When they first hit the scene two decades ago, who could have guessed these half-grown adolescents would one day become rap elders? With their bratty rhymes and Wiffle bats, Adam Horowitz (King Adrock), Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Yauch (MCA) were the unlikeliest genre survivors. And yet, while Arrested Development and Kool Moe Dee vanished into anonymity, while Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. coughed up the occasional stale record, the Beastie Boys have turned out a series of classics and near-classics. They continue to be relevant, hip and soda-coming-out-the-nose funny.
"I was into hip-hop from the first time I heard it," Yauch says. "I caught Sugarhill Gang on the radio, and I was amazed. Even when we were into punk music and used to go to clubs and play punk, we all listened to hip-hop. We used to check out the Funky 4 + 1 downtown and Afrika Bambaataa when he started doing things at the Grill. When you're a kid and you start listening to hip-hop a lot, you memorize the lyrics. We were hanging out and rhyming all the time."
In 1986, the band's debut record Licensed to Ill became the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the charts. There weren't many 10th-graders who didn't memorize the absurd lyrics to "Paul Revere." Some of us got our older brothers to buy us a bottle of Brass Monkey, inspired by the hit song, and then promptly yakked all over our Converse high tops.
The Beastie Boys perform at American Airlines Center on Saturday, October 23.
After the band's auspicious debut, many expected the Beastie Boys to go the way of parachute pants. But their sophomore record, the innovative Paul's Boutique, may be the Satanic Majesties Request of their catalog, featuring a trunk full of samples before the Man clamped down on that practice. With Check Your Head, the group came correct, knocking out funk jams and primitive punk rock, proving they were legit with real instruments. Ill Communication didn't break new ground but contained hip-hop and rock radio standards like "Sure Shot" and "Sabotage," while Hello Nasty featured the retro-futuristic mega-hit "Intergalactic."
Early this summer, after six years of lying low, the Beasties released their most political album to date, To the 5 Boroughs. And for the first time in their careers, the trio stumbled onto subject matter clearly over their heads.
"Some people come up to us and say they are glad to hear us rapping about what we think," Yauch says. "But other people say they wish we wouldn't bring politics into it. On each of our records, it seems like we change up the style of what we're doing, maybe because there are such long breaks between the records. A lot of people get pissed off and walk away, while other new people get interested in it. And there are a couple of people who stick around."
Penning intelligent political songs is a task at which only a few hip-hop artists (The Coup, Public Enemy, Paris) or songwriters of any genre have succeeded. The Beasties, famous for agile wordplay and obscure retro pop culture references, are also avid Bush-haters and committed activists for Tibetan freedom. But the trite criticism of the Bush Administration on "Time to Build" is the sort that any door-to-door Greenpeace activist could rattle off.
"An Open Letter to NYC" is a swell idea, a song dedicated to the hometown that figures so prominently in the group's lyrics and image. But the song hits every New York cliché. Consider the chorus: "Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/from the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/black, white/New York, you make it happen."
Though the three socially conscious songs on To the 5 Boroughs sound cobbled together from a songbook of annoying protest chants, the rest of the album is vintage Beastie greatness. It's loaded with tributes to the old school, including discreet samples from the likes of Marley Marl, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J.
"Triple Trouble" has the vibe of an old-timey rap tune. The Beasties have the funk beats, retro percussion, crisp scratching and the antiquated rhymin' style down cold on the chorus, "If you/wanna know/wanna know/the real deal about the 3/Well let me tell you/we're triple trouble y'all/We're gonna bring you up to speed."
"The chorus is something that we reworked from a group called Double Trouble," says Yauch. "It's like a tip of the hat to them. We all come up with the music. Some of it we concoct together in the studio. On this album, we did pretty much everything ourselves."
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Another song recalling rap's formative years is the hit single "Ch-Check It Out," where the Beasties fling around off-the-wall rhymes and demonstrate how they've mastered their slippery style and timing, despite the fact that both Horowitz and Diamond still possess whiny, high-pitched, forever-eighth-grade-sounding voices. (Yauch, on the other hand, has the cool, gruff, Method Man-like voice.)
On "Rhyme the Rhyme Well" verses are fired off quick and silly: "With the cornbread stuffin'/with the Blimpie Bluffin/motherfuckin' Yossi/with those goddamn muffins/Hey could you please/pass me the peas?/And let me get a tissue/if you think you're gonna sneeze/I'm the player and the coach/I'm no roach/I bought my grandma a brand new brooch."
Rarely is there a theme to the Beastie Boys' songs, which more often employ nonsensical rhymes to cover the mass of junk that interests them: Jewish deli food, Japanese kitsch, pickup basketball, Saturday morning cartoons and Miss Piggy. The similarity of their tastes and their longtime friendship, which goes back to their teen years, has made them a durable hip-hop entity.
"When we're not touring, we're recording," Yauch says. "I'd say we spend the majority of our lives together. Sometimes, I see the band more than my family. We do get pissed at each other. But most of the time we get along pretty well. We're just having a good time doing what we're doing."