Mike Diamond is very pleased but a little confused about the Beastie Boys' latest triumph: the Artists of the Year crown in Rolling Stone's 1998 Music Awards. Which year are we talking about?
"The weird thing is that the album seems like a completely different year," says Diamond (Mike D), referring to the Beasties' current triple-platinum smash, Hello Nasty. "Our year isn't so much January to January. When we made the record – that was last year. When it comes out, it's the start of a new year.
"At the same time," he goes on, "everything we've done this year has been a culmination of a lot of different things that we've been working on together for our entire lives." Diamond's fellow Beasties, Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), nod their heads in agreement. It is one of the few times during our two-hour interview that they aren't all talking at once.
Started in the fall of 1995 and finally released last July, Hello Nasty is a thrill-a-minute summation of the Beasties' explosive beat experiments and rhyme games over the past decade. It is also their biggest-selling album since their 1986 white-rap, punky-B-boy breakthrough, Licensed to Ill. And the trio's '98 concert performances – blinding displays of three-way word spray, cocky funk and metallic, hardcore assault – affirmed the Beasties as one of the premier live bands of the decade. Other '98 high points for the group included its third successful Tibetan Freedom Concert (held in June in Washington, D.C.); the release of well-received new albums by Sean Lennon and Buffalo Daughter on the Beasties' Grand Royal label; and Yauch's initiation into fatherhood with the September birth of his daughter, Tenzin Losel.
There is no such thing as a linear conversation with the Beastie Boys. So over coffee and cake (the interview happens to fall on Diamond's thirty-third birthday) in the New York offices of their publicity firm, Nasty Little Man, the Beasties talk about all of the above – along with lively digressions about the current swing movement (Horovitz thinks it's just kids acting like "weird dads and uncles from the Fifties"), monster movies (Yauch wants someone to do a good remake of The Mummy) and Jewish mysticism (Grand Royal artist Ben Lee pops in to grab a book on rabbinical meditation that he left in the conference room). Oh, and there's the other Beastie Boys record that Diamond, Yauch and Horovitz claim they made while fiddling around with Nasty: a full-blown country album featuring Bucky Baxter, the pedal steel guitarist in Bob Dylan's road band. What does a Beasties country album sound like?
"If we release that," Yauch cracks, "we might never make Artists of the Year again."
Hello Nasty may be the ultimate Beastie Boys album in the way it pulls together the looniness of Licensed to Ill, the sampling on Paul's Boutique and the hard rock of Check Your Head and Ill Communication. Was that a conscious effort or just the product of being together for fifteen years?
Diamond: The next record is going to be none of those things.
Yauch: It's not like we sit around and plan all this. In one way, we just show up and make whatever happens. But we don't show up like blank-canvas people. We each come with these things in our heads that we want to try and get down.
There has to be more than happenstance in the way you throw words and phrases back and forth.
Horovitz: Technically, that is one thing we wanted to do this time. On our first couple of records, in terms of rap songs, we switched off a lot.
Diamond: We also wrote a lot together.
Horovitz: We wrote everything together. Then on the third and fourth albums, the music was the important thing. And in the vocals, we just took our own little parts and fit 'em in. That's cool. But we wanted to go back to that thing where we wrote together, to get back into that sound as well as feeling.
Yauch: We read lyrics to each other and say, "I like this one," "I like that one," "Let's put these together." We construct it all into a song, then figure out how to switch it off between the three of us: "I'll try saying this line, you say that line." The lines that end up in the song are really the stuff that we all like.
Lyrically, "I Don't Know," on Hello Nasty, is a real change-up. It's not every day that you hear a hip-hop MC expressing indecision or vulnerability.
Horovitz: As people, we go through all those different feelings. Sometimes we feel completely sure of ourselves, and sometimes we don't. But an artist is generally expected to stick to one motif, one persona. People get used to seeing someone put down a certain thing.
There is a particular kind of behavior expected from you – on records, onstage.
Diamond: Right – three jerks. We're a lot more complex than people think. We're very fortunate in that the music we've made has incorporated so many influences. When we put them together, we make something that has the touch and feel of the three of us. Lyrically, it's the same thing. We could have stayed just being that one thing – in which case, who knows what would have happened to us by now.
Were you concerned about the executive turmoil at Capitol Records while you were finishing Hello Nasty? The president, Gary Gersh, left the label just before the album came out.
Diamond: We were so focused on the record, getting it finished, that we didn't even have a second to think about how it was going to do. The week after we finished it, we had to go to Japan to do interviews. We went there, came back, and then a few weeks before the record came out, that's when Gary was let go . . . [pauses] or left. I don't know the right terminology for what transpired.
For a second, it was a scary feeling, because we'd been through that with Paul's Boutique. But it's like we exist on this island unto ourselves, as opposed to Capitol. With Grand Royal, we have our own label, our own infrastructure. And we use their system when it makes sense.
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