If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with our new feature PRIMER, in which we guide you through the highs, lows, and occasional confusing bits of the careers of renowned indie icons. This week: The Beastie Boys
It was 1998, and I was done with rap. The small Caribbean island I lived on played only the most aggressive gangsta rap, championed by all the classmates I despised. I resolved to shelve the genre until something new came on one of our three radio stations. Then, that year on a trip to London, I heard a robot’s voice come through the radio, followed by a nasally, aggressive and wholly different voice tell me, “Well, now, don’t you tell me to smile / You stick around I’ll make it worth your while…”
And they did. More than anything, The Beastie Boys taught us the virtue of being fearless. In the mid 80s MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D, three upper-middle class Jewish teenagers, put a new face on a burgeoning, black genre and delivered it straight to the suburbs, a priceless gift the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Elvis. And like the King, they provoked national outrage with razor-toothed PTAs clamoring for their censoring, as well as their then-queen Tipper Gore, who excoriated the band on national TV while Oprah nodded sagely. But the Beasties prevailed and released Licensed to Ill, the product of three hyper-intelligent, prodigiously talented and incredibly fearless kids.
Since Adam Yauch (MCA)’s death, it’s impossible for me to read about the Beasties without getting uncomfortable. Words like “tongue-in-cheek” and “ironic” tend get thrown around a lot when describing License to Ill, which pivots between hilarious outlaw whimsy and brazen frat-boy ignorance (and was almost titled Don’t Be A Faggot). This argument is weak (listen to MCA’s atoning verse on “Sure Shot”), but it also hinders the beauty of their journey. They showed us that nothing excused misogyny and hate, and no amount of money, fame or women could cure a poisoned spirit aware of its own actions. Take, for example, when Mike D (excuse me, Mike Diamond) denounced the spate of sexual assaults at recent festivals. Or Yauch’s salvos against American foreign policy. And these were just at the MTV Music Awards. Paul’s Boutique was the start of the group’s renouncement of the formula that made them superstars, a move which could have cost them everything, but instead helped them make another undisputed masterpiece. Fearless.
The first five Beastie LPs are all very fine, very different works, but any “Greatest Albums” list that omits Paul’s Boutique isn’t worth reading. The roguish charm that captured the world’s heart is amplified by a dizzying caterwaul of disparate sample-based beats, co-produced by the band with The Dust Brothers. A fitting send-off to their more reckless days, it’s funky, it’s rocking, it’s everything. I’ve listened to this album dozens of times and I’m still catching new sounds buried under familiar ones. As a whole, the album feels like the image made by the pieces of a hundred different puzzles cast into the air, landing to form an image more beautiful than any one whole.
Everything on Paul’s is an improvement over its predecessor, especially lyrically. The songs about the opposite sex are still blue, but less cruel and much funnier. And their shuttered split syllable fills are tighter, adding wallop to the whip-smart punchlines. In this album and throughout their career, when every other rapper was trying to pack as many rhyming syllables into each bar, each Beastie took their time, using their lines to make hilariously esoteric, occasionally New York centered references. It’s impossible for a New York neophyte like me to fully appreciate the breadth of their allusions, but the 18 minute “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” paints a skyline that’s as vivid as that iconic shot from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”
Post-Boutique saw a marked shift. They replaced rhymes about outlandish criminal behavior and sleeping around with Buddhist wisdom, a fearless move that’s never been matched in scope. MCA began getting one or two solo tracks per album to rap his views on gaining mental wealth, but eventually, all three members could be heard waxin’ philosophical, most prominently on Hello Nasty. The sort of bully pulpit preaching that sours us on celebrities endeared us to the Beasties, because there was no artifice behind it. They were masters of navigating and embracing change, both within the rap game and themselves.
As you might expect, their best videos were silly, imaginative and groundbreaking, and remained so right up to their most recent. Personal favorites include the self-deprecating Casanova send-up “Hey Ladies” and “Intergalactic,” the send-up of Japanese monster movies. Oh yeah, and “Sabotage,” the gloriously hammy tribute to the police of ‘70s Hollywood, with their dime-store costumes and cheaper acting. In a rap landscape where realness was king, the Beasties became characters, and stood out with uproarious, lovingly ironic videos that were integral in maintaining their relevance.
The Beastie Boys showed us different ways to think about a genre, through sounds, lyrics and attitudes. They showed us that you could be the only adult in the room on different issues while pushing 50 and still playing with dolls. The best of their music is seeping with ecstasy, because they’d been living on the edge of their art since they started rapping. And when you’re living fearlessly, you’re living joyfully and you want everyone on Earth to share in it with you.
If you’re looking for an introduction to the Beasties, there’s none better than Grand Royale, a mix by Mick Boogie. It’s embedded below, with a few of their great videos.