Rock Hard,” either.
“Rhymin’ and Stealin’” kicks off the album with the drumbeat from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” smashing into the opening riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” The Beasties bum rush the show, claiming the world is their oyster, and they are pirates taking no prisoners. Sex, beer, four-letter words — every red-blooded American teenager was ready to cop this attitude. The Beastie Boys hit the road with go-go girls dancing in cages and a hydraulic penis onstage. They rode the wave of fame until the wave rode them, and they became caricatures of what they once parodied.
The legends of the Licensed to Ill tour know no limits, and brought every fantasized scenario of the record to life. Girls were doused in beer, then passed around. Holes were drilled through hotel floors, leading to a lifetime ban from Holiday Inns. Ad-rock was arrested for allegedly hitting a fan with a beer can in Europe. The band was nearly killed in the deep south after dropping an “N-bomb” on stage. Even Mike D was almost kicked out of the band for not being cool enough.
By the end of 1987, the Beastie Boys were set to drown in all the beer they had spilled throughout the year. They were sick of each other, the songs, and the method acting. The tour came to a close and Def Jam Records wanted Licensed to Ill Part 2, and the Beastie Boys wanted to get paid for the millions of records they had sold.
Neither side budged.