Okay…so, in this edition’s piece, I am going to go out on a bit of a limb. I am fairly confident that most of you will have, at best, a derisory opinion of The Beastie Boys and their music. You’d be wrong. You can certainly NOT be particularly fond of the three chaps from New York, and their output, but you should DEFINITELY respect what they did. It’s as ground-breaking as anything else that has, well, broken new ground.
The Beasties (as they are known to fans), started in Brooklyn, NYC as The Young Aborigines, changing their name to The Beastie Boys in 1979. The original line-up was as follows:
Drums – Kate Schellenbach (Went on to play in Luscious Jackson, and win Emmys as a Segment Producer for Ellen)
Bass – MCA (Adam Yauch)
Guitar – John Barry
Vocals – Mike D. (Mike Diamond)
This line-up was a respected, hardcore, punk-band that opened up for many of the biggest names in the scene, including Bad Brains and The Dead Kennedys. By the middle of the ‘80s, both Schellenbach and Barry had moved on, and close friend Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), whose father is the playwright Israel Horovitz, joined the band. They were still a predominately punk-group, but had begun to experiment with rap on the song “Cookie Puss” that featured a prank phone call to a local Baskin Robbins ice-cream parlor. Snotty-nosed, they were. At one gig, they decided to hire a DJ to provide the backing-tracks, and found a kid by the name of Rick Rubin who was willing to take on the job. He then went on to produce a number of singles for them that culminated in the ground-breaking SMASH that was License To Ill. This record was released on Def-Jam Records, the label run by Rick’s roommate, Russel Simmons (brother to label mate Joseph Simmons, a.k.a. RUN of RUN/DMC), out of their NYU dorm room. That’s what I LOVE about their story. They had cred from Day One. License To Ill sold NINE MILLION COPIES! The Beastie Boys had arrived. Rolling Stone magazine said of License To Ill, “Three idiots record a masterpiece.” They weren’t wrong.
Paul’s Boutique, their sophomore outing, is now considered a Classic Album. Almost the entire record is constructed from samples, including material from The Beatles, that they never paid for due to the archaic nature of the way that Copyright Law pertained to the new art of “sampling” records. The list of source material is SO ridiculous that sites like THIS exist to catalog it all. I urge you to click on the second song listed, just to get the briefest of ideas on how dense this album is. It is certainly no understatement to call it a legitimate “Masterpiece.” Its sales, however, did NOT represent its importance. It sold a mere two million copies, and was considered a bit of a “dud.” Miles Davis once said that once he started to listen to it, he found it almost impossible to stop. High praise, indeed, for “Three Idiots.” If you have never listened to it…do. Seriously.
At this point, the lads had escaped New York and were now living in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles. Paul’s Boutique had been produced by The Dust Brothers, who went on to do MORE ground-breaking work with a bloke by the name of Beck. Good grief. 1990 saw the Beasties team up with Mario Caldato Junior on their third record, Check Your Head. It was a culturally unavoidable batch of songs. Hit single “So What’Cha Want” was EVERYWHERE. Radio loved it, and MTV banged the award-winning video CONSTANTLY. This record saw them all playing instruments, instead of sampling, and added the textures of Money Mark on keyboards. His riff on “So What’Cha Want” is one of the most recognizable in ‘90s music. Playing and recording live instruments would continue to serve them well as they moved onto the writing stage of their third album.
1994 saw the release of album four, Ill Communication. The same team assembled in New York for a month, but eventually found themselves back in their Atwater studios to complete the tracking. It was, once again, going to lean heavily on live instruments that would be manipulated and bent to their will using their trusted compatriot, the sampler. One of the songs that they had started in New York went by the title “Chris Rock.” It started with a simple bass-line that MCA had been jamming on while f’ing around with a cranked fuzz pedal. Ad-Rock added a guitar line, and then Money Mark entered the frame with some organ and synth “vibe-age.” Upon listening back, however, the band decided that it was “Too rock,” and that they weren’t really interested in going down that path after having exhausted the tropes with License To Ill. Enter: Chris, the studio owner, who lost his shit over the sounds coming out of the speakers. “Now that’s what I’m talking about! This is rockin’ right here! This is it!” was his refrain. He was convinced that it was a smash. Hence, the working title, “Chris Rock.” Don’t forget, he was only listening to the INSTRUMENTAL! It must’ve sounded incredible being in the room and hearing it for the first time. What I wouldn’t give.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, the band, for that is what they really were, went back to their own studio, G-Son, to complete the album. “Chris Rock” still wasn’t finished, though. Finally, Ad-Rock dropped by Mario’s apartment to wrap-up the vocals on the song they just weren’t that in to. They had been listening to the instrumental version off-and-on for the five months that they had been sequestered at G-Son, and Adam had even tried some ideas, but nothing worked. With the lyrics written, and not many expectations, Ad-Rock stepped to the Sennheiser 421, and in two takes…it was done. Epic. They both knew that they had it. Whatever “it” was. Upon hearing the track back at their own studio, the rest of the band were upside down about “Sabotage”, as it was now known. Within hours, the group yells on the chorus, bridges were added, MCA and Mike D. provided the scratches, and a MASSIVE smash was completed. Radio would proceed to play it over and over again. The crazy part? You never got tired of hearing it. Every time it tore out of the speakers, one had no choice but to just crank it and yell along!
MTV also got in on the action, and the Spike Jonze directed video was ALSO on high rotation. Watch it, and then marvel at the fact that they shot it all without one single permit. The Beastie Boys maintained their cred, punk-rock attitude, and roots throughout their careers. This song is a 90’s Classic, of that there is no doubt.
The line-up on “Sabotage” is as follows:
Drums – Mike D.
Bass/Scratches – MCA
Keys – Money Mark
Vocals/Scratches – Ad Rock
Anyone who doubts that this is a REAL band should just listen to the attached audio of the radio breakdown. It’s shocking how brilliant this song is. Just listen. Period. It’s fantastic. It’s perfect. It’s a band at the peak of their powers.
A Power Trio in the truest sense; Respect is due. Any doubts about that should be SILENCED by their live performance on The David Letterman Show:
I had the pleasure of seeing them live a few times myself…gobsmacking. They were unlike anything that I’ve ever seen. Legitimate musicians who invented something. Three Idiots Who Created A Masterpiece.
Mike D’s groove on the kit is soooo deep. Ghost-notes, the heaviness of that kick, Bonham calls out from the abyss. And, as with any drummer who is also a vocalist, he is “pushing” the lyrics through the mix with the back beat. So graceful and bombastic. Precise but sloppy. All of the contradictions. Sickness.
MCA’s bass riff IS the song. He’s doing on the bass, what Morello does on the guitar. He is melody, bottom end, string bends, fuzz, and all equally as bombastic as Mike D. is on the kit. the two of them together is pure magic. What is this SONG?!? And then the clean arps at the 2:30 minute mark. I CAN’T EVEN!! Man, nobody should talk sh*t about these dudes. Ever.
The guitars?! Punk-rock. Blown out distortion whose job is to buzz-saw the bass riff, give it the top end snarl required to fill out the mix, and cause the speakers to want to admit defeat. And then the SQUEALS!! Sonic Youth for days. It’s an entirely different way of placing the guitar in the context of the song. It’s the “Morello turntable bit” if executed by Thurston Moore.
MCA and Ad-Rock provide some of the most sublimely performed record-scratches committed to tape. This IS hip-hop. The Technics 1200 is the Fender Telecaster of the genre. Joe Strummer would’ve used one if he was in the Rap Game. Their ability to use the record as an instrument is a marvel. Shades of Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad. This is one of the many reasons that the Hip-Hop community respects the Beasties, they ain’t frontin’.
The subtle texture work of Money Mark on the keys is the “Secret Sauce” on “Sabotage.” From the “Cripple Creek” sounding bits, to the low analogue moan of the synth, all of it provides texture that eludes the ear until revealed. You feel it all more than you hear it. That is artistry. What would the drop-out be without the simple drone that precludes the crashing re-entry of the fuzzed-up bass-line? Empty and ineffective, I’ll bet you. Someone once said something about music being all about the “notes that you don’t play.” MM’s choices, and self-control, add an additional layer to this song that raise the stakes, and bring it to another level of sophistication. Without these parts, “Sabotage” would still be AWESOME, but it wouldn’t have the depth that it has with them included.
And then…Adam. Holy smokes. Imagine being in Mario’s apartment, or worse still, being his NEIGHBOR, as Ad-Rock yelled his way through this thing. Top of his range. Full voice. Put the song on and try to “sing” along. Your voice will be fried by the first chorus, I assure you. And he did it, start-to-finish, in two takes. So dope. “I’m-a set it straight, this Watergate” and “I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle” are two of my favorite lines in the whole thing. I love that music can ALSO be this. What a gift. And all of the work, over all of time, every piece EVER, is based on the foundation of 12 notes. Amazing.
Listen to the attached audio. It’s one of the best segments that I have done. I can’t wait to do this one live.
MCA’s passing was one of the hardest musician deaths that I have experienced. If you came up in the ‘80s, then you know that they were “OUR band.” If you had a posse of friends, each of you fit the vibe of one member. You WERE a Beastie Boy, and everybody wanted to be MCA. I think I was the Mike D. of my peer-group. The band was such a group of cartoon characters, that it is hard to see them as real people, especially as they have grown into Beastie Men. I have also shared my favorite photo of MCA and his daughter, Losel. It is so beautifully human and hard to imagine that that is the bloke from the “Fight For Your Right To Party” video who smashes the beer can into his head. As they aged, they became ambassadors for the Free Tibet Movement, and came to be indelibly linked with their home town of New York City. Quite an accomplishment for a band whose career really got going from a prank phone call about an ice-cream cake.
If you haven’t recently, or ever, gone back and listened to Ill Communication in its entirety, do yourself a favor. Put it on in the car, and go for a drive around your nearest city. It is SO bloody good. A perfect soundtrack for the Urban Decay. Just make sure that you TURN IT UP!
If you want to experience the fellas in a way that you would NEVER expect, and you’re a fan of funked-up, blues, trippy, experimental, instrumental, weed-soaked, groove-jams, then I highly recommend their instrumental opus The In Sound From Way Out! It’ll give your sound-system a workout…trust me. And, you’ll definitely find yourself, eyes-closed, bouncing your head, deep into it.
The Beastie Boys ain’t no joke.
Thanks for reading and listening.
See you at the next one,