The Beastie Boys were once upon a time the court jesters of rap. Wearing the label loud and proud, the New York trio lived by their own set of rules and ignited controversy wherever they set foot. Besides their daring-to-be-different and non-conforming attitudes, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “MCA” Yauch were considered pretty influential musicians too – the group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
Originally formed as a four-piece punk band – drummer Kate Schellenbach and guitarist John Berry made up the four with Diamond and Yauch – the Beastie Boys tried to break into the growing punk scene in 1982 with their Pollywog Stew EP. Garnering little attention, that year the band met Horovitz, who had put together the group The Young And The Useless. By early 1983, Schellenbach and Berry had left the group leaving a spot open for Horovitz to slot into. Revamped and ready to experiment, the 12-inch single ‘Cooky Puss’, which was inspired by a prank phone call the boys made to an ice cream parlour, became an underground club hit in New York.
Pretty much-abandoning punk by 1984 and transitioning into rap, it was the Jewish frat boys desire to seek out a DJ that would change everything for them. Wanting to improve their stage shows within the rap arena, the group met Rick Rubin, who, after manning the ones and twos for the group temporarily, teamed up with Russell Simmons to create the legendary Def Jam Records.
Officially signing on the Def Jam dotted line in 1985, the Beastie Boys became an instant hit. Included on the soundtrack to the movie Krush Groove, ‘She’s On It’, which sampled AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’, gave hints to the type of approach the group would later take when putting together their debut album.
The any-and-all-welcome attitude of the emergent Hip Hop scene was something the Beastie Boys just wanted to be a part of. Being the first successful white group in a culture dominated by those of African/American descent, questions about their authenticity were often raised and accusations of cultural pirating were a regular occurrence. This didn’t matter to the boys. Being the first minority students of the old school, they preferred to be looked at as class clowns than subscribers to the dean’s list anyway. Upon further inspection, this was never more evident than on their 1986 debut Licensed To Ill.
With rock meeting rap for the very first time on such a large scale, on Licensed To Ill [with the help of Rick Rubin] the Beastie Boys tapped into the spirit of teenage rebellion like no other. Later inspiring the likes of Eminem, Insane Clown Posse, and Limp Bizkit to throw down and embrace their inner rebel, anthems such as ‘Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ and ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ became the soundtrack to many teenage lives for the next year. Indulging in a lot of alcohol, a lot of women, and a whole lot of cursing, the introduction of the Beastie Boys into the world of rap via Licensed To Ill – which became rap’s first-ever number one album, one of Def Jam/Columbia’s fastest-selling debuts, and the biggest selling rap album of the 80’s – shook up the genre in a colossal way.
Identified as troublemakers, controversy followed the Beasties like a lingering smell. Not only were they highly criticised for their unruly behaviour whilst supporting Madonna on a North American tour, in 1987 their own Licensed To Ill tour saw their mischievous recklessness taken to a whole other level. Besides the inflatable penises decorating the stage, and the countless females dancing whilst locked in cages, the worst came when on the Liverpool, Royal Court Theatre leg of the tour the audience erupted into a riot just ten minutes after the trio hit the stage – Ad-Rock was later arrested on assault charges.
Breaking away from Def Jam soon after Licensed To Ill was released, parting ways with the label wasn’t easy. After a bitter lawsuit between themselves, Def Jam and Rick Rubin, the group relocated to California in 1988, where they signed with Capitol Records. Leaving the obnoxious sounds of sexism and distasteful humour behind, blending the aesthetic style points of b-boydom with the new cut-and-paste production craze doing the rounds, Paul’s Boutique was born. Misunderstood originally, the material contained went over the heads of many. Having since been recognised as the pinnacle point for the just-born art of sampling (the year was 1989), the artistically mature 15-track journey into sound went on to be ranked #156 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Set up in 1992, the Beastie Boys launched their own record label, Grand Royal. Also starting a magazine of the same name, one of its biggest issues was it’s second when it published an article talking about the mullet – something the Beastie Boys are credited as creating. Their sound changing once again, this time opting to embrace their punk roots a little bit more than previously, their album Check Your Head (1992) positioned the group as an alternative rock groove band with soulful jazz, trash metal, and dirty funk all a part of the mix. Catapulting them back into public consciousness – the forward-thinking genius of Paul’s Boutique hadn’t quite sunk in yet – joints such as ‘Pass The Mic’, ‘Finger Licking Good’ and ‘So What’cha Want’ helped them continue to set creative trends.
Continuing to be one of the most successful commercial crossovers in music, the album Ill Communication (1994) put the Beasties back on top. Throwing their hat back into the rap ring, ‘Sure Shot’ played like a vintage breakbeat with a heightened sense of lyricism tailored more towards just having fun. ‘Sabotage’ was undoubtedly the album’s crowning glory. The perfect balance of rock and rap, with its Spike Jonze-directed video showcasing the group’s comedic talents, landed the Beasties their second number one album whilst going triple platinum in the process.
Hitting multi-platinum sales once again, the sonically head-spinning Hello Nasty gave the Beastie Boys yet another number one album. Not only that, but the 1998 LP also took home two awards at the 1999 Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for ‘Intergalactic’. Loaded with synths and dizzying electronic backdrops, the album also marked the introduction of DMC champion Mix Master Mike to the group’s line-up. Building upon the musical mash-up that was Check Your Head, Hello Nasty covered more genre-bouncing ground than any of their previous efforts.
Following Hello Nasty, a greatest hits titled The Sounds Of Science hit stores in 1999. Then right before their 2004 album To The 5 Boroughs was released, which spawned the hit ‘Ch-Check It Out’, the Beastie Boys were involved in a landmark sampling dispute of mega importance. Having sampled a six-second flute stab in their track ‘Pass The Mic’, taken from James Newton’s ‘Choir’, they had obtained permission to use the sound recording but not the composition rights to the song itself. The federal judge’s decision ended up swinging in their favour because “consisting of three notes separated by a half-step over a background C note is not sufficient to sustain a claim for copyright infringement.”
With iconic performances still a part of the group’s repertoire, before dropping their final two projects – the Grammy Award-winning instrumental album The Mix Up (2007) and 2012’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two – the Beasties put together a memorable performance of ‘Ch-Check It Out’ for The Late Night Show With David Letterman. Beginning by running out of a New York subway station, rapping all the way to the studio whilst following a camera down the block, the streets were quite literally paved with hundreds of fans witnessing something only the Beastie Boys would have the audacity to do.
The unfortunate passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, who succumbed to his ongoing battle with cancer on May 4th of 2012, closed the door on an incredibly influential career. While it’s unclear as to whether or not Mike D or Ad-Rock will release anymore Beastie Boys music, there is talk of an autobiography being written by the group’s remaining members.
Words – Will “ill Will” Lavin