The calls started in mid-January, and they were all marked Urgent. For the next two and a half months, the employees at Nasty Little Man – the Beastie Boys' PR firm – would arrive at work to find priority-coded voice-mail messages that had been left in the hours just before dawn. There were odd ramblings and even odder demands, in a wispy German accent, that the listener put on his "dancing pants." And then there were the jokes: "How do you know when you're at a bulimic's bachelor party? The cake jumps out of the girl."
The Beastie Boys were hard at work on their new album.
Recorded over the last two and a half years in at least nine locations, Hello Nasty, which will be released on July 14th, is a psychedelic rap masterpiece, an extension of the Brooklyn Dust Music that the Beasties pioneered on Paul's Boutique nine years ago. Although hip-hop predominates and the punk rock that flourished on Check Your Head and Ill Communication is gone, Hello Nasty strikes out in new directions: Adam Yauch sings a bossanova ballad ("I Don't Know"); Adam Horovitz sings as well, on the Sixties-soundtrack-flavored "Song for the Man"; Lee "Scratch" Perry guests on "Dr. Lee, Ph.D."; "Song for Junior" is a salsa instrumental; "And Me" incorporates drum-and-bass flutter. Throughout, the vibe is distinctly old school, with the Beasties returning to the playful group spirit of Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique. And everywhere, the grooves are threaded with spaced-out electronics, turntable scratches, backward-flowing drumbeats and subtle flourishes that bespeak thirty months of off-again, on-again studio tinkering.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Beasties gathered in a Greenwich Village, New York, recording studio to discuss the making, brick by brick and beat by beat, of Hello Nasty. A few blocks east, at Union Square, a twenty-one-story apartment building with a fourteen-screen theater and a Virgin Megastore on its first two floors had been nearly completed in less time than it took to record Hello Nasty. Genius doesn't hurry.
Mike D arrives carrying a translucent Japanese Walkman that changes color in the sunlight; from his belt loop dangles a pass to the East Village yoga center he visits almost every morning. Adam Horovitz (a.k.a Ad-Rock) carries a slim pink paperback about basset hounds ("I don't own one, but I have these really cool pictures of a basset hound in a hat"). Adam Yauch (a.k.a MCA) is, for the moment, unencumbered by material possessions.
"The main difference between the last record and this one," explains Yauch, "is, we played dominoes the whole time we worked on Ill Communication. Boggle figures very heavily in the making of this one."
Mike D: Actually, Ill Communication we were playing the Sega golf game.
Yauch: Oh, yeah, that's right. OK, dominoes was more Check Your Head.
Horovitz: Basketball. We would all play basketball.
Yauch: Well, basketball, that's been consistent. Though not within the studio itself on this record.
Horovitz: Paul's Boutique, we had air hockey.
Mike D: And what else did we have? We had pool, right? I guess we got into pool.
Yauch: [in a wispy German accent] Puhl? Is there a game called 'puhl'?
Work on Hello Nasty began in Los Angeles at the Beasties' G-Son studios in 1995, but after Adam Yauch moved back to Manhattan in 1996, it became strictly a New York affair. When not taking what Mike D terms "one of our many little 'breaks,'" the Beasties recorded at a TriBeCa studio, as well as at Sean Lennon's practice space, Mike D's brother's house, a SoHo studio, Lennon's loft, a Greenwich Village studio and the Beasties' practice room, affectionately known as the Dungeon. "It's an underground sub-basement where we lease a small, dank area," explains Horovitz.
"It was cool being in the Dungeon," says Mike D, "because Adam [Horovitz] could get back to reclaiming his chief-engineer status. We all had our own individual 8-track . . ."
"It was cool," continues Yauch. "We did all kinds of engineering things for each other. Like, one person is playing, somebody else would set up the microphones, hit Record."
On Hello Nasty, as on their past two albums, the Beasties recorded jam sessions live to DAT, then pored over the DATs to find bits worth expanding, sampling or looping. But on Hello Nasty, their playing is often so thoroughly sampled, looped or treated that you can't tell the live-band tracks from the tracks created with drum machines and samplers. Hello Nasty also finds the Beasties going through some changes: DJ Hurricane has left the group; the scratches on the new album come from Mixmaster Mike of the Bay Area turntable crew the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, most notably on "Three MCs and One DJ," a live-in-the-studio rhyme session with Mixmaster Mike cutting up the beats on the spot. (Mike will DJ for the Beasties at this year's Tibetan Freedom Concert and on the world tour that will follow Hello Nasty's release.)
A highlight for the band was working with Jamaican dub's master architect, Lee "Scratch" Perry. "Dr. Lee, Ph.D." began two years ago at early sessions in New York and grew slowly over time into five minutes of sweet and sticky dubbed-out bliss. "We named it 'Dr. Lee' because it sounded so much like Lee Perry," explains Yauch. "But we weren't sure what to do with the vocals." Last October, when Perry was playing a New York club gig, Beasties producer Mario Caldato prevailed upon him to come down to Lennon's loft (nicknamed the Treehouse), where the Beasties were working. "It was Halloween, and it was so perfect," says Mike D.
"Yeah, he was walking down the street," continues Yauch, "all dressed up with crazy mirrors on his shoes, and everyone else was dressed crazy, and he just . . . he didn't look bad at all." In the studio, Perry listened halfway through the track; unrolled a tour poster on the back of which he'd already scratched out lyrics, theories and diagrams; and quickly got on the mike to celebrate voodoo, science, Jesus of Nazareth and "the Beastly Brothers, and the Beastly Boys, with their beastly toys, they give ya some beastly joys." "Then he said he wanted to over-dub," says Yauch, "and he just recorded some tracks coughing and going mrraangh and making all these pig sounds and ad-libbing. And Mario – he was really subtle about it – Mario was like, 'I really like on your records when you do percussion stuff.' So Lee Perry got up, grabbed these shakers and rattles, and just started shaking tons of stuff. Perfect. Sean had this little snake-charmer flute that Lee Perry picked up, and he was whacking out a beat. He broke it in half. Sean came back and we were like, 'Uh . . . sorry.'"
Hello Nasty was co-produced by the Beasties and Caldato, their collaborator since 1988, but many of the songs were first sketched out during sessions in the Dungeon that found the band trading instruments, trying out new equipment and raiding Horovitz's endless storehouse of sampled beats. And also playing keyboards – longtime associate Money Mark Nishita appears on only four tracks. "Mark's an amazing keyboard player," explains Mike D, "whereas none of us are at all even competent keyboard players. It gave an interesting twist to have to figure things out on our own. Musically, for us, it's like all of a sudden we'll get this Casio keyboard and try that out on a bunch of things. It's always a combination of music we're listening to and whatever weird piece of technology happens to work its way into the mix. I'd like to give a shout-out to Yauch on the ARP 2600 synthesizer."
The Beastly Boys. With their beastly toys.
This story is from the June 11th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.