You can’t, you won’t and you don’t stop
The very first thing I searched for on the internet was information about the Beastie Boys’ magazine Grand Royal. Back in 1994, we were living in the land of dial-up modems which took forever to go through the motions, but …
The very first thing I searched for on the internet was information about the Beastie Boys’ magazine Grand Royal. Back in 1994, we were living in the land of dial-up modems which took forever to go through the motions, but you were prepared to wait. Hell, you had to wait. You had no other choice. I can’t remember what I found out about Grand Royal on that first search, but I know that the magazine’s approach to content – music, culture, fashion and random stuff which would have made absolutely no sense in any other context – was just what I wanted from a magazine. I wasn’t alone. Those Beastie Boys knew what they were doing.
I’m not the only one reliving the band’s heyday in the wake of the very sad news about Adam “MCA” Yauch on Friday. It’s telling that this death has had so much of an effect on so many people from their twenties to forties. The Beastie Boys were a key band for this generation because they embraced the cultural and artistic possibilities of the age.
Three savvy New Yorkers who hit the high spots during hip-hop’s golden age, they naturally went on to do lots of different stuff as the years passed by. Like their peers, standing still and repeating yourself was never an option. They were still rhyming – last year’s “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2″ album, by the way, is a peach – but they were also involved in everything from art exhibitions (Mike Diamond has just curated Transmission LA for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles) to film-making (Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories produced flicks like that great basketball doc Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot, Irishman Lance Daly’s Kisses and tons more). Why stick to one thing when you have the chance and the talent to have a go at many things?
But it was the music which was the real special sauce. Every single album was a spectacular bum-rush of bad-ass funky sounds (“Paul’s Boutique”, “Check Your Head” and “Ill Communication” continue to display incendiary smarts in this department and not just when it comes to canny crate-digging) and brilliant, eminently quotable one-liners and zingers. Live, they started out as snotty punk rock brats and morphed into an act who could work a GAA field (Galway, 1998) or tent (Electric Picnic, 2007) to the bone. I saw them several times over the years – those two shows, Dublin’s Tivoli in 1994 and the RDS the following year – and they never failed to convince.
After the jump, you’ll find an interview I did with all three of them back in 1998 before that Galway show. You rarely get to interview all the members of a band together (most times, you don’t want that), but with the Beastie Boys, it made perfect sense (or nonsense, depending on their mood). All for one, one for all.
The interaction between US hip-hop and the GAA continues. Where once upon a time, Semple Stadium got the message from the likes of De La Soul and Cypress Hill at the Feile shebangs, the action has now switched west to Galway. There, in a pokey clubhouse behind a big bare field a few miles out of the city, the threesome who have made one of the year’s most exhilirating albums lounge around in one of the dressing-rooms. The Beastie Boys and hurling prowess – don’t laugh, stranger things have happened.
Like who could have imagined that the hip-hop brats who fought for their right to party and to wear Volkswagen badges as a sign of cool would still be rhyming 12 years later? The rapping is one thing, the elevation to iconic status thanks to their run of extra-curricular activities is quite something else. Hanging with the Dalai Lama and providing the dynamo behind the Free Tibet concerts and albums is an inter-planetary leap from stage-shows featuring gyrating lay-dees in cages and much spilt beer on the floor.
What hasn’t changed in the metamorphosis is the line-up. The Beastie three who produced “Hello Nasty” are still the snotty trio who emerged from New York as hardcore punk kids more interested in making a racket than helping a cause. Then, it was all Minor Threat poses and Black Flag ideas, the first releases like “Pollywog Stew” the very essence of surly underground hardcore punk rock. Now, it’s very different, in sound, attitude and style.
That said, Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock) and Adam Yauch (aka MCA) can still goof with the best of them. Tangents taken over the course of the interview expand on such notions as why you never see Mike Brady’s office in The Brady Bunch, the lack of jet-packs in the world, what people see in fridge magnets, the attractions of Ray’s Pizza and the size of the pentagram in Slayer’s dressing-room at a festival in Spain the previous night. When all three are in one room, Mike D admits, it can get difficult. “When we’re like this, we do fool around. We’ve known each other so long that it just happens. I can’t see it changing now”.
Of course, albums like “Hello Nasty” excuse most forms of goofing around. Swinging like Tiger Woods and swaggering like Mickey Rourke, it swoops on influences, turns them inside out and then re-introduces them to the world under a new identity. Jazzy flutes, steel-drum bands, bossa-nova breaks, ballads to make James Taylor go “ah shucks”, Lee “Scratch” Perry lunacy, dynamite dub and hip-hop hurrahs: all merge into the Beastie mix.
You could say that it is the three returning to “Paul’s Boutique”, their groundbreaking second album which put psychedelia, soul and superfly funk in the tank and produced hip-hop’s answer to “Pet Sounds”. While it may have been a commercial stiff, it brought new ideas and directions into the game and paved the way for the Beastie renaissance. “Hello Nasty” is the banker, the album which will reward their perseverence and risks with a large pay-day.
It’s very much a record from the old-school . “Yeah, it’s where it’s at us for us now” agrees Adam Horovitz. “There are still a lot of guitars on the record but the fact that we’re also trying out other shit means you don’t notice them as much. There are more beats, there’s more hip-hop stuff and we ended up chopping up a lot of different sounds. It’s not like “Ill Communication” or “Check Your Head” which had loads of hardcore guitar, bass and drums. We could have done that again but that would have been too boring. For us yeah and probably for everyone else too.”
“Even the way we worked was different this time” says Diamond. “We were just hanging around with each other at home in New York and a lot of songs came out of that. It could be an idea from here that sets the ball rolling or a sample from there or just a lyric and then we just mess around with it. That’s why it takes us so long to make and release records, we try so much stuff out. Sometimes you get a song like “I Don’t Know” and it’s fine, you don’t have to mess with it.” Horovitz adds “basically, we’re an anarcho-situationalist commune”.
They even take time on the album to look at themes the boys of “Licensed To Ill” would never have bothered with. Raps about techno-fear, non-violence, greed, insecurity and Buddhism can be found inbetween lines like “I’m intercontinental when I eat French toast”. The big issues are rolling this time round. “If you’re not honest in what you write, people will only make up what you don’t say” sighs Adam Yauch. “Making music is a real personal thing, it goes deep into your sub-conscious. It’s easy to get ego-damaged and step on everyone’s toes. When you start to get a lot of attention as a band, it’s easy for tensions to rise. Over the years, we’ve got over that hump and we know what’s what with each other. We’re like ‘whatever you feel like doing, that’s cool’ with each other.”
Doing other things covers a lot of ground. For Diamond, this means marshalling the X-Large streetwear-with-a-twist label, the Grand Royal label (home to Sean Lennon, Lucious Jackson and cool Jap-poppers Buffalo Daughter) and overseeing the esteemed Grand Royal magazine (articles on lounging, golf, Miami bass, Lee Perry and chicken burrittos). For Yauch, it’s Buddhism, the Free Tibet movement and the annual concerts for that cause. For Horovitz, it’s basketball and keyboards.
It sure sounds better than sitting around in a bleak GAA dressing-room. Diamond smiles. “I think people have the impression that what we do outside the band is more important to us. That’s not how it is at all, this is what we’ve always done, the rest is not unimportant but it’s not the main thing. Last year, all anyone wanted to talk about was the other stuff but that’s because there was nothing new from us to talk about. Now, we’ve got this album and this tour so the focus has changed for everyone.”
Yauch takes up the theme. “Like I don’t mind talking about the Tibet stuff because people really want to know and shoudl know about it. I want the information to get out there and the more information about the situation that gets out there, the better. But you can’t forget that it wasn’t for the music, we wouldn’t be here right now and those kids out there (pointing towards the field) wouldn’t be here”.
They do realise, however, that they are in an enviable position to promote their other activities. “The more famous you are, the more amplified what you do and what you say become” believes Diamond. “Whatever you do has a huge effect, everything from a little joke to getting involved in stuff like Tibet or running a magazine. When all the stuff blew up on that first English tour (including Horovitz getting arrested for allegedly throwing a beer-can at someone in the audience), it had an effect on us as a band. It made us think and realise that our actions do effect a lot of people. What we’ve got now is something different, what we’re doing is not what the tabloids want to know about. It’s on a different level. but looking back with hindsight, i think that everything is meant to happen for a reason. That experience was part of the plan and maybe without that, we wouldn’t be doing this in the same style that we are today.”
“Yeah”, interrupts Horovitz, “we’d probably have more jet-packs”. Diamond looks up. “You know, I honestly thought there would be more jet-packs by now. When we were kids and they had The Jetsons on the TV, they always had jet-packs to get around. If we had jet-packs, we could have been here earlier today. Actually, we could have just put on our jet-packs after the gig last night and boom, away we go”.
Yauch has an admission to make. “I haven’t told you guys yet, but I have a jet-pack”
“No!” shouts Horovitz.
“Yeah, it’s in road kit”
“I just looked in the road kit and I didn’t see no jet pack
“It’s real small”
It’s back to goofing around. Horovitz wishes to point out that what they were wearing onstage were not actually boiler-suits: “that’s a fallacy, man, they are professional uniforms that we use to perform in, there’s nothing silly about a man who is in the midst of doing a job up there onstage wearing a uniform”. There are a couple of unrepeatable comments about Slayer, Yauch starts talking about why he digs Ray’s Pizza (a New York pizza chain) so much and Horovitz slags off the interview’s busted shoulder. The high fives and in-jokes begin again in earnest. It must be time to go.