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Artist of the Year: The Beastie Boys

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With pop divas and pinup-boy bands dominating the charts, who do you consider your competition, your peers?
Horovitz: There is a community in hip-hop. It doesn't seem like that anywhere else, except maybe in punk rock. But punk rock is tricky, because it has become such a pop thing. But in rap, there is still a feeling of community. Who are our peers? Rappers.

Diamond: Even though hip-hop started as a battle format, different artists appeared on each other's records or hung out in the same clubs, supporting each other. That was a profound influence. Also, hip-hop, to me, represents limitless possibility. Hip-hop is always evolving. People say, "Oh, it's a very commercial thing, it's too R&B." But in six months, a record is gonna come out that will completely change that.

When you moved to Los Angeles after the success of Licensed to Ill, gangsta rap was on the way up. As East Coast white boys who played around with images of gunplay and misogyny, how did you relate to the hard-core bullets-and-sex aesthetic coming out of Death Row Records?
Horovitz: Those records were not the problem. It's not as though if they didn't make those records, none of that would be going on. What these people were talking about wasn't just going on in their community. It was going on all over the world.

Diamond: If there was anything that we put out in terms of violent imagery, we were definitely joking around. It was not part of our reality. We were joking around with things that people perceived as cool and adopted for themselves in a negative way. We became aware of that, having kids come up to us and go, "Hey, that's cool, you're rapping about smoking dust. I smoke dust all the time."

Do you cringe when you listen back to the raps on Licensed to Ill?
Yauch: On Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique, we did talk about guns and stuff that, in a way, glorified them. We'd make the music a bit more scary, throw dissonant tones into it to make it seem like something cool.

Diamond: We thought that people would share the same kind of humor that we had – not take it completely seriously.

Yauch: When I was younger, I felt like I could say anything and it was funny. I've started to realize that what I say and do does affect everybody around us. I'm not just talking about what you put on a record – even just walking into a store and how you interact with the person behind the checkout counter.

Is that what you said to Liam Howlett, of Prodigy, when you asked him not to play "Smack My Bitch Up" at last summer's Reading Festival, in England?
Horovitz: All we said was, "We're playing on the same stage with you. We don't agree with that song. We think it's kind of fucked up, but it's your call. All we're asking is, think about it, do us a favor."

In fact, you set yourselves up as arbiters of what was or wasn't appropriate to play on that stage.
Horovitz: How would you feel if you went onstage after that? You would feel implicated. If this is something I disagree with, that's important to me, I gotta say something about it.

Yauch: They said, "Well, that's our big hit song and we're gonna play it, and you can't tell us what to do." And we said, "If you're gonna play it, we just want to say that we're going to say something from the stage."

Shortly after that whole controversy got publicized, I got a call on my answering machine from a friend of mine in Australia who said, "I just wanted to tell you that I was in an abusive relationship" – it was a woman who called me – "and my ex-boyfriend used to beat me up all the time. I cringed when I heard that song. It used to upset me so much, and I was really glad that you said something about that."

For your own show, you changed the original lyrics of "Paul Revere" ["The sheriff's after me for what I did to his daughter/I did it like this/I did it like that/I did it with a Wiffle-ball bat"], from Licensed to Ill.
Diamond: It wasn't just "Paul Revere." It was a bunch of songs. That was one of the things we tried to express to Prodigy, that this is a problem we're going through. We wanted to let them know that we're coming from a place where we're trying to change ourselves. And it's a tricky thing.

How did you feel about the booing you got at Madison Square Garden, in New York, when you apologized to Muslims and Arabs for the American bombing of Afghanistan?
Yauch: I thought that meant it needed to be said. People in America are so into thinking of Middle Eastern and Arab people as terrorists. I was apologizing to these people for being pigeonholed and looked at in a certain light. The audience thought I was apologizing to terrorists.

Do you think you could have expressed yourself better?
Yauch: It was, like, two days after the bombing, and everybody was feeling very gung-ho. The way I put it probably wasn't the optimum words. But then we said it at a few more concerts and figured out how to say it in a way that people understood – the idea that if we keep bombing other people, that creates more anger. Tensions keep escalating.

Given your efforts to raise awareness about the Chinese occupation of Tibet – the Tibetan Freedom shows, the live album and concert movie – do you realistically believe Tibet will be free in your lifetime?
Yauch: Yeah, definitely. I think it's a very strong possibility.

Diamond: Would we have foreseen, in our lifetime, the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of apartheid in South Africa? Or the collapse of the U.S.S.R.?

Yauch: It has to change. China is one of the last huge dictatorships, holding on to these colonies, provinces. That has to collapse. It's the responsibility of heads of business who are going to do business in China to lay down the law.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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