Hip-Hop as a genre only being in it’s mid-forties gives little to a list of current groups that survived the torrential journey that is the career of a band; Public Enemy, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called quest – though their 18 year hiatus may disqualify them for this exclusive list- are among the only bands in Hip-Hop that continued to innovate and maintain stability through the 80s to the present day. As a product of the youth of the genre their story is as close to a chronological unfolding of the evolution of the genre as it is a telling of their personal evolution.
The Beastie Boys began as a Punk Rock band, founding members Mike D & MCA actually met at a Bad Brains show, the punk attitude is always on display throughout their entire career but reevaluated through the lens this book cleans allows new comers to clearly see the band’s intent even amidst their most disingenuous ‘Licensed To Ill’ phase. Ad Rock calls it the “become what you hate” theory, Punk tends to turn concepts on their head, poke holes in facades, and mock the unquestioned accepted norm. The Beastie Boys proved that this can backfire as ‘Licensed To Ill’, their landmark debut album (selling more than 10 million copies) was more tongue-in-cheek than literal, the Punks were poking fun at jock culture, party life and macho-ism (the album’s original title was “Don’t Be A Faggot”- something they make note to apologize for in the book and also further explain that that was a satirical title based on the overly masculine jock ideology) fortunately and unfortunately for the band the public did not know this. This created immense success but also internal identity issues for the band, ex-communicated drummer Kate Schellenbach (who gets her own chapter in the book specifically to explain this crisis) states “I think it still holds up as one of the funniest comedy records of all time. But I was in on the joke- sadly most of the world wasn’t, and eventually even the Beasties forgot it was a joke.” The book does a great job in displaying the 3 MC’s true character prior to their debut and also their remorse for their behavior during that era. A product of it’s time it is also evident to note that this book dedicates a lot of time to expunging any inappropriate behavior – that any diehard fan knows is well documented(still on Youtube)- from the story. Tell-All books wont be as “Tell-All’ in today’s era and the band consciously or subconsciously lets this be know when they devote a whole section to feminists explaining why the Beastie Boys weren’t misogynistic, ironically, during their most misogynistic phase, a section that in and of itself is a give away to the fact that they obviously were. The reasons given are somewhat perplexing, (one said they just knew they were nice middle class boys at heart, another said that they were cute and let them have a pass) all reasons that in ‘cancel culture’ today may even get the defender in hot water. Had the story ended here due to the vacuum of moral absolutism MCA would never have helped thousands of Tibetan Monks escape and raise awareness of a global genocide to a public that was completely ignorant to a massive humanitarian crisis, another testament not only to the band’s evolution but the spiritual and personal evolution of every human being.
The creative evolution of the Beastie Boys obviously shows in their music, 3 completely different incarnations span over their first 3 LPs, but the creativity spills out into their book as well, which is just as innovative, unique and clever with all the anti-minimalism they are known for. ‘Beastie Boys Book’ reads like a combination between a popular blog, an AOL Instant Messenger chat room, a comic book, and a Monty Python script. Due to the fact that the Beasties may be the oldest currently active (releasing music as recently as 2011) group in Hip-Hop other than Public Enemy who’s debut didn’t come out to after ‘Licensed To Ill’ was already a success, we get to read the story of Hip-Hop itself unfold with all the humor and idiosyncratic wit of the Beastie Boys. Save for them we would only get this first hand account of one of the most unique genre’s unfolding from a journalist’s viewpoint, not a participant’s. Old friends chime in to correct accounts, Rick Rubin clarifies details about his college dorm room, Spike Jonez takes over to detail the beginning of the Beasties costume phase, Mix Master Mike radios in from outer-space, and even 3 mystery men detail time at a summer camp with MCA pre-fame. ‘Beastie Boys Book’ is one of the most unique autobiographies ever written, Mike D and Ad Rock take turns authoring chapters (til it seems like Mike D got tired and just let Ad Rock take over for chapters on end at times), the fact that MCA’s perspective is missing is sad but adds to the mystique of perhaps the band’s most intriguing member, a producer, video editor, humanitarian, avid snow boarder, photographer, and more. Though the band always acted and came across as one single entity, due to MCA’s views on life and his complex theories on religion and suffering -not to mention the most obvious 180 degree switch out of the 3 members – leads one to beg to hear his take on the career and journey of the band more than anyone else’s. This is immediately acknowledged by Ad Rock before the book even starts. Nonetheless we have a book on a band who’s perspective on Hip-Hop covers “The 80s, the 90s, 2000s and so” written almost 40 years after the band formed.
Another anachronistic trait of Hip-Hop pre-1994, when some would claim Illmatic forever altered the course of album production, is in-house beat making. Public Enemy had the Bomb Squad, De La Soul had Prince Paul -as an overseer mostly-, KRS One had BDP, and even Slick Rick was making his beats. What most don’t know is that Chuck D was part of the Bomb Squad, De La made all their beats on their first 3 LPs (and a good portion of them afterward), KRS One worked on his production as well along with Scott La Rock, and Slick Rick had his on production mis-credited to more famous producers during the making of his debut LP. Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-tip alternated on beats until wonder-kid J Dilla joined The Ummah after their 3rd LP. Most “Golden Era” Hip Hop was created this way, the band did everything, Ad Rock one Sway In The Morning states in a relatively recent interview how “weird” it is that bands and artists today aren’t involved in their production and even their album artwork. Hip-Hop and Punk grew up as long lost brothers (that weren’t so lost, they were actually neighbors) and the DIY (Do It Yourself) attitude was evident in both mostly as a necessity. Both were so far from mainstream the only assistance they could get in bringing their ideas into fruition was the assistance immediately at hand or their own personal impromptu learn-on-the-fly personal assistance. This kind of culture leads to extremely unique sounds and visions from each band, why the Beasties sound and look nothing like Public Enemy, Run DMC, Slick Rick or any other act of the “Golden Era”. Rick Rubin plays the role Prince Paul would play 3 years later for De La Soul, in a time when “producer” did not have the same meaning it has today, “overseer” would be more fitting. All with some sort of musical knowledge and talent (they started out as a Punk band all playing their own instruments) the Beastie never get the full credit they deserve as beatmakers and producers. Fast forward 20 years to the Kanye Producer/Rapper days and doing both is accepted and heralded -even if Kanye is the first one to bridge the gap-. Had the Beastie Boys come out in 2006 instead Ad Rock would have had an interesting and lucrative side career as a super-producer, producing hits for his contemporaries. The self proclaimed “Benihana chef on the SP12 (popular drum machine used at the time)” who “chop(s) the fuck out the beats left on the shelf” was the innovative mind that programmed the Go-Go style percussion pattern on “Hold It Now, Hit It!” the break out single of “Licensed To Ill” that was funky enough to get 3 unknown white rappers clout in the all black Hip-Hop world of the 1980s. “Hold It Now” was played in clubs and spread like wild fire, as soon as Russell Simmons heard it he told them to release it and rushed to press up copies. The Beasties get credit for the tidal wave they sent through music with their persona and hits but never enough for the soundscapes they created underneath those hits. “You be like ‘HELLO NASTY!, where you been? It’s time you brought the grimy beats out the dungeon!'” Ad Rock later states on their 1998 masterpiece “Hello Nasty” an LP when the band was fully formed, now flawlessly integrating instrumental tracks, hardcore tracks, break beats, dub and alternative rock into one album. MCA and Mike D as well had their weapons of choice when it came to beat making, MCA created a room-long tape loop of the open drum break from “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin which ended up becoming their opening track on their debut. MCA would later strip down a song on their last album and re-do the entire record from drums to bass without the rest of the band’s knowledge, or Nas’- the guest feature on the song- till they were ready to mix the record and finalize it. Ad Rock’s Roland 808 would also be used for many of the early Def Jam productions as well, strange how a Hip-Hop record label didn’t even have a drum machine for their artists till the Beastie Boys came along.
Important overlooked gems like this are essential in understanding the significance of a band and ‘Beastie Boys Book’ does a great job of shedding light on these without glorifying or overstating. Though this book is massive, diehard fans will notice some stories that can be found on interviews on YouTube that don’t make it to the book. The more juvenile or gossipy ones like the stories of their egging spree on the public once they moved to LA which is covered in the track “Egg Man” on “Paul’s Boutique” but could be taken as fiction until one sees an interview where a more matured Beastie Boys are looking back on that album and discussing each track and then they go into detail about how they literally were egging random people around town. The more gossipy stories go back to beefs with Russell Simmons, literally dissing him on records as late as 1994’s “Ill Communication” and even subliminally on “To The 5 Boroughs” and also MCA’s fling with Madonna while the Beasties were opening up for her on her first major tour. These stories are either omitted or reduced to seem innocent and wholesome, perhaps a part do to their obvious growth as people or due to a different climate in admittance to one’s past missteps or inappropriate behavior today. They do mention going on tour with a giant inflatable penis, which would be hard to breeze by such a perplexing detail like that anyway. Sure the Beasties have a lot to be ashamed of but what adult isn’t ashamed of their behavior as a teenager and a 20 year old later? They tapped into the youth of America through satire (that was not so easily picked up on) and connected with the collective teenage mind through commonality, nothing that should be looked down on or that is shame worthy, they spoke their particular truth at that time. Their work later would prove their true intent as artists, they would go on to speak up against sexual assault at festivals during acceptance speeches at award shows, racism, anti-Muslim rhetoric, oppose overt exploitative advertisement, and always give credit to the legends who came before them in a culture they were aware they were guests in.
‘Beastie Boys Book’ not only is a great read, it is an innovative endeavor in it’s scope and approach. You will literally laugh out loud, you will get a peek into the inside jokes we have heard on record but never knew we didn’t even understand. “Pray Mantis on the court and I can’t be beat/Yo Tip what’s up with the boots on your feet?” MCA raps to Q-Tip, “I got the timbo’s on my toes and this is how it goes” Q-Tip responds on the 1994 song “Get It Together”. A funny non-sequitur it seems at first until the chapter explaining Q-Tip’s appearances at their G-Son recording studio that was fixed with a skate ramp and indoor basketball court. The Beasties explain how Tip would play Basketball with one of the members of the Jungle Brothers in full Hip-Hop (of the time) attire: Dashikis, gold chains, headbands and even Timberland boots, all while being on magic mushrooms at times and missing numerous shots. They don’t even mention how this story relates to the line but any true fan would connect the dots and find how self-referential the Beasties really are, carelessly rapping lyrics that they themselves would only understand, proving that an artist true to their self will reach the world quicker than one catering to what the audience is expected to want to hear. Also further solidifying the fact that though they are a commercially successful band they are always just 3 friends enjoying life, we just happen to be enjoying the art that comes out of that friendship.