The experimental music scene in New York City in the late 1970s was transfixed by British punk innovators like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Among the American bands trying to capture that sound was the Young Aborigines. If that group had stuck with its imitative approach, the members would have been forgotten by now. Instead, they changed course and became the Beastie Boys.
The Young Aborigines were John Barry on guitar, Kate Schellenbach on percussion, Michael “Mike D” Diamond on vocals and drums, and Jeremy Shatan on bass. When Shatan left New York in 1981, the other players transformed into the Beastie Boys and aimed for a much more original voice. Adam “MCA” Yauch took over on bass, and soon Barry was replaced by Adam “Ad-Roc” Horovitz. Schellenbach left after the single “Cooky Puss” became a hit in 1983, inspiring the band to lean more heavily toward rap than rock.
Their debut record happened relatively late in their career; they had already toured with Madonna by the time Def Jam Recordings and Columbia Records released Licensed to Ill in 1986. But the timing was right, according to the music-buying public: This remains one of Columbia’s best-selling albums, and it was the first rap album ever to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
The monster hit from Licensed to Ill was the band-defining “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” which established both their unique punk-rap sound and their party-in-life’s-face attitude. Rick Rubin produced the album, but his Def Jam Recordings co-owner Russell Simmons had some sway over it, talking the band out of the unfortunate original title, Don’t Be a F**got, and bringing in Darryl McDaniels (DMC of Run/DMC) to co-write a couple of songs. One of those was “Slow and Low.” The hard-driving bass on the bottom and chimes on the top, with rhythmic shouting and truck-engine samples in the middle layer creates a distinctive vehicle for humorous, real-life lyrics (“White Castle fries just come in one size”).
The Beastie Boys were not especially prolific. It took three years for Paul’s Boutique to follow the debut album. This time they were on Capitol Records, and the producer was the Dust Brothers duo, specialists in the use of borrowed samples who also made some of Beck’s albums. As often happens with groups who had one huge single off their first album, the band felt pigeonholed by “Fight for Your Right” and wanted to show they had more to offer. Paul’s Boutique did just that, surprising the public and pushing the envelope.
The Dust Brothers were true pioneers of sampling. Over 100 songs are sampled in the tracks of Paul’s Boutique, establishing a new norm for hip-hop production. According to engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., they got the rights at bargain prices because there did not yet exist good copyright laws covering licenses for sampling. You can hear several songs by the Beatles sampled in “The Sounds of Science.” Unlike the first album, the lyrics are more witty than frat-boyish.
Caldato took on the role of producer for the next album, Check Your Head (1992). The band seemed to redefine itself again, with more focus on instruments – both their own and others’. The sessions included instrumental versions of several songs, some of which have been added as bonus tracks on subsequent releases of this album.
Another way this instrumental theme showed itself is in the song “Jimmy James,” a tribute to one of the greatest instrumentalists in rock history – Jimi Hendrix. For this song, six Hendrix tracks are mined for samples. It was released as a single but made no impression in the US market.
The collaboration with Caldato continued with Ill Communication (1994), on the Beastie Boys’ own Grand Royal subdivision of Capitol Records. The biggest single was the Moog-sampling “Get It Together,” and critics loved Yauch’s bass playing and Ad-Rock’s furious lyrics on “Sabotage,” inspired by the behavior of paparazzi at River Phoenix’s funeral.
Another interesting piece on the album is the instrumental “Shambala,” featuring guest percussionist Eric “Bobo” Correa and a recording of throat-singing Tibetan monks. The seamless connection between that ancient, traditional sound and the funky new tune brings to mind the use of Indian ragas by the Beatles.
It took four years for the next album to see the light of day, during which time turntable man Mix Master Mike joined the band. He brought with him a heavy, edgy beat and a love of experimental sounds from non-musical sources. The delay was far from a problem for the album’s release. Not only did Hello Nasty (1998) bolt to the No. 1 spot on the charts, but it also won Grammy awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rap Duo Performance (for the single “Intergalactic”).
One song that might have puzzled casual listeners if it had been released as a single is the instrumental “Song for Junior,” a Latin jazz number featuring some fine flute work by Steve Slagle (better known as a saxophonist who toured with Machito and Ray Barretto). In a nod to the traditions of jazz performance, producer Caldato mixed in samples of audience applause after each solo, a gesture in keeping with hip hop’s self-referential tendencies.
After another six-year dry spell, fans rushed to make To the 5 Boroughs the No. 1 album upon its release in 2004. Among the singles was “An Open Letter to NYC,” responding to the 9/11 terror attacks: “Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/ 2 towers down but you’re still in the game.”
In stark contrast to that bittersweet song, “Oh Word” has the salty, sarcastic humor and crisp electronic beat of rappers who refuse to be left behind by the passing years.
The band enjoyed more accolades for The Mix-Up (2007), winning the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Since then, they have created only one other record, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011). It was supposed to come out in 2009, but the release was delayed for a couple of years while Yauch battled cancer, a fight he sadly lost in 2012.
On the Hot Sauce album, the band attempted some sublimated political-speak with the song “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament.” Its surface is a slow, funky instrumental with some interesting electronic textures. But deep in the mix, distorted and subtle, is a vocal pep-talk: “We can make it happen.” Make what happen? Well, multilateral nuclear disarmament, of course!
Mike D has made it clear that he will not be using the Beastie Boys name for any new music. The band leaves behind a remarkable legacy, having stayed at the cutting edge of its field for decades. That’s worth a tip of the hat in any walk of life, but especially one where fickle fans and changing technology can wipe out success in an instant.