It seems like only yesterday that the music world first turned on to three dudes from New York City. But ever since they exploded onto the scene, the Beastie Boys have defied all expectations.
Elder statesmen of Hip Hop: the men called Beastie. From left: Mike D (Michael Diamond), King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and MCA (Adam Yauch).
Has it been 25 years already? Originally considered a novelty act, the Beastie Boys have endured and grown musically. Now the men known as MCA (aka Adam Yauch), Mike D (Michael Diamond) and King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) are respected elder statesmen of the Hip Hop movement. Recently inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Boys have accumulated total sales exceeding 20 million albums and have carved out a lasting musical legacy.
At the beginning, they were just three white guys trying to make rap music – and have fun. The band originally had two other members and the Beastie Boys played primarily Punk Rock, or some variation of it. But they were in New York right at the time when Rap started taking off and they eventually channeled their inner MCs.
In celebration of their recent Hall of Fame triumph, we thought we’d sift through a quarter-century of Beastie madness and salute a handful of their top tracks:
Track: “Cooky Puss”
Album: Some Old Bulls*&% (1983)
Why You Should Listen: In the beginning, there was the turntable. And it was funny. At least it was how the Beasties used it in their ’83 breakthrough single, “Cooky Puss,” a series of prank phone calls overlaid on a Hip Hop beat and mixed with plenty of turntable scratching.
It’s difficult to decide which is more amusing—the goofy sounds of a Steve Martin comedy album being slowed down and stretched on the turntable or the comical rudeness the Beasties display when phoning a local Carvel Ice Cream shop. At first, the Carvel worker mistakenly assumes that the caller wants to order a Cooky Puss ice cream cake. Instead, the Beasties act as if the cake were a real person. “Yo, I said I’m calling you, babeee!” Mike D tells the unlucky worker. “Yo man, Cooky Puss there? I want to speak to Cooky Puss!” (The Carvel worker then hangs up, prompting a hilariously unprintable response from Mike D.)
The early Beastie Boys yukking it up, not long after emerging from the New York club scene with “Cooky Puss.”
Now collected on 1994’s Some Old Bulls*&%, “Cooky Puss” first appeared on an EP with three other songs. As fate would have it, a British Airways TV commercial used a piece of one of the other numbers (“Beastie Revolution”). In what may have been the first lawsuit based on illegal sampling of music, the Beasties successfully sued the airline for $40,000. That sum provided the seed money for the Beastie Boys to rent an apartment in New York’s Chinatown district, where they dug in and worked on mastering the rhythms of Rap and the nuances of Hip Hop. Meanwhile, the group released a series of 12-inch singles which stoked their following within the New York club scene. The Beastie Boys were on their way. And within just a couple of years, they would be world famous.
The inspiration for the Beasties’ first success: Carvel’s “Cooky Puss” ice cream cake.
Track: “Fight for Your Right” (To Party!!!)
Album: Licensed to Ill (1986)
Why You Should Listen: The cover illustration shows the back half of a sleek Beastie Boys jet; the back-cover illustration shows the front half—with the plane crashed right into the side of a mountain. Such humor pervades Licensed to Ill, the first Beastie Boys album and the very first Rap album to shoot to the Number One slot on the Billboard charts (where it remained for five weeks). Furthermore, the album got positive acclaim, even from publications like Rolling Stone, which titled its review, “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece.”
What made Licensed worthy of becoming the best selling Rap album of the 1980s? For starters, it was brilliantly assembled by Rick Rubin, who is now acknowledged as one of the music industry’s greatest producers. It was also successful in part because people didn’t quite know what to make of it. (Was it a serious Rap album? Was it a novelty comedy record? And why was there Heavy Metal guitar and drums on some numbers?) Furthermore, there was a racial aspect that surrounded the Beastie’s success. At the time, there really were no commercially successful white rappers, although Licensed would inspire legions of white kids to pick up a mic and get their MC on. (One of them was a 14-year-old from Detroit named Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem.)
When Licensed to Ill exploded with sales of 5 million albums, the Beastie Boys became a headlining act.
Aside from great production and an intriguing mix that seems to change its sound with each track, Licensed had attitude—massive, unyielding tons of attitude. And nowhere was that ‘tude louder and prouder than in the classic rock ‘n’ roll anthem, “Fight for Your Right.” Promoted through a hilarious MTV video, “Fight for Your Right” is about a teenager’s defiance of social restrictions and parental authority.
Upon its release the song was already being compared to great previous statements of teenage angst such as Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Night,” Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” Before Licensed, the Beasties had already toured with big acts like Madonna, Run DMC and LL Cool J. After Licensed sold 5 million copies, the Beasties returned to the road as headliners.
In the scandalous tour that followed, there were lawsuits and arrests. At one unhinged 1987 performance in Liverpool, England (the Beatles’ home town), the crowd went completely nuts and a riot ensued…only 10 minutes into the show. The Beastie Boys were now officially a phenomenon.
Track: “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”
Album: Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Why You Should Listen: The term sophomore slump is used in the music business to illustrate what happens to many recording artists who are lucky enough to strike gold with their first album. What do they then do for a follow-up? Few understood this dilemma better than the Beastie Boys. Sure, the group had made a big splash with Licensed to Ill, but was there anything else they could do? The answer would come with 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, one of the strongest and strangest albums that any branch of popular music has ever produced.
Tired of their label (DefJam) and unsure of their next move, the Beasties relocated to Los Angeles in 1988 and hooked up with the Dust Brothers production team. Together they spent 16 months crafting Paul’s Boutique. Now considered one of the touchstones of Rap (as well as a production masterpiece in the same league as The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Paul’s Boutique was initially considered a failure, largely because it only rose to Number 14 on the Billboard album charts.
The album contained a couple of moderately successful singles (“Hey Ladies” and “Shake Your Rump”), but nothing like its predecessor. And few listeners knew what to make of it, considering that its densely layered sound was like nothing else that existed anywhere in commercial music. And it was a song cycle that contained few (if any) breaks between the tracks, which made it even more difficult to follow along and know which song you were listening to at any point.
One of the most iconic images in Rap music: the cover shot of 1989′s masterpiece, Paul’s Boutique. As you can see, it was a real clothing store in Brooklyn. (The album even contained a brief radio spot for the boutique.)
A wonderland of cultural references, Paul’s Boutique seemed to draw inspiration and samples from everywhere…Rap songs, Rock music, TV shows, movies, whatever…and contained samples from more than one hundred songs (most of which were cleared for use by their copyright holders, to the tune of approximately $250,000). And because it’s the odd Rap album indeed that includes a sample from Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Paul’s Boutique remains a piece of music that requires numerous repeat listenings in order to untangle all the lyrics and pop references.
Its odd sonic touches remain endearing, such as the brief hillbilly hayride that opens Side 2 (“5-Piece Chicken Dinner”) and the starting seconds of “3-Minute Rule,” when we clearly hear the unmistakable back-and-forth clip-clop of a ping-pong match.
The album closes with “B-Boy Bouillabaise,” a conjoined 12-minute suite of 9 mini-songs which itself contains 24 individual samples. Among the album’s tracks, this may be the best overview of Paul’s Boutique. Like the album, it’s crammed with pop references and showcases the band’s intense creativity and artistic ambition. Before Paul’s Boutique, many considered the Beastie Boys a fluke. Afterward, most critics were in awe of a musical group that could capture a sound this wild and dense. The Beastie Boys were now artists…and Paul’s Boutique would eventually be understood as the group’s magnum opus.
Track: “So What’cha Want”
Album: Check Your Head (1992)
Why You Should Listen: It’s important to remember that the Beasties started out as a Punk/Thrash band before sliding into Rap and Hip Hop. After Paul’s Boutique stiffed, the group was looking for a new direction—so it went backwards. For their next album the band members returned to their roots and started playing their own instruments again…with Mike D pummeling the drums, MCA mastering the bass and Ad-Rock attacking the lead guitar (as he had done in an earlier band named “The Young and the Useless”). Is there a Grunge influence to Check Your Head? Quite possibly, given that this same period saw the meteoric rise of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. And the playing has a rough edge that was common to Grunge.
By the time the Beasties recorded Check Your Head, the group was playing its own instruments, as it had when just starting out.
Of course, it’s still a Beastie Boys album and that means plenty of Rap along with lots of Rock. The album’s biggest and best single, “So What’cha Want,” seems more like a traditional bragging Rap, wherein the Rapper calls out the weakness of other MCs. Mighty MCA wastes no time putting all chumps in their place: “Well, I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce/You’ve got the rhyme and reason but no cause/So if you’re hot to trot, you think you’re slicker than grease/I got news for you crews, you’ll be sucking like a leech.”
Album: Ill Communication (1994)
Why You Should Listen: Check Your Head provided the rough blueprint for the Beasties’ next album. Like its predecessor, Ill Communication was part Rap and part Rock, along with a few novelty bits and a couple of instrumentals. And although Check Your Head had broken into the Top Ten, by the time Ill Communication dropped in 1994, the group had amassed a sizeable following—enough for the new album to enter the Billboard Hot 200 chart at Number One. And when ticket sales began for the following year’s tour, few were surprised to find that tickets sold out within only a few minutes.
The action-packed music video for “Sabotage” replicated the opening of a 1970s cop show.
While Ill Communication was well-executed with numerous memorable songs (e.g., “Sure Shot,” “Heart Attack Man”), the album’s stand-out track was a three-minute howl of rage called “Sabotage.” Built around a savage one-chord guitar riff invented in the 70s by Rock wild man Ted Nugent, “Sabotage” is Hard Rock with a Rap lyric. By this point, the Beastie Boys had become so free with their allusions that they weren’t afraid to mention a once-famous Jazz drummer who was known as much for his explosive temper as his skill (“But make no mistake and switch up my channel/I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle”). Of course, few members of the Beasties’ audience would have had any idea who Buddy Rich was…but that’s part of the point with the Beastie Boys. They don’t pander to their audience and never really have.
The Beats Go On…
This past summer, the Beastie Boys returned with the long-anticipated Hot Sauce Committee Part Two album. Despite a cancer scare that had temporarily sidelined Adam Yauch, the group came back strong with another wily mix of sounds that leans more toward the group’s Hip Hop heritage (as did 1998’s Hello Nasty). And through tracks such as “Too Many Rappers (Not Enough MCs),” “Here’s a Little Something For Ya,” and “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” the group proved conclusively that despite more than 25 years as a performing and recording unit, the world hasn’t heard the last from the Beastie Boys. Not too bad a legacy for three punks from New York.
From bratty punks to respected studio masters, the Beastie Boys have defied time and expectations.
Making Beats Like the Beasties
The Beastie Boys have long been able to come up with fresh and complex beats, and use those rhythm tracks in interesting ways. Today music production is an elemental part of all forms of mass communication and is used in everything from TV commercials to the latest chart-topping album. If you’re still wanting to learn how to make your own beats and take you rightful place among the next generation of musicians and music producers, why not start now? Music production is a multi-million dollar industry, and music production summer camps like the one sponsored by The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus can get you on your way.
The Music Legends series pays tributes to influential artists, music personalities and styles of music. If you have an artist or type of music you’d like us to showcase, let us know via the comments.
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