Founding Beastie Boys guitarist John Berry has died, so we look back on the pioneering hip-hop group’s punk days.
May 2016, John Berry, one of the founding members of the Beastie Boys, died at the age of 52. He’d been suffering from frontal lobe dementia, his father told Rolling Stone. If that’s not a familiar name, you might not be familiar with the first incarnation of the Beastie Boys.
It’s an oft-repeated item of trading card trivia that the hip-hop legends started in the very early ’80s as a teenaged punk band (that was the Berry era), but I’d bet few have actually heard the baby Beasties do their Oi!
We decided to do a little internet archeology and see what sort of pimply, spiky, snotty morsels we could blow the digital dust from.
Inspired by early hardcore acts like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and especially Bad Brains (that they share the same initials is no coincidence, they once told MTV), four NYC teenagers — Michael Diamond (Mike D), Kate Schellenbach, Jeremy Shatan, and John Berry — formed the The Young Aborigines in 1978, throwing shows at Berry’s loft at the corner of 100th and Broadway.
Initially stuck behind the drum kit, the first time Mike D touched the mic was for the Young Aborigines’ track “Asshole.” In 1981, Shatan left and was replaced by a 17-year-old Adam Yauch. The new lineup took the name the Beastie Boys (the moniker is often credited to Berry).
The following year, they appeared on the compilation New York Trash alongside their heroes Bad Brains, before recording the EP Poly Wog Stew.
Shortly after, Berry left the band — partly because of his drug use and partly, his disinterest. “I became less and less interested and started missing rehearsals,” he once told Spin. “A couple of times I showed up really fucked up on crystal meth.” He was replaced by Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) of fellow Manhattan punk band The Young and the Useless.
Around that time, just as the Bronx scene was boiling, the group began obsessing over Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang records as furiously as they once burnt out Bad Brains platters, and quickly transitioned to hip-hop. “Cooky Puss,” their 1983 debut single and the title track off their next EP, ditched the power chords for samples and scratches and a playful, adolescent flow.
Schellenbach left in ’84 and was not replaced, leaving just the trio of rap-loving jokers: Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA. The following year, they were invited to open for Madonna. And with that, their hardcore punk days were over.
But they’d return to those influences often. Here’s a collection of covers — Bad Brains and Circle Jerks and Minor Threat — they’d perform every now and then.
But though they became better known as pioneering white rappers, their punk roots never quite left their DNA. In 1995, while jamming on the songs that would form Hello Nasty, they quickly and inadvertently compiled a number of hardcore songs that they knew wouldn’t make the full-length, so they collected them all and quietly released them on the not so quiet Aglio e Olio EP. Their last true hardcore release.
For more of the early years, here’s an 18-minute mini-doc called, appropriately enough, The Beastie Boys: Early Years (1979 – 1983).