Sunday 22 September 2019

Beastie Boys: The 'three idiots' who became hip hop pioneers

Former punks: Yauch, Diamond and Horowitz of the Beastie Boys
Former punks: Yauch, Diamond and Horowitz of the Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys Book by Adam Horowitz and Michael Diamond

'After a while, there's only so much of a rush you can get from playing a hardcore matinee at a bar that smells like stale beer, urine, and cigarettes, but… something happened that made us throw away everything we'd already built. Hip hop came downtown."

An account of how the Beastie Boys, three "snobby twenty-ish-year-old jerks from New York City", grew up and shaped generations of musicians (as well as losing a member, at the age of 47, to cancer) needs telling. There has never been a band like them, before or since they formed, and their story has never really been outlined so microscopically and authoritatively. The Beastie Boys also have enigma on their side - despite selling about 50 million records worldwide, unless you were a card-carrying fan, could you pick any of them out of a line-up or even name any of them?

The story begins in the late 1970s when the group formed first as a hardcore punk unit, influenced by US bands such as Bad Brains, English acts such as Buzzcocks and Irish groups such as Stiff Little Fingers. By 1983, two co-founding members left, paving the way for the remaining original member Michael Diamond (aka Mike D) to welcome into the fold fellow New Yorkers Adam Horowitz (aka Ad-Rock) and Adam Yauch (aka MCA).

Within a year or so, punk rock got sidelined by hip hop, and this is when (and, in NYC, where) the real Beastie Boys story begins. At this time, we are told (in a perfect scene-setting early chapter), "a lot of hip hop is just a rumour" swirling around "every strain of urban music," and folding "into a cult of the groove".

Not everybody, you are sharply (and ruefully) informed, has gotten the news quite yet, however. This was an era when a 'Disco Sucks' badge was seen as a metallic arbiter of taste, and when a support group to a Times Square gig by The Clash was booed off the stage. You could say with safety, of course, that the support act - Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose 1982 single, 'The Message', is regarded as one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time - has had the last laugh, but only because of what happened next.

What happened next was that the Beastie Boys were inexorably sucked into this changing of the guard. Rap music in the early-mid 80s, we read, embodied New York City's "verbal agility and aggression, its constantly fractured barrage of travelling sounds, its abrasive textures and juxtaposed incongruities, its densely layered strata of information… It is occurring to people all over the city that rap is a sound that can be carved." Cue the Beastie Boys.

The transition phase from hardcore punk to rap was natural if initially stuttering. Realising the differences between hardcore ("so much is about limits - shorter, simpler, more speed, more volume") and rap ("limitless possibilities, limitless imagination") made them swiftly jettison one for the other, but in doing so, the three young men made an early error by allowing rap's overt machismo and misogyny to override their collective background.

"In a flash," recalls Adam Horowitz, "Beastie Boys went from being the funny tipsy guy with the lampshade on his head to the ugly drunk dude that people were trying to figure out how to get out of their apartment."

Such a phase had its drawbacks, notably when one of their best friends (and early fellow band member), Kate Schellenbach recalls how she was "losing her pals" with their new-found blend of knucklehead bravado, sexist jokes, "hip hop swagger" and obviously double entendre song titles such as 'Rock Hard'.

By the end of 1986, however, the trio had released their debut album, Licensed to Ill, and (spurred on, perhaps, by the Rolling Stone review headline of 'Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece') the Beastie Boys took off like a rocket. Follow-up albums such as 1989's Paul's Boutique (regarded as a landmark hip hop album because of its ingenious use of samples), 1994's Ill Communication, and 2004's To The 5 Boroughs teased convention, trounced tradition, and presented the group - now much more evolved - as both pioneers and established artists.

That this book tells their story so well is not a surprise - Mike Diamond and Adam Horowitz have exceptionally keen recall - but how it tells it is amazing. Across almost 600 pages, the book visually, astutely, represents their sampling techniques with a chronological mish-mash of cartoons, photos, guest testimonials (Luc Sante, Amy Poehler, Kate Schellenbach, Spike Jonze), recipes, hotel memos, mixtape lists and more besides.

The loss of their friend Adam Yauch impacts throughout, but the tone is as it has always been: a pack of wild cards dealt by smart dudes. Memoir of the year?

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