Beastie Boys - Biography
By David Downs
New York’s eclectic punk, hip-hop polymaths Beastie Boys emerged in 1981 from the East Coast hardcore scene and emerged as genre-smashing pioneers in that sphere. With more than forty million record sales to their name, Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch’s notable releases began with the debut seven-inch single “Cooky Puss” for Rat Cage Records in 1983, before reforming with Rick Rubin and releasing smash debut License to Ill (1986 Columbia/Def Jam), followed by the cutting-edge sample masterpiece Paul’s Boutique (1989 Capitol), the equally devastating Check Your Head (1992 Capitol), the well-oiled Ill Communication (1994 Grand Royal) and the innovative Hello Nasty (1998 Capitol). Early singles like “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” and “Brass Monkey” earned the boys a reputation as idiots and pranksters, even spoilers of true hip-hop. Yet, later classics like “Hey Ladies,” “So What’cha Want,” “Sure Shot,” “Sabotage,” and “Intergalactic” have garnered them critical accolades for their foresight and innovation. Beastie Boys took home two telling Grammy Awards in 1998; one for Hello Nasty as the Best Alternative Music Performance and another for “Intergalactic” as the Best Rap Performance By A Duo or Group. Recently, The Mix-Up (2007 Capitol) earned the three Jewish white boys from the boroughs a trophy their mothers could be proud of—the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Michael Louis Diamond (more commonly known as Mike D; born November 20, 1964), Adam Nathaniel Yauch (a.k.a. MCA; born August 5, 1964), and Adam Keefe Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock; born October 31, 1967) were united first by proximity and class. Yauch and Diamond were born in the hip-hop epicenter of New York and Horovitz in South Orange, New Jersey to middle-class Jewish families.
Diamond attended Vassar College and in 1979, at the age of 14, he formed the punk band The Young Aborigines, consisting of himself on vocals, his friend John Berry on guitar and Kate Schellenbach on drums. Yauch was an only child who learned to play bass while attending Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, and he would join Diamond’s band in 1981 at Berry’s behest. The group gigged in New York City’s underground punk scene, and it was here that they ended up meeting Horovitz, who was the son of playwright Israel Horovitz and was playing in punk band The Young and the Useless. In 1982, after “Polly Wog Stew” was recorded for Rat Cage records and was met with little attention, The Young and the Useless toured with hardcore icons Bad Brains and their peers. Though it was Berry who came up with the name Beastie Boys, he soon left and Horovitz took his place. Soon thereafter, Beastie Boys performed its first rap track “Cooky Puss” based on a prank call, and it became a fluky hit in the New York club scene. Schellenbach would leave the group not long after Beastie Boys met producer Rick Rubin at New York University. Rubin had recently founded Def Jam Records with NYU buddy Russell Simmons and some accounts say Rubin forced Schellenbach out, because she did not fit Rubin’s image of Beastie Boys as a hip-hop entity.
By 1985 the band was opening for the likes of Public Image Ltd., Madonna, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. That same year, Rubin produced their first Def Jam single “Rock Hard,” sampling AC/DC’s “Back in Black” without the band’s permission, thus preventing future pressings and increasing its rarity. They recorded their first charting single with “Hold It, Now Hit It,” and in 1986, when the Beastie Boys entered the studio with Rick Rubin, the two would become forever and intricately linked.
Composed of hip-hop beats, garish metal power-chords, b-boy culture inside jokes, and dripping with subtle irony, License to Ill was as much written by Rick Rubin as it was Beastie Boys, featuring such classics as “Fight for Your Right,” “Brass Monkey” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Intensely misunderstood as vacuous party music and cultural thievery, in retrospect, the album appears quite deft. “Fight for Your Right” ostensibly parodied the flippant, party attitude of rock in the early ’80s yet was championed by the demographic that was being mocked. On the one hand, the frequent references to guns, drugs, and sex assured a response from culture warriors of the time . . . yet on the other hand, the brash combination of punk with Brooklyn rap couldn’t help but anger counterculture purists. Beastie Boys were among the first groups to link rap to a macabre, grand guignol-esque “gangster” culture, and rap pioneers N.W.A. would later spit over Beastie Boys tracks on their earliest works. Heralded by Rolling Stone as a masterpiece created by idiots, License to Ill became the first rap record to reach #1 on the Billboard chart on its way to becoming the best-selling rap album of the ’80s. It remains Def Jam’s fastest selling debut to date, clearing over five million units. The subsequent tour met detractors’ and fan growing expectations, with girls dancing in cages and penis props, inciting near riots in many locales.
The 1989 follow-up Paul’s Boutique became a landmark, and was put together after an unpleasant breakup with Rubin. Beastie Boys relocated to California and teamed up with production powerhouse Dust Brothers, and they released a record that would include over 100 cleared samples in an era when doing so was still feasible. Paul’s Boutique reached #14 on the Billboard 200, and #24 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album charts. Single “Hey Ladies” featured some the album’s classically funky production with a few subtle changes of style, whereas “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” featured a combination of hard-hitting guitar distortion and timeless hip-hop percussion—a signature that would end up being a precursor to the direction of the band.
Now producing themselves and playing all their own instruments, Check Your Head returned Beastie Boys to their debut-level of success. Recorded at the band’s own “G-Son” studio in Atwater Village, California and released under their own Grand Royal record label, the album experimented with funk and jazz while capturing the aggressive sound of punk spliced into a rap-like lyrical attack. “So What’cha Want” reached #93 on the Billboard 100 with its epic drumming and guitar rhythm section coupled with the trio’s overdriven, distorted vocals. The album went double platinum in the United States, eventually hitting #10 on the Billboard 200 by crossing the line between the urban and rock charts. “Pass the Mic” found fans in dance clubs while, “Time for Livin’” soundchecked their hardcore punk roots.
In 1994, those hardcore roots were further exploited for Some Old Bullshit (1994 Grand Royal)—a collection of earlier tracks from the 1980s—which actually charted at #46 in the Billboard 200. Quickly to follow that June, Ill Communication captured the band firing on all cylinders, with production help from Mario Caldato Jr. Singles such as “Sure Shot” and “Sabotage”—with its Spike Jonze directed video—took the album to #1 on the Billboard 200 and #2 in the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. The band also headlined Lollapalooza that year with The Smashing Pumpkins. The band’s popularity was soaring, and tickets to Beastie Boys dates at this time would sell out in a matter of minutes.
In 1996, The In Sound From Way Out! (1996 Grand Royal) would certify Beastie Boys as legitimate jazz, funk and soul fans, and further innovations on their existing sound where to be found on Hello Nasty. Switching in DJ Mix Master Mike, a scratching superstar from San Francisco on DJ Hurricane’s position, the band would earn its highest accolades ever with Hello Nasty, which was chock full of such chunky singles as “Body Movin,” “Intergalactic” and “Three MCs and One DJ.” Again Beastie Boys found themselves atop the Billboard charts in the U.S., as well as the UK, Germany, and Australia. The following year, they released an anthology album The Sounds of Science (2000 Capitol)—mostly comprised of B-sides and previously unreleased tracks—clawed its way up to #19 on the Billboard 200.
Beastie Boys returned to Brooklyn six long years later for their next outing—To the 5 Boroughs (2004 Capitol)—with Mix Master Mike repeating his scratching role. The notable single “Ch-Check It Out” was a standout track. In 2006, Beastie Boys distributed 50 high-definition video cameras to fans, instructing them to shoot footage their shows—eventually edited into the DVD Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006).
In 2007, the mature icons of now 20 years of music confidently released an all-instrumental follow up called The Mix-Up (2007 Capitol)—a sprawling, fun party record with elements of jazz, funk, hip-hop, surf and Latin music recorded at their own Oscilliscope Studios.
Beastie Boys have also been involved in quite a few side projects, most notably via their label Grand Royal, which released work by Luscious Jackson (comprised of their old female drummer, Kate Schellenbach) as well as a Grand Royal magazine, which became a collector’s item. During this period, Adam Yauch became extremely active in raising awareness over the plight of the Tibetan people through numerous festivals, benefits and speaking engagements. In 2009 Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in his parotid gland, as well as a lymph node. After undergoing prolonged treatment, Yauch died on May 4, 2012, at the age of 47. The music world mourned the loss of one of it's finest innovators.
A group’s success often involves the fusion of disparate musical styles, as well as an overall violation of cultural norms—in this case to shocking effect. The three nice Hebrew gentlemen behind Beastie Boys brazenly infused their punk rock roots with the flourishing hip-hop culture of the times, projecting it through an over-the-top, party-boy gangster pose that they lifted from heavy metal and pop culture. The result dazzled and offended listeners who saw whatever they wanted in Beastie Boys: fraternity brothers, craven rap charlatans, or brazen pop auteurs. Yet the band matured and went on to release sincere art incorporating their myriad influences without the distractions of the pose. Consequently, Beastie Boys remain one of the biggest-selling and most award-winning rap or alternative bands of the ’80s, ’90s and the 2000s.