Thoughts on the Beastie Boys and their upcoming induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
By Jonathan Zwickel
Special to MSN Music
Two decades of pop culture supremacy can be boiled down to one lyric:
"Life ain't nothin' but a good groove/A good mixtape will put you in the right mood."
With that line, Michael Diamond, aka Mike D, summed up the philosophy and the appeal of the Beastie Boys. The year was 1992, the song was "Professor Booty," and the album was "Check Your Head." By that point, the New York trio -- Diamond, Adam "MCA" Yauch and Adam "Adrock" Horovitz -- were a force of nature, climate-like. They determined the kind of clothes young people wore, the vintage sounds young people sought, the slang young people spoke. Thirty years later, they step into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Back in the age of the Walkman, aka the mid-'80s, music fans made mixtapes. Genre distinction was eschewed; all sounds were equal in service of transcendent feel and flow. If you knew how to hear it, there was a story to every mixtape. And if a mixtape were a band, it would be the Beastie Boys.
For most of their career, the Beastie Boys have been an unparalleled cultural bellwether, their influence lasting in ways we can't yet count. Their current endeavors — from last year's formfitting album "Hot Sauce Committee Vol. II" and its attendant hyper-cameoed micro-meta-video "Fight for Your Right Revisited" to this summer's upcoming release of the LCD Soundsystem documentary by Yauch's Oscilloscope Laboratories — show a sense of nowness inconceivable for a band that was born before Lady Gaga.
Before arriving with their 1986 debut "Licensed to Ill" — the first rap album to reach No. 1 — they were part of a nascent New York art-punk scene that included soon-to-be heavyweights like Sonic Youth and Bad Brains. The Beasties tried hip-hop on a lark, out of an affection for the style. With Rick Rubin lending the earliest production credits of a now-legendary career, "Licensed to Ill" smashed together Slayer guitar licks and Creedence Clearwater Revival samples and Spoonie Gee-style rhymes. Their look at the time was a sloppy, sleazy amalgam of frat-boy nonchalance, punk-rock sneer and exaggerated b-boyism.
It's hard to believe, but hip-hop wasn't always the commercial heavyweight it is now. The Beastie Boys — three white, upper-middle-class Jews — helped open the floodgates. Among a handful of other albums, "Licensed to Ill" was a primary channel through which hip-hop first poured into the mainstream during an unprecedented phase of musical and racial integration. They were mentored by Run DMC, they toured with Public Enemy (and Madonna). Figuratively speaking, their music brought millions of suburban white kids into the avenues of Brooklyn and clubs of Manhattan. The give-and-take between street culture and pop culture has never been the same.
Over the years, the Beasties delved into any and every creative medium that caught their interest. Their sophomore album, 1989's "Paul's Boutique," remains the pinnacle of sampling culture. Subsequent albums, including the classic '90s trifecta of "Check Your Head," "Ill Communication" and "Hello Nasty," took cues from hip-hop, punk, heavy metal, funk, drum 'n' bass, reggae and country. They collaborated with young filmmakers to create unforgettable music videos. They published six issues of Grand Royal magazine, perhaps the first hipster lifestyle publication, certainly the first to call out Kid Rock as a phenomenon and use the word mullet to describe a hairdo. They launched Xtra Large, the prototypical streetwear company. They produced massive benefit concerts around the world and raised millions of dollars for the oppressed people of Tibet. They expanded the definition of what a band is — and the influence it can have.
The new millennium has seen less activity from the Beasties because, collectively and individually, they've refined their energies. Whatever their focus, from film to visual art to music production to politics, they define success by their own standards. They establish cool for themselves — then the rest of the world agrees. They continue to cross boundaries not ignorantly but with omnivorous, unabashed enthusiasm for life and everything in it. Because, after all, it ain't nothin' but a good groove.
Forty million records sold and three Grammys won suggest Mike D was right. Unlike other modern pop icons, the Beasties never reinvented themselves; through capricious shifts in cultural winds and personal health (last year, Yauch beat throat cancer), they've simply evolved as humans. From Day 1, the Beastie Boys were crafting their own mixtape. Twenty-five years later, the final song is still anybody's guess.
Jonathan Zwickel is senior editor of City Arts magazine in Seattle and contributes regularly to SPIN, The Believer and MTVHive. His book "Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography," was published last year by Greenwood Press.