The Beastie Boys Put Down the Mic and Pick Up the Pen
Posted October 25, 2018 5:06 p.m. EDT
Updated October 25, 2018 5:13 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — The story begins — or maybe ends — with three guys in their early 50s hanging out on a beautiful late summer afternoon, drinking iced coffee and talking about how much they love The Clash, and how weird it is that the celebrity-clogged hotel where they’re sitting is just up the block from where CBGB was way back when. Dad stuff. Two of the dads, though, are the surviving members of the Beastie Boys: Adam Horovitz, with upswept gray hair and a white T-shirt with a faint graffito on the front; and Michael Diamond, wearing a bright red button-up, his hair still dark, his face creased and tan from years living in Southern California. Ad-Rock and Mike D, in other words.
The third Beastie, Adam Yauch — MCA, the conscience, shaman and intellectual backbone of the group — died in 2012 after a three-year battle with salivary gland cancer. His absence, six years later, is a palpable fact in the room. His name comes up a lot in the conversation, as it does in the new book Horovitz and Diamond have written. Called “Beastie Boys Book” (although the front cover might lead you to believe that the actual title is “PIZZA”), it’s a 571-page doorstop and a tombstone, a compendium of anecdotes, recipes, impish riffs and shaggy-dog stories and a heartfelt elegy to a much-missed friend.
The volume, full of old photographs and comics, with a riot of fonts and layouts, is a nonmusical summa of Beastie aesthetics. Personal history, tour bus folklore, studio geekery and a generational drama that summons an impressive roster of witnesses, including writers Jonathan Lethem, Ada Calhoun and Colson Whitehead, comedian/actress Amy Poehler and assorted fellow musicians. Some scores are settled, some beef is squashed, and no doubt some ugly business gets airbrushed or skipped over. Bad behavior is acknowledged; feminist-ally bona fides are upheld. Since there won’t be any more new Beastie Boys music, this scrapbook will help to consolidate a sprawling and complicated legacy.
Monument building isn’t something you necessarily expect from the Beasties, who built their career out of irreverence, slyness and low-key cool. In the beginning, in the early 1980s, the name was an acronym for Boys Entering Anarchistic States Toward Internal Excellence, Diamond writes, and the lineup included a girl, Kate Schellenbach. The group migrated from hard core to hip-hop when rap looked more like a fad than like a dominant force in pop culture. They were puerile and profane and then somehow, by the ‘90s, serious musicians with something to say and startling innovations to contribute. Yauch was a Buddhist and an outspoken feminist. Their 1994 “Sabotage” video, directed by Spike Jonze, was a goofy retro throwaway that helped transform the genre.
The Beasties practiced cross-platform brand extension before those awful words became cultural currency. They were fashion-conscious, food-conscious and into graphic design, found art and weird old “physical media” just as the digital kind began to sweep it away. “I’m listening to wax/I’m not using the CD,” Mike D boasted in “Sure Shot” in 1994, anticipating the millennial reclamation of vinyl supremacy by a solid decade or more.
Around the same time, they started a magazine called Grand Royal that was also sort of a record label and also sort of a lifestyle consumer emporium and also sort of a clubhouse where you could feel simultaneously like a noob and a savant. It was like a website, but on paper. Silly and do-it-yourself, it had the disarming, off-the-cuff, look-what-I-found sense of artistic integrity that is central to the Beastie legacy.
That legacy between hard covers doesn’t much resemble a standard rock star memoir. In apt Gen X fashion it’s funnier and more modest than the best-sellers by the musical heroes of the baby boomers. The three of us talked about that, and about a lot of other things. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
So how did the book come about?
MICHAEL DIAMOND It’s better than having us attempt a Broadway musical, I think.
ADAM HOROVITZ Whoa.
DIAMOND Yauch, when we were kids growing up, he loved “The Kids Are Alright,” the Who documentary. It was like an obsession. And so he was interested, when we were working on “Hot Sauce Committee” or even a little before that, on gathering up archival material into a documentary-type project. Then there was talk of somebody doing a book on the band so we were sort of like, we should get our act together and do it. Then Yauch died and we were too sad and it was definitely not the time for us to touch it. And then we got back into it and it went through different manifestations. We started with the idea of getting people who were around the band and our friends and people who were involved at different points telling the story.
What did you most want it not to be?
DIAMOND We definitely most did not want it to be like a typical rock autobiography. “I got on the bus one day and there was a boy playing guitar and it turned out to be John Lennon.”
HOROVITZ Although that would be great — in a story about the Beastie Boys. We didn’t want to do the thing where these autobiographies are just like a bunch of stuff, and then a few pictures, and more stuff, and more pictures.
DIAMOND Here’s 20 pages of us when we were growing up. Here’s 20 pages when we’re getting famous. Here’s 20 pages when we’re famous and here’s 20 pages after we couldn’t stand each other and now I’ve written all this libelous stuff about the guys I used to be in the band with.
HOROVITZ In 2018, you can just Google all that stuff and write your own book. We also didn’t want to have stories about really personal things, or outrageous stuff or [expletive] that’s nobody’s business.
Were there places where you remembered things differently?
HOROVITZ No. It was more like: Do either of us remember?
DIAMOND We were both amazed at how little we remember.
Well it’s a long time.
DIAMOND Especially because it felt like it was important to get the crazy time of our adolescence. Because it was so formative and because of when it was in New York City.
How do you remember that now — the music you listened to — and what gave you the idea that it was something you could do?
HOROVITZ We were like 15 years old, and we’d go see bands, and a lot of the bands were like hard-core punk bands. I had a guitar, and I knew a couple chords, and you realized you could play that Ramones song, and it’s like, Jesus, every Ramones song is just that? I could do that. The only accessible music that we could possibly do would be hard-core. Even punk seemed sophisticated.
DIAMOND The point of entry was there. Prior to that, big rock bands were on the stage and that was unattainable. But if you went to a club like A7, the whole club was maybe the size of this hotel room, and there was literally a couch like this couch on the side of the stage. The barrier between audience and band didn’t really exist, and most people in the audience were in bands. Another interesting thing that was happening when we started going out to clubs as teenagers — whether it was Mudd Club, or Danceteria or wherever — was this culture of everybody doing something. If they weren’t in a band they were trying to sell you their little fanzine of poetry or trying to be the next visual artist. Everybody had some creative hustle.
Did that put pressure on you to do something different?
DIAMOND At first we were a hard-core band like everyone else. Except maybe we had a sense of humor about it.
HOROVITZ And then we started rapping. We were like the downtown rappers. There was no one else rapping downtown. Right? The bridge was that we met Rick Rubin. We were all going to the same clubs but he was a little bit older and he had a drum machine.
DIAMOND And we kind of reached a burnout moment with hard core. Rap 12-inches started coming out, and that seemed like a really exciting thing to jump to. “Sucker M.C.'s” [by Run-D.M.C.] was really the record that smashed it all apart, it was this stripped-down, minimal ... this is what rap was going to be.
HOROVITZ That era of rap felt really punk for some reason. Something was connectable as far as us wanting to make rap records, besides just loving rap records.
DIAMOND Or maybe we were just so naïve and we didn’t have any responsible adult around to say, “What are you guys thinking?”
Were you at all self-conscious about being white kids working in the rap idiom?
HOROVITZ Well, we were from downtown, so we were rapping in Danceteria, in these white downtown clubs, really. Nobody downtown was rapping. Nobody we knew was rapping. So we were like, we should do it. We weren’t making fun of it. We loved it and we wanted to be part of it. After a minute we got matching Puma suits, and we were wearing do-rags, and we played at this club in Queens called the Encore, and everyone’s making fun of us. They turned the fluorescent lights on when we came on doing our two songs opening for Kurtis Blow, and we were like, man, we look stupid.
DIAMOND We all felt like such [expletive] after that gig. But we were still determined to make rap music because that’s what we loved doing. We somehow realized we had to be our own version. A lot of kids are growing up now in a Beastie-created world, where music, sneakers, clothes, food, so much of what they consume is connected and cross-branded. And you were pioneers in that kind of thing. How did that grow out of the music?
DIAMOND That was the great lesson of punk and hard core. That you could self-publish anything. To play gigs you were stealing access to a Xerox machine and making flyers.
HOROVITZ Punks don’t hire people to make their record cover. Punks do it all themselves. That’s what real punk is about — doing it yourself and building a community where people share ideas and share creativity. I feel like we always tried to get back to that. Grand Royal started because we were on the Lollapalooza tour and we wanted to send this message to people that the mosh pit is corny. Stop doing that. MTV has ruined it, and it’s dangerous, and girls are getting hurt. So Mike had designed this whole thing and we passed it out at Lollapalooza and then we’re like, let’s just make a fanzine and put it out. And then it just went to the next level. We got lucky that we had the money.
DIAMOND And that we had the audience. The fact that we actually had a larger audience for these things we made is still a minor miracle to me.
When I think of you guys, I think of two moments. The first one, the early and mid-'80s, we were talking about. But then there’s also the early and mid-'90s, a decade later, when there’s a creative flowering in hip-hop and the indie-rock moment. Somehow you were in both of those places. How do you think you got there?
HOROVITZ Well, it probably just goes back to loving The Clash. They had punk-rock songs, and reggae songs, and melodic songs, and they just followed what they wanted to make, right?
DIAMOND It never dawned on us to not make music that was inclusive of whatever influence came to us. Thankfully we got to make records over a good period of time, because you’re not going to discover everything at any one time. The reality that we could be played on “Yo! MTV Raps” next to “120 Minutes” — I guess that’s where MTV was at the time. Even though they were presenting rap music and alternative music, they were presenting them in a segregated way. We were trying to throw everything together, and somehow we were the weird child whose videos could play on both.
One thing that was definitely true of the early Beastie Boys was the playful, obnoxious persona. There was the inflatable penis onstage at your shows.
HOROVITZ Hydraulic. It was a hydraulic penis.
And already, probably 20 years ago, you distanced yourself from some of the most offensive parts of that. At the moment, across the culture, there’s a lot of reckoning going on about misogyny and homophobia, past and present, and I wonder if that came up again working on the book?
DIAMOND All of us, growing up, either had the experience of behaving badly, or doing a bad job of how we treated others in any kind of relationship. For us, of course, a lot of that was within the public persona that we created. That was something inspiring about the book. It was this opportunity to open up and delve into it and be able to say, “We were [expletive]. We really could have handled this better. But maybe we had to be [expletive] to learn our lesson.”
HOROVITZ I mean you can’t not bring that up. It’s a big part of our story to us. Because for a long time we didn’t play “Fight for Your Right to Party,” we didn’t play any of those songs. “Licensed to Ill” was like a cold, and we took so much vitamin C that we’d never get that cold again. But then we realized that you can separate good from bad, that it’s not all, what’s the expression, cut and dried?
DIAMOND It didn’t seem as binary anymore.
HOROVITZ Oh now we’re using fancy words.
DIAMOND What opened the door was Yauch’s lyric in the late ‘90s on “Sure Shot” about “the disrespect of women has got to be through.” As we evolved into having that voice, we could be comfortable going back and playing one of those songs, saying now we’re clearly established enough as something else that we can play that music without becoming that.
There’s something bittersweet about this book, because of Yauch’s death.
HOROVITZ It’s [expletive] sad. There’s no way to get around it. How are you supposed to end this book? Me and Mike sitting here? Me and Mike going to the movies? There are so many Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movies we haven’t seen yet.
DIAMOND What was sweet about it was to be able to go back and to mine these stories that he was beyond integral to. That was a gratifying thing, something we miss every single day. I don’t know how we could do this with any degree of honesty without having that sadness and that loss.
HOROVITZ There’s no way around it. He started the band.