Published Oct 29, 2018It's been too long since a generation of fans heard from their cool older brothers in Beastie Boys. In their prime, the Beasties were the ultimate crate diggers and tastemakers, copping only the finest samples and musical styles to create their own unique thing. It was the New York in them that kept their ears cocked, like antennas, for something new that their open minds could process and spit back out from a fresh perspective. It's no surprise then that their entry into the realm of music books is something of a game changer too.
Surviving members Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) reconvene to reflect upon their life and work with Beastie Boys Book, and pay tribute to their brother, the late musician, filmmaker and creative driving force, Adam Yauch (MCA), who passed away in 2012. The result is a poignant, hilarious, time-travelling and awe-inspiring mixtape for your eyes.
The story of the Beasties and their sound(s) is ultimately also about the cities they lived in. Bred in New York City by progressive parents and school systems, and able to access clubs and recording studios when punk, hardcore and hip-hop were bursting forth, the Beasties were talented and had too much vision to last long as witnesses to history.
They got in there and saw Black Flag and Bad Brains and the Clash and Treacherous Three and Afrika Bambaataa and Run DMC. And that stew of sights and sounds reflected a formative version of their NYC that they never forgot about.
When they split town for Los Angeles to make Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head, they encountered key collaborators and inspirations (including Dust Brothers, Money Mark and, fleetingly, Bob Dylan) but while they constantly expanded their musical interests, drawing from punk, jazz, tropicalia and pop, as rappers they never abandoned the pioneering sound of NYC call-and-response MC crews, hitting certain words together, finishing each other's rhymes from verse to verse, and sticking to themes together.
As Mike and (mostly) Adam reveal the records and songs that influenced them while making their own work, their role as students of music really shines through. When Horovitz lists such things, it's impossible not to go and hunt them down and realize what a treasure trove of music he's giving us. Sure, enough tracking will give some of us pause for what was artistic homage and what was cultural theft, but beyond the Beasties' sample credits on records, this book feels like the cat really coming out of the bag.
Then there is Yauch. There's long been a sense that Yauch really was the driver and conscience behind the Beastie Boys, and his leadership role is illustrated here. From his early experiments in making beats backwards on a reel-to-reel tape machine in his cramped NYC apartment, to abandoning the artifice and misogyny that early producers/managers, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, wished to perpetuate, to producing a walloping kick drum sound by constructing a large cardboard tube lined with microphones, to coming up with key bass parts, to directing most of the band's innovative music videos, to trying to free Tibet with megastar music festivals, Yauch was always plotting and scheming to make the Beasties as impactful, entertaining, and significant as they could be.
The book reveals that from early in their inception as rappers, the Beasties wrote all of their rhymes together, and then each of them took on a verse or a line that may have not been their own individual composition. It's telling that Diamond and Horovitz, who have dabbled in some instrumental music and DJ sets, have not rhymed in public or released new raps since Yauch passed away.
The heartbreaking story of the Beastie Boys is that, friends since youth, they really were a rare collective that truly relied on each other to express themselves. Aside from the odd feature and side project, they seldom worked on music apart, which for a group who were arguably as influential on their cultural era as the Beatles were to theirs, is somewhat surprising. Perhaps, unlike the Beatles, who went solo and proceeded to fire shots and try to top each other's accomplishments, the irreverent punks within the Beasties just never sunk to that level of competitive, professional animosity.
Beastie Boys Book is revelatory and funny with gorgeous, previously unseen photos and visuals, and gosh, there's even a cookbook chapter that sounds delicious. Every page feels heartfelt, with Diamond and Horovitz heckling each other's prose or correcting fuzzy memories. And it also can't help but be sad, as Adam Yauch is certainly celebrated by his bandmates and guest essayists but he's also clearly missing and missed. (Spiegel & Grau)