Beastie Down, Part 6: Punky Reggae Party

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.

And later:

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.

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.

Beastie Down, Part 4: The Sounds of Science

Four and three and two and one….

It was easy, exciting to be a Beastie Boys fan in the wake of Hello Nasty. The B-boys were popping up everywhere, making animated cameos in the primetime cartoon Futurama, debuting a batshit crazy video for “Body Movin’” on MTV’s Total Request Live, and performing “Radio, Radio” with Elvis Costello for Saturday Night Live’s 25th anniversary special. 

I came home one day after school and MTV was airing a Beastie Boys performance live from Glasgow, Scotland. I was hypnotized, green with envy of those Scots moshing and slamming with the Beasties on stage, live and in person. A couple of dreams were born that day. I had to see this band perform live. I also had to get a pair of my own turntables. Whatever Mix Master Mike was doing behind the decks – I wanted to do it! He was making 12” vinyl discs make sounds I’d never heard before. He was also rocking a party like I’d never seen. 

If I could do half of whatever Mix Master was doing, I figured I’d be pretty cool, too.

Later that year I got my first job, working in a mail room of a school supplies office with one of my friends everyday after school. I saved every penny I made. My eyes were on a DJ starter kit that came with two shitty Gemini turntables, a mixer, and an instructional VHS cassette. I had no fucking clue what I was doing. I was also way in over my head. I had no proper stereo receiver and was running my mixer through an auxiliary cord into a big screen TV. I didn’t burn down the house or blow up the TV, but I got inspired to start making some music of my own. The Beastie Boys were doing more than making great records to listen to, they were inspiring me to get out of my own insecurities, start believing in myself, and try something scary.

I also had a bullshit mic that was made out of plastic.

Before the millennium closed down, the Beastie Boys (or their label, Capitol Records) were intent on cementing the Beastie legacy, and announced the release of The Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science. The two-disc set was to be packed with forty-two tracks, collecting their greatest hits, a few deep cuts, b-sides, select unreleased tracks, and [gasp] a new single, “Alive.” Plenty to be stoked about. 

Four years prior, the Beatles took the idea of an anthology mainstream with a multi-part prime time network special, accompanied by three separate volumes of demos and outtakes. The music provided an insight into how the band and their songs evolved from ideas and into final products. Not just over the span of years, but in the span of a song. The collection was loose, raw, unrefined. It put their entire previous output in another context. I remember waiting in line at a record store for the clock to hit midnight so I could be one of the first people to buy the Beastie anthology.

Somehow, someway, my unhinged fandom wasn’t inflated by the release.

I put on disc one as I drove home that night. I had already heard the greatest hits a million times. I knew the deep cuts inside and out. The handful of unreleased tracks were mostly inside jokes.  And then there’s “Alive.” 

The B-boys had forged their names on unabashed declarations. They had demanded their generation fight for their right to party, drink tons of brass monkey, and weren’t afraid to apologize on record for all the meathead behavior in hindsight. They turned from punks to pimps to skaters to monks before our eyes — never dropping their conviction that they were in fact the coolest three emcees to walk the earth. But this anthology feels like Mike and Adam and Adam taking their foot off the pedal, doing something that wasn’t 100% Beastie down.

The shortcomings of “Alive” sum up most of what is wrong with the anthology. The boys don’t feel fierce, the rhymes feel predictable. The beats don’t hit hard. Let’s forget about the vision of them each wearing a primary color, riding vespas, and wearing furry sherpa hoods in the video. The Beastie Boys had never tried to be cool before, they just were cool. Nothing felt cool about “Alive.” At the towering height of my Beastie fandom, I was never compelled to listen to the song on repeat, let alone the anthology.

The rest of the compilation feels as forced as “Alive.” All the album tracks I’d heard before felt out of place. “Sabotage” will never feel right without leading into the grunts and groans of Q-Tip on “Get it Together.” I was happy a couple of b-sides like “Boomin’ Granny” and “Skills to Pay the Bills” got some exposure to more casual fans – but for the devoted disciple like myself, there was little else to dig into. Aside from “Alive,” the most enticing offerings were the unreleased recordings, which, save for a couple songs, were hardly more than fluff. One solace was a booklet offering unseen photos and stories behind each song, straight from the band. 

I still don’t know what to make of the most audacious inclusions on the anthology — two tracks from the Beastie Boys’ shelved album, Country Mike’s Greatest Hits. Somewhere in the downtime between Ill Communication and Hello Nasty, Mike D fronted a country album recorded by the band, who enlisted the great Bucky Baxter on pedal steel guitar. Beastie lore indicates that a few copies were pressed for friends of the band, before it was widely bootlegged on vinyl. The pocket is tight on these songs, but Mike D sounds like a wounded bird crowing the frontier blues. Country Mike’s first and only album is funny, befuddling, and could have only come from a band that has no problem laughing at themselves.


Listening to the anthology now, almost twenty years later, it remains a missed opportunity to my ears. The compilation displays the wide swath of styles the Beastie Boys have approached over time, instead of how all of their singular ideas germinated. False takes, alternate recordings, and live cuts would have explored the true growth of the band instead of standing as a Spark Notes of all things Beastie. For all of my quibbles, The Sounds of Science stands as a feasible representation of the band for fans that aren’t going to dive to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker for b-boy minutiae.

Looking at the cover of The Beastie Boys Anthology, Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are dressed up as old men, as seen in the “Ricky’s Theme” video. The three were still firmly in their thirties, but perhaps comfortable with their place in the musical world for the first time. They had nothing left to prove, and I’m guessing didn’t feel the need to ever reinvent themselves again. Was this picture, this vision of them as spry elders a statement? Were they content to ride off into the sunset from here? Either way, they no longer needed validation, and never set about seizing it again. The Beastie Boys were going to be adored by their generation forevermore. Why fuck with that? (And why record and release “Alive”?)

The new millennium hit a month later and the world didn’t end. It would be too early to expect a new Beastie Boys album, but they announced a co-headlining tour with Rage Against the Machine. Rage and the Beastie Boys were the only two mainstream bands to respectably meld rock n’ roll with rap in the late-nineties. Yeah, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and others were doing it, but that “goatee metal rap” (as Ad-rock deemed it in “Alive”) was a passing phase. Rage was three albums deep into an enigmatic existence of their own and would pair perfectly with the Beasties every night. Two bands that nearly everyone respected. Can’t miss.

The good news: I could drive to the show with a number of my friends. I bought tickets, and days before the tour started, the bad news: Mike D broke his arm in a bicycle crash. Then, Rage Against the Machine broke up. The tour never happened, and the Beastie Boys wouldn’t embark on another tour or release another album for nearly four years.

A dark age began.

The saga continues in Part 5.

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?

Beastie Down, Part 2: I got the Ill Communication

Hey, hold up? Did you read Part 1? Okay then.

The Beastie Boys wrapped up their tour in support of Check Your Head in 1992 and got right back to work on a follow-up LP.  For the first time in their career, they were approaching a new record without the plight of reinventing themselves and their music. The B-boys had identities they were comfortable with, and set about expanding upon every sound they had mined during Check Your Head. 

Almost two months after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Ill Communication was released on May 31, 1994, a mere two years after Check Your Head (a nanosecond in Beastie terms). Opening track “Sure Shot” runs with the same self-assured shenanigans of “So What’Cha Want,” enlisting longtime band associate DJ Hurricane for the chorus hook. Yauch begins to close down the song by coming clean on his past, saying what he likely wanted to on Check Your Head. A confessional that would have felt like too much too soon after the debauchery of Paul’s Boutique and Licensed to Ill. With some distance from that identity, he confesses:

I wanna say a little something that’s long over due

The disrespect to women has got to be through

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I wanna offer my love and respect to the end

It’s hard to listen to Yauch’s verse and not have much of the band’s past life flash before one’s eyes. This verse officially turns the page on the band’s career, but not without a look at the past and a shake of the head. Yauch’s proclamation was the dawn of another Beastie-ism – devout, politically aware activism.

Yauch was the leading socially conscious Beastie, forever changed in 1992 when he was snow skiing in Nepal and saw Buddhist monks from Tibet fleeing to India for asylum. This spectacle changed his life, and everything he wished for in “A Year and a Day” came true in that moment. Yauch studied Buddhism for the next four years, officially converting to the religion in 1996. Upon his awakening, he became dedicated to freeing Tibet from four decades of Chinese occupation and oppression. Check Your Head felt like a walkabout — wandering spirits grasping for something just out of reach.

For Yauch, it was Buddhism.

Yauch led the band toward a deeper purpose on Ill Communication, ushering Buddhist monks to the studio to chant on two tracks toward the end of the record, “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow.” While these two meditative tracks are stashed toward the end of the record, the Beasties run amok elsewhere with a proven template of lo-fi hip hop, jazz, and thrash.

“Tough Guy” follows “Sure Shot” in the number two slot with a fifty-second hardcore seizure of Mike D dissing an opposing basketball player that crowds the lane: “Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, time for you to die.” The next song, “B-Boys Makin’ With the Freak Freak” is a slow and plodding rap where the Beasties sample Mantan Moreland, diss Russell Simmons, and put every other rapper on notice. The track doesn’t hold a candle to any prior released album track, but “Root Down” follows two tracks later and stands as an immediate and essential Beastie joint flowing over a Jimmy Smith sample.

“Fight For Your Right” still casted a long shadow on the band from eight years prior, and the Beasties managed to produce another song mixed with rock and rap to stand at the pinnacle of their catalog with “Sabotage.” With Mike D on the drums, MCA on bass, and AdRock on guitar and lead vocals, the gas pedal goes down for three straight minutes. A booming beat and MCA’s wobbling low register form a rhythm for Horovitz to scream over and repeatedly pound a G# power chord. “Sabotage” sounded like nothing else on the radio or Mtv, and was a massive hit that minted the Beasties anew with the wide audience. 

Mosh pits in the summer of 1994 abided.

An accompanying video for “Sabotage” directed by Spike Jonze proved the Beasties still didn’t take themselves too seriously. They dressed up like undercover cops from the seventies eating donuts, sliding over the hoods of sedans, and jumping from roof-to-roof in a shitty apartment complex. The hapless bad guys were also played by the Beasties, etching one more iconic caricature of the band. The collective sounds and optics of “Sabotage” thrilled audiences and moved the three emcees toward the kind of chameleonic ubiquity only possessed by Madonna and Prince.

The B-boys continue shaking up the formula of their prior successes on Ill Communication with “Get it Together.” For the first time on a Beastie album, an outsider emcee joins the fray and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest matches every rhyme and reason of the Beasties over a moog beat. It’s fun, playful, and stuffed with the most illing-est rhymes from beginning to end. “Alright Hear This” and “Do It” are additional hip hop bangers on the back half of the record, which doesn’t carry the urgency or spontaneity of Check Your Head. 

Ill Communication is the first Beasties record that beckons a direct comparison to its predecessor. It feels like a sequel with many vital moments, with the rest unable to harness the momentary magic of the original. The record still carries the unflinching, incomparable sensibilities of the Beastie Boys, who seem more concerned with pleasing themselves before any other audience.

Mike D, AdRock, and MCA had reincarnated their existence with Check Your Head, then surfed to the top of the music zeitgeist once more with Ill Communication. With little else to prove, they toured for their new record and slipped away from the public eye as a band. They stayed busy in the studio and released the 1995 hardcore EP Aglio E Olio to little fan-fare. The Beasties then impacted pop culture once more by contributing their own word to the English language when describing an unfortunate haircut in the song “Mullet Head,” found on the Clueless motion picture soundtrack.

While the music on Ill Communication is mostly an expansion of what came before on Check Your Head, the outside world of the Beasties billowed outward. Mike D took the reins of Grand Royal Records, a Beastie-curated imprint of Capitol Records. The label included a fashion line, a magazine, and a swelling number of artists including Sean Lennon and Luscious Jackson. Two years later in 1996, the Beastie Boys co-hosted the first Tibetan Freedom Concert with MCA’s non-profit foundation, the Milarepa Fund. For the next five years, the Beasties and other bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam among others performed to raise money for the Tibetan cause. With Mike D and MCA busy with their own efforts, Ad-Rock branched out and released his own experimental project BS2000 in 1997 with frequent Beastie collaborator Eric “AWOL” Amery.

For the following three years after Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys were hardly seen together in public aside from performing at the annual Tibetan Freedom Concert. It wasn’t until 1998 that they returned with a fifth album. Each Beastie was now a married man, in their thirties, greying at the temples, and confronting the world at large once again as a brotherly unit. 

Elder statesmen by pop music standards.

On to Part 3.

Beastie Down, Part 1: Check Your Head

With the impending release of Beastie Boys Book, now is good a time as any to look back at the long, winding road of the three bad brothers you know so well: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, and the dearly departed MCA, Adam Yauch. Before Mike D and King Adrock come correct with the official word this month, I will try to make a little sense of what we already know, and grasp for what this band has meant to me over the last two-plus decades.

In May of 1992, the Beastie Boys released their third album, Check Your Head. The record was a culmination of everything the band had released, destroyed, and survived since the band began as a hardcore punk group in New York City, eleven years prior. What started as a lark at Yauch’s seventeenth birthday party in 1981 had lived and died nine lives. Instead of grief (and there was plenty to wallow in), the end of each creative life brought resurrection. 

Their sophomore album from three years prior, Paul’s Boutique, remained ahead of its time. Still considered a dud, not yet heralded by many as the greatest hip hop record ever made. It was a miracle Capitol Records hadn’t dropped them in 1989. Grunge had broken through in 1991, West Coast gangsta rap was taking over, and the Beastie Boys sat in the middle of this musical, cultural divide, forsaking any pre-conceived notion that had made them famous.

Would the memory of the Beastie Boys die along with the eighties? It was a veritable possibility.

With nothing to lose except their record deal with Capitol, the band had built their own G-Son Studio in Glendale, California, determined to reinvent themselves after Paul’s Boutique was a non-starter. The studio was a utopian playground where they played basketball, skateboarded, and rebooted the Beastie Boys once more. The widespread audience knew nothing of the band’s pre-Licensed to Ill era where they were teenagers playing hardcore music in shitty Manhattan clubs. To begin again, they picked up their instruments and jammed, bro. 

Apple Music or Spotify allow you to listen to Check Your Head on demand, but the gatefold double LP reveals a look behind the curtain. Adrock on guitar, MCA on bass, and Mike D on the drums; bongos and guitar pedals scattered about. A carpenter remodeling the studio, “Money” Mark Nishita, had been drafted for keyboard duty to stretch the sonic pallette. The Beastie Boys’ self-mythology alludes to thousands of hours of recordings from this time, in search of more than the perfect beat or their own loops to sample, but their very souls.

The results were profound, totally removed from anything the Beasties had produced before. Blues, jazz fusion, spaced-out ballads, and punk rock abounded. The three crafty bozos hanging out in front of 7-11 at midnight years before were now cultured grown-ups who had seen it all, yet looking for whatever is next.

Three years prior, MCA was rolling through a solo verse on “3-Minute Rule,” claiming he was making records before “you were sucking your mother’s dick.” By the end of Check Your Head, Yauch fronts the mic on a breezy, low-key funk meditation, crooning an opening line of “Yeah. A butterfly floats on the breeze of a sun lit day.”

The inverse of “Fight For Your Right” and its adolescent call-to-arms. A devout “take it or leave it” to any old fans or curious onlookers.

One can’t help but try and imagine the conversations between Diamond, Horovitz, and Yauch behind the scenes, tracing the transcendence of three party animals into worldly sages. (This is a vital moment in the evolution of the band that is hopefully, fully covered in their upcoming autobiography.) The Beasties were actively disowning any character traits that made them household names in 1986. The beer, the girls, the homophobia, the violence, and the drug references melted away with Check Your Head. 

In efforts to outrun the caricatures they had previously inhabited, the Beastie Boys forsook everything with this record. Except the identity of three snotty, self-realized poets.

Toward the end of recording the album, longtime Beastie engineer Mario Caldato Jr. (Mario C in the place to be!) gently nudged the band to make a few hip hop joints. The band obliged, and delivered. Out of twenty tracks on the record, only seven are marked with trademarked ping-ponging rhymes from the band. “So What’Cha Want” was the dangling carrot for the masses — an anthemic proclamation that could close any future arena gig — reminding everyone they were still three emcees absolutely never to be fucked with. 

The song starts with a quick namedrop of Mario C, and Money Mark’s keyboard lays down a squiggly loop that underpins the song. A crusty, two-note guitar riff rides atop a trap kit, and the three emcees rise again from the grave. Their voices are fuzzy and garbled, channeling through bullshit microphones made out of plastic. When the chorus hits, Biz Markie jumps in for reinforcement: “You can’t front on that.” As defiant as any moment on Licensed to Ill or Paul’s Boutique, the Boys place themselves on a pedestal, mark their territory, and double down on pop culture references. 

The accompanying video for “So What’Cha Want” puts slightly aged faces to their familiar names. The B-boys are romping and stomping through the woods, adorned in t-shirts and toboggans, rapping down at the camera with some of the most furious, fun verses in the entire Beastieography. The trees and the sky are overexposed in the film, causing a psychedelic oyster shell to short circuit above their heads. The Beasties look like giants, shouting and trampling over anything in their way. For all of the experimentation that pervades the record, “So What’Cha Want” sits firmly in the middle of the chaos, harnessing all the surrounding kinetic energy into one delicious track.

With all the debauchery of the band white washed, the Beastie Boys manage to have just as much sober fun entertaining themselves throughout Check Your Head. They picture themselves headlining a tiny juke joint in “Live at P.J.’s”, return to their hardcore roots with a thrash cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Time for Livin’,” let Biz Markie adlib over a Ted Nugent track (“The Biz vs. The Nuge”), and offer a straight-up rock song about literally running out of words to say on “Gratitude.”

A virtual impossibility in Beastie Land, fully realized.

Over their three decade run, the Beasties are never as prolific, experimental, and surprising than during the Check Your Head era. Even the B-sides relay genius overflowing onto the parquet floor of G-Son Studio. “Netty’s Girl” is an absurd doo-wop ditty with Mike D falsetto-pining over his current crush, “The Skills to Pay the Bills” is probably the best Beastie track to never make it on an album, and “Honky Rink” is a goofy, funky skit indicting Fly-Over country racism.

The catalyst for change in Check Your Head might be found forty-eight minutes deep into Paul’s Boutique. Early in the ten-part movement of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” MCA grabs the mic and throws down a skewering solo verse on “A Year and a Day.” Instead of physically assaulting a fellow member of the human race or busting with a whip-it, Yauch searches for salvation for two solid minutes. A higher self. He prays and hopes that a message is sent, and heads to the mountains every weekend to ski down black diamonds and get high. If you are familiar with Beastie lore, Yauch etches a self-realized prophecy for his own spiritual being, and his band’s future with these rhymes. From the ashes of Paul’s Boutique’s failure, the B-boys crawled away, and Yauch’s riveting face turn in “A Year and a Day” is one of the few vibes they held on to as they began anew.

For the first time in their career, Check Your Head finds the Beasties assuming an identity and sticking with it, holding the mantle of the most wise of wise asses in pop music for the next twenty years, up until MCA’s passing in 2012. More than an album title, I consider Check Your Head a mantra for the Beastie Boys. An affirmation that it’s just fine to second-guess everything you’ve come to believe and assume. 

To press pause, look inside, then take that next step into the unknown.

The saga continues in Part 2: I got the Ill Communication