Most pop, rock and rap acts go on tour to promote a new record. Mike Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys booked their 1998 shows for a slightly different reason: to force themselves to finish their fifth album, Hello Nasty – the trio's first since 1994's Ill Communication and nearly three years in the making.
"We set a date for doing late-spring festivals in Europe," Diamond (Mike D) explains. "We were working for months, doing six-day weeks, twelve-hour days. We had to give ourselves a certain date by which [Hello Nasty] had to be done, or we'd keep tinkering with songs forever.
"In a sense, the touring was integral to finishing the record," Diamond says, only half in jest. But Hello Nasty's warp-drive spin through funk, punk, metal, Bronx-playground scratching, electro-Seventies pop and three-way rhyme spray was, in turn, the blueprint for the B-boy-playtime theater of the group's '98 road show, the Beasties' most artistically complete, viscerally focused production.
Decked out like real beat doctors and rhythm mechanics in metallic-blue lab coats and Day-Glo-hued jumpsuits, Diamond, Yauch (MCA) and Horovitz (Ad-Rock) worked America's big rooms from the very center – on a round, slowly revolving stage outfitted with TV monitors, real instruments and the hyperactive decks of DJ Mix Master Mike. For an hour and a half, with no rest stops, the three rappers barked verse in military unison, slippery crossfire and fearless freestyle. The Beasties also played Afrofunk instrumental sets; blew through nuggets from their teenage-hardcore years, such as "Egg Raid on Mojo"; and, in encores, dumped a whole lotta Led Zeppelin over Ill Communication's "Sabotage." In his review of the August 12th show at Chicago's Rosemont Horizon, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune clocked the Beasties at twenty-nine songs in eighty-five minutes.
The Beasties – abetted by keyboard ace Mark Nishita (Money Mark), percussionist Alfredo Ortiz and hardcore-segment drummer Amery Smith – also changed their set list every night. The band variably opened with Nasty's "Super Disco Breakin'," "The Move" or "Body Movin'," with "Time to Get Ill," from the '86 smash Licensed to Ill, sometimes thrown into rotation. Last-minute alterations were often made in midshow. "Rarely is there a night when we will not change something on the set list as we go," Diamond says.
Thanks to Mix Master Mike, the pace and character of the music could also radically shift in midtune – much to the Beasties' surprise. "We would never know, night to night, song to song, which beat Mike would drop next," Diamond claims. Once, while the group was in the middle of "Egg Man," from the '89 album Paul's Boutique, Mike suddenly veered back to Licensed to Ill's "Brass Monkey," then into Gary Numan's "Cars," all within eight bars.
"Another night," Diamond recalls, "he dropped in a bit of the instrumental of [Bell Biv Devoe's] 'Poison.' That didn't work so well." Diamond pauses. "But it did surprise us."
Native New Yorkers raised on both the heavyweight glitz of classic-rock arena gigs and the humid crush of early-Eighties hardcore-punk and hip-hop club shows, the Beasties asked themselves a simple question before designing their live-Nasty blowout: In Diamond's words, "How do we subvert the actual environment of the arena, play with it, mess with it, so that it's not these little ants onstage far, far away?" Diamond says the group briefly considered using multiple stages – "We'd pop up and do a hip-hop set on one stage, with a DJ on another" – but dropped the idea as impractical.
Instead, the Beasties fattened the fun of rapping in the round with hot threads and what Diamond calls "visual sampling," a staccato combination of live-performance close-ups and kinetic custom images compiled by video director Josh Adams. According to Diamond, Adams' work was so good that the Beasties were frequently tempted to turn their backs to the audience and just dig some TV – like the sock puppets that lip-synced "So What' cha Want" and the Seventies basketball footage that accompanied "Root Down."
The martial look of the Beasties themselves was the result of two previous experiments in sartorial coordination: a guerrilla punk-rock club tour under the name Quasar and the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, where the Beasties wore brightly colored jumpsuits. After that, Diamond says, "we got addicted to uniform catalogs and uniform stores. We actually had to spend a lot of time debriefing our crew about how what we wore onstage was actually uniforms, not costumes. The terminology was very important."
Semantics nearly derailed the Beasties' area-homecoming blasts at New York's Madison Square Garden and at the Continental Airlines Arena, in New Jersey. Distressed by the U.S. bombing of suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the attendant patriotic drumbeating in the media, Yauch, a Buddhist, spoke out in protest at both venues, apologizing to Muslims and Arabs for his country's actions, and was roundly booed. "I thought that [response] meant it needed to be said," Yauch later told Rolling Stone.
In retrospect, Diamond believes that Yauch's main problems were timing and articulation: "The tricky thing is to introduce the idea at the right time, so it's not like people feel you're intruding on what they're there to take part in. And the Garden was the first night that Adam actually got on the mike to say anything. After that, his thoughts became a little better formulated." By the time the Beasties got to Boston a few days later, Yauch was getting more cheers than raspberries and giving props to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi before the band played the Check Your Head blues "Something's Got to Give."
The Beasties may have even greater difficulty negotiating the delicate balance between peacespeak and phat rock on their next tour – which, based on the group's productivity rate, could be three or more years away. When quizzed about the next logical step after the gonzo jollies of the Hello Nasty spectacle, Diamond quickly replies, "Underwater. Or on ice. You know those water-park places? Look how popular they are. And 'Disney on Ice.' You put 'on ice' after anything, it seems to be popular. If our next record doesn't do that well, we'll just add 'on ice.' Then we'll be fine."
This story is from the September 30th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.