(AllHipHop Features) I’ll never forget the debauchery The Beastie Boys displayed New Year’s in 1987s on MTV, when the channel had a stranglehold on music. I was still a kid stuck in the house on the kick-off of the year and, a comic-reading, rebellious, art nerd, admired what I saw with my virgin eyes. The Beastie Boys were at the height of their hedonistic glory.
Visually, they were the personification of party and bullsh#t in an era already wrought with excess. The 80’s was a revolutionary, groundbreaking period for music and Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz were leaders in an army, perhaps unbeknownst to them at the time. The guys were a pillar on the foundation of Def Jam, a company I grew up idolizing. Imagine idolizing a company. I did that.
The Beastie Boys were exceptional, which is why Mike D stunned me inferring this all could’ve been any three white guys. In the new AppleTV + documentary “Beastie Boys Story,” I paused pregnantly when the rap pioneer said, “But in hindsight, [Russell Simmons] just needed three white rappers to get on MTV. I mean, we coulda been anybody.” So when opportunity knocked to talk to the guys, that was the first thing I thought to ask. Mike D, Ad Rock and their frequent collaborator director Spike Jonze clarified.
Chuck: One thing that struck me in the doc is a moment where Mike D says it could have been any three white guys from Russell and from Def Jam’s position. It struck me as odd. I don’t agree with the statement, but what would make you say that? Or what would make you feel that way?
Mike D: I guess to clarify… Just in that moment, looking back at it, when Rick Rubin introduced us to Russell Simmons. Russell saw this thing in us that we didn’t see in ourselves. Right? He saw this ability to like… “These guys love rap music. And they’re going to make rap records, and I can take that to an audience. And then I’m going to get them on the covers of magazines, and places that…” At the time, honestly, it was a struggle for Russell in terms of rap being this very underground alternative culture that he was trying to bring… basically bust into the mainstream.
Mike D: And I think he saw us as an important part of that program. So I think, I guess to clarify, the point is it could have been us. It could’ve been a couple of other dudes. That’s what Russell’s mission was.
Ad Rock: Well, also, we were terrible.
Mike D: We were going to make our sh#t. And then Rick’s mission was also separate. He wanted to produce great… At the time, he just wanted to make great records. At the time it was rap records, and that would be evolved to being other kinds of records. So you know what I mean? There were these kind of different agendas in that one…
Ad Rock: But what I want to clarify, also. We were terrible. We were really bad. We were just starting out, so it’s not like he found this undiscovered gem, these guys that could really rap, or really play guitar, or whatever the thing was. Like, we were really bad.
Mike D: Yeah. It took us a minute to figure it out.
Spike Jonze: Just to clarify, Chuck: They’re talking about the time when they’re just starting to rap in that video where they’re reading raps off the piece of paper. And not so much when they… I think as they started making that first record, they started finding their voice and becoming distinctive. But I think that’s the point they’re talking about, is like when they were whatever… 16? 17? And just practice…doing Run-D.M.C. rhymes together in their bedroom.
I guess, for me as a non-casual viewer, even early rap songs like “Beastie Groove” and “Rock Hard” prove Mike, Adam and Adam had a je ne sais quoi that was the proverbial lightning in a bottle. The Beastie Boys “made” people wear Volkswagon logos (stealing them off cars) and seeking dog chains as dookie ropes. The rappers were not frat boys but cultivated the lifestyle in a rapidly burgeoning hip-pop crowd. Who does that? The Beastie Boys.
Beastie Boys Story is a new documentary directed by Spike Jonze and shot at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn with Mike and Adam peer look back at their roots in Manhattan into worldwide celebrities. More importantly, the movie spends time documenting their evolution as did their 2018 book, The Beastie Boys Book. From Hip-Hop point of view, the movie more than does its job. I admit, I felt big-time FOMO not experiencing this live in BK, as my friends did.
I have always loved the Beastie Boys and their music in all of its many forms but admittedly became less and less interested in the backstories after “Licenced to Ill” hit. For example, I had no idea their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique was a colossal flop. I just knew that I loved it as a work of art. Part of the disconnect from the Hip-Hop community included the group’s unceremonious split from Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Def Jam Records as a “staff, record label, and as a motherf##kin’ crew” to quote ‘Pac. One of Paul’s Boutique’s most memorable moments was hearing Mike D yell, “the sh#t just ain’t funny/ Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money.”
The Beasties transcended.
There are two sides to that. A space ship needs expendable rockets to get past the gravity of Earth. I wish they remained our Beastie Boys, quite often. Not for me, but for everybody. People in Hip-Hop needed to see them rise above their bratty, wild and some might argue privileged selves to evolve into model world citizens. Seeing how truly special MCA (Adam Yauch) was portrayed in Beastie Boys Story touched my soul, rendering me sorrowful. His range as a human being was remarkable – from wild party master to the hilarity of his alter ego Nathaniel Hörnblowér to the philanthropic work on behalf of Tibetan monks.
In Beastie Boys Story, Mike D, Ad Rock and Spike Jonze take fans like myself and potentially the uninitiated on a ride that’s almost like a guided journey through a museum. Pictures, video and some real props give an authentic look, feel and vibe to the Beasties rocket-like rise and eventual abrupt end with the death of MCA. Honestly, the end was sad and, in some ways, Beastie Boys Story feels incomplete. Perhaps it was the sudden ending of Adam Yauch in 2012 to cancer or maybe, selfishly, we know Mike D and Ad Rock have so much more to offer. Beastie Boys Story is proof of this continuing gift.
When I was still in college, the entertainment editor of my school paper, I was blessed to cover the Beastie Boys in concert at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Even then, in the mid-1990s, I knew the New York City lads had grown up.
“It was hard to believe these were the same snot-nosed kids whose photos are plastered all over the insert of ‘Some Old B#######’ (a collection of the Beasties early punk recordings). Yet they charged about with the same endless energy, powering out hits like ‘Pass The Mic’ and ‘Plains Drifter.’ The Beastie Boys have come a long way in the past decade, taking their distinct urban sound to ever-higher levels. Even older grooves from License To Ill took on new sophistication.”
The only other time, I saw the Beasties as a whole was at a 2009 rally in opposition to the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, a movement that Russell Simmons was intricately involved in. After seeing Spike’s doc (and I am sure Mike D’s mean lisp-laden Uncle Russ impersonation), the Def Jam founder issued an apologetic statement on Instagram.
“For years i wished i had been more sensitive smarter and compassionate in my dealings with them and SONY .. (who advised us to hold their next royalties until they gave in or at least began working on the new album / a big mistake on our part ) and i wished i was better with all of our partners … i just wasn’t mature , sensitive or human enough to do better.”
I wish Russell and his team thought better of the Beasties, because, to me, Def Jam kept the crew closer to the culture. Even the godfather of Hip-Hop has evolved into a yogi, a move that harkens to Yauch’s love of Buddism. Through time, they have gone largely underappreciated by “Hip-Hop” and that saddens me. If you were a child of the ’80s or ’90s you know and love them, but perhaps with the anchor of Def Jam, they’d be stronger in our collective consciousness. Fortunately, the Beastie Boys are undeniably, inexplicably, and explicitly Hip-Hop. They did not just pass through or co-op the culture. Like like others Ice-T (rapper/actor/metal band frontman), Public Enemy (rock/rap/global political collective), The Roots (an eccentric band with hardcore rap, soul, improv, Jazz and more), Lil Wayne (everything – LOL) and others, the Beastie Boys defy boxes, genres and are one-of-ones that maneuver along the road least traveled.
We need them. Beastie Boys Story may not unearth new information or electrocute us with startling, dark revelations, but Spike Jonze, Adam, and Mike educate, inform and remind us, we can be brave, limitless, and morph into something greater than we ever imagined.
RIP Adam Yauch