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.
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.
As businessmen, do you worry that the success of enterprises like the Grand Royal label and the Tibetan Freedom shows hinges on the sales of Beastie Boys records?
Diamond: I hate to dispel myths here, but there is an illusion that all of these activities are a lot bigger than they really are. The Milarepa Fund – which is the nonprofit organization behind the Tibet concerts and was started with royalties from a couple of songs on Ill Communication – is doing amazing work. But it is not a huge organization. With Grand Royal, it's cool to put out people's music, whether it's Sean Lennon or Luscious Jackson – people who are friends and make cool music. But it is not a huge enterprise.
Yauch: In putting together those [Tibetan] concerts or lobbying for stuff in Washington, I'm very aware that the more successful the band is, the more leverage we have.
Diamond: In this day and age, things are supposed to be along the lines of five-and ten-year business plans. But each of the things we've done has been an individual idea that we felt strongly about without thinking of the ramifications. And it's not like if we decided to focus on music that we would necessarily put out Beastie Boys records more often.
What is Grand Royal's A&R policy? Sean Lennon told me that you first suggested he make a single with his trio, IMA, and then record something on a boombox. Finally, he made a Brazilian-pop version of Rubber Soul.
Yauch: He felt a bit weird about what to do, about how people would perceive him, because of his dad. He had all these cassette tapes of him and his friends jamming that sounded cool. I said, "Why don't you make a seven-inch, cut up some cool parts of those tapes? You don't even have to put your name on it." Then he started working with his girlfriend, Yuka [Honda, of Cibo Matto], making songs he felt comfortable with.
Diamond: At one point, he and Yuka were going to Sear Sound [in New York] to record. I remember saying to him, "Are you sure you don't want to start out doing it at your place?" We looked at each other and laughed. I said the exact opposite thing of what a record-company guy is supposed to say: "The demos are great, but we're going to put you in a real studio with a real producer."
What does a Grand Royal contract consist of – a handshake and a kiss?
Diamond: The best one I ever did was for the Butter o8 record. I did this handwritten one . . .
Yauch: On a napkin with a crayon.
Diamond: No, it was a pen. But I had things on it like quarterly breakfasts. Once every three months, I had to take the band out to breakfast at a certain restaurant.
Horovitz: You know, you're in breach of that contract.
Diamond: I am, I'm behind. [Pauses] But they broke up. Do I still have to take them to breakfast? They should be taking me to breakfast.
What records are you listening to now? Anything that suggests the kind of album you'll make another four years from now?
Horovitz: I've been buying off-Broadway show tunes from the early Seventies.
Yauch: Are you sure you want to give that away? You might want to take that off the record.
Diamond: You'd be giving up your beat. That's an untapped source. I've been listening to a lot of Indian spiritual music. At the same time, after listening to that live Dylan album [Live 1966 – The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert], I went back to the bootleg box set, Ten of Swords. That brought Bob back to the fore for me.
Yauch: I've been playing Beatles records for my daughter, because my parents used to play Beatles records all the time when I was a little kid. There's something about her being here that makes me want to play them, and then it reminds me of being a kid.
What do you think hip-hoppers will do for samples in the next ten, twenty years? Are they still going to be using Seventies funk beats and riffs in the year 2010?
Diamond: The question is, what will people be doing with that same material that hasn't been done before?
Yauch: It's going to go in some direction that is entirely inconceivable now. If someone had been asked twenty years ago what direction they thought music was going in, they wouldn't have said sampling.
Horovitz: People are still going to be sampling [James Brown's] "Funky Drummer" in 2010.
Is there anything from the 1990s that will be worth sampling twenty years from now?
Diamond: Probably. But it's not for us to say. That's for the kid in 2020 to figure out.
This story is from the January 21st, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.