The Beastie Boys become kings of their own urbane jungle
The story you're about to read is true. Three grown men officially known by nicknames and wearing clothes that look like they've been handed down by much bigger brothers are leading a cult that is threatening to suck our culture back into the 1970s. Please be aware of the warning signs. To demonstrate their loyalty, not to mention the magnitude of their sheer groovitude, the group's devotees indie-rock gurus, legions of faceless hipsters and annoyingly ubiquitous barely celebs are donning the garments of their chosen leaders. Pumas, baggy pants and Fila tennis shirts abound. When they're not sporting knit stocking caps, their baseball hats, invariably, point backward.
This alliance based in a Los Angeles enclave known as Grand Royal exists ostensibly to make music under the moniker Beastie Boys. Other activities, however, persist. Guided by Michael Diamond, 28 (alias Mike D), Grand Royal has grown into a media microjuggernaut. It's a record label. It's a magazine. It's a way of life. Officials close to the Beastie Boys view Diamond (who is also an investor in the Beasties-style clothing store called X-Large) as a shrewd, slightly image-obsessed business maven. His co-conspirators, meanwhile, are less visible among the desks, skateboard ramp and basketball court that mark the confines of the G.R. offices. Adam Horovitz, 27 (pseudonym King Ad-Rock), is known to experts as the charismatic, carefree personification of the Beasties' oeuvre. The third member, Adam Yauch, 29 (assumed name MCA), is the quiet Beastie the wholly enigmatic spiritual loner. Of course, these are simply preliminary sketches. An extensive investigation is required in order to reach the conclusion that these generalizations are for the most part right on the money.
And so it is that this inquiry takes us to Brussels, Belgium, where the Beasties are on a recruiting trip for new converts. And as it is the first step for all takeovers, the group has descended upon a radio station to secure the airwaves and get its message to the people. The Boys have been invited to act as DJs and play some music for the masses. Diamond is reading off the band's list of demands.
"OK," Diamond is saying, "Dr. John, Jungle Brothers, Sly Stone, Madness, Kiss, Kool and the Gang, Sergio Mendes. . . ."
It is a dizzying selection that simultaneously reveals the unlimited range of the group's influences and throws the show's host into a bout of nervous babble. It doesn't help that she is without a Beasties-to-English dictionary, which, even in America, is often a necessity.
When the Beasties explain to her that Kool and the Gang offer "mad, mad cuts," she says, "But you like them, right?" By way of clarification, the Boys explain that not only are Kool and the Gang "fly, fresh, dope and phat," they are, ultimately, "the shit."
Scrambling to get back on familiar footing, the DJ decides to showcase the work of some home-grown talent.
"Yo, this band is from Antwerp?" asks Horovitz as the first song plays. "They're buggin' in Antwerp, huh?"
Rattled, the DJ comes to the defense of her countrymen. "No, they are a very popular band," she says, shaking her head dejectedly.
Diamond interjects: "What do you think about Grand Royal taking a little trip and signing up the whole Antwerp scene?"
She stands as if looking for an escape route. "There are many good bands there," she says.
"You don't have to tell me," says Horovitz. "This is totally fly. We gotta start giggin' in Antwerp. Antwerp is the shit."
Indeed, there are few territories the Beastie Boys could not storm with relative ease. Because of this, understanding the Beasties' mystique is more critical now than ever before. Their latest album, Ill Communication, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and seems destined to become the soundtrack for summer in these very United States. A sly blending of the styles that have graced their previous three albums, Ill Communication fuses jazz-laced hip-hop, crappy 1980-style punk thrash, aggressive, groove-heavy rap and the kind of infectiously sleazy funk instrumentals that can be heard playing in porn movies just after someone says, "Hey, you're not the regular cabana boy."
It's a long way from 1986, when the Beasties' debut, a metal-meets-rap amalgam called Licensed to Ill, became the best-selling rap album of all time (until M.C. Hammer's Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em later unseated it), offered the world "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" and created the Boys' original posture as cartoonish, beer-swilling assholes. Back then, the Beastie Boys were a multiplatinum novelty. Today, after much image reconstruction and four groundbreaking records, they are considered musical innovators, cultural pioneers and the kind of upstanding citizens that deserve a little time to kick back and dig their bad selves. Now, with the success of Ill Communication and a co-headlining spot on the traveling revival meeting known as Lollapalooza, the Beasties' niche is as secure as it is all powerful.
Which all seems a little lost on our DJ, who has decided to defuse the situation by changing the subject altogether.
"So, you play many different styles, don't you?" she asks.
Horovitz speaks up. "We're like John Starks, the Knicks guard," he says. "We're unpredictable. Do you know John Starks? He's a streak shooter."
Terrified, the DJ turns to her microphone and begins speaking French at an alarming rate.
"Wait a minute," says Yauch. "Are you making fun of us?"
The face of the Beastie Boys is pressed into a Formica-topped table, smack in the middle of the dining car on a train hurtling from Brussels toward Paris. In just about an hour, this train will break down, leaving everyone on board to grab luggage and begin shambling down the tracks like extras from the Grapes of Wrath but that's another story altogether. Presently, Horovitz possessor of the band's greatest celebrity status, son of playwright Israel Horovitz, husband of actress lone Skye and star of two movies, Lost Angels and Roadside Prophets is balancing his body weight against his forehead and talking about life as the poster boy for all that Beastie-ality represents.
"I love being in the Beastie Boys," Horovitz says. "I don't want to be the leader. I wonder what it would have been like if I could actually sing. It would be interesting. I don't want to be the cleanup hitter for the group. At a time I really wanted to. That's when I got into movies and wanted to be the man. Right now I'm not into that."
From the beginning, the Beastie Boys have always been greater than the sum of their parts. For all his savoir-faire, Horovitz as a solo act would be like Curly doing slapstick without the rest of his Stooges. Horovitz is simply one of the boys – three smart, economically privileged friends from the New York punk-club scene that gripped the city when they were teenagers. The fact that the group, after releasing a 1982 punk EP, Pollywog Stew, while still in high school, went on to discover hip-hop, hook up with a suburbanite heavy-metal head named Rick Rubin (who was then running Def Jam Records out of his NYU dorm room) and collaborate on Licensed to Ill seems like the freakest of accidents. They were into punk rock, getting loaded and spray-painting the town red. Or green or blue for that matter.
Horovitz's independence began early, and his emotional strength was tested often. When he was 3 years old, his parents divorced. Despite the fact that for most of his life his elder brother and sister lived with their father, Horovitz lived with his mother. She ran a thrift store in New York City's bohemian West Village called Gee the Kids Need Clothes, and Horovitz would ride his skateboard from school at lunch time to visit her. In fourth grade he got busted by a friend's mother for smoking pot. The pot belonged to Horovitz's mom.
"She was the coolest person ever," says Horovitz. "Ask Mike and Adam. She was so cool. One time we went and saw Fear at the Mudd Club, and we were waiting in line, and she and her best friend show up, stumbling down the street and singing and laughing. I was like 'Mom, what are you doing?' She just said, 'Well, I want to see them.'"
A short time later, however, Horovitz's life was altered forever when his mother died as a result of her alcoholism. "One day she just kind of got real sick," he says. "She drank a lot. And she was sick for two days and didn't even move or leave her room. But she did that a bunch of times. Next thing I knew, she was in the hospital. It was crazy. It was so awful. I guess I got really lucky at that time because the band stuff really picked up, and we did a lot of recording, went on tour. If I had just been sitting around all day, I would have probably . . . who knows."
The manifestations of Horovitz's loss were many. Instantly, he says, he and his brother and sister became extremely close. "We knew right then and there," says Horovitz, "that we had a for-real family." He also developed ulcers, a condition from which he no longer suffers. "I don't know what caused the ulcers," he says. "Stuff used to get me really crazy, touring stuff. I used to hide. I hid from everybody. Back in '87 when things were so hectic, I'd run away. There was so much pressure. I just like being home. I just like to hang out."
More than his band mates, in fact, Horovitz has perfected the art of dalliance. He is paid handsomely for it, and to his credit the job suits him well. If you need someone to kick back and crack a joke, Ad-Rock is, indeed, the king.
"He really is such a great person," says Adam's father, Israel. "His mom was a great artist, a wonderful painter and also an exceptionally nice person. So that he got from her. I'm not such a nice person. And because of that, I've had to learn to work really hard. That he got from me."
What Adam works most feverishly at is playing things cool. He lists his dog as one of his three role models (along with Bob Marley and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye), because, he says admiringly, "He is just the cool-out king." Horovitz's typical day begins with his and Skye's taking their dogs down to her mother's house, which is nearby in the secluded Hollywood Hills, having a cup of cappuccino, smoking a joint and whiling away the hours until dinner or the studio beckon.
After dealing with his mother's death and the drug overdose three years ago of Dave Skilken, his best friend since high school, Horovitz is well acquainted with pain. He is also on a first-name basis with legal trauma. While in England during the Licensed to Ill tour, he was the focal point of a media circus when he was brought up on charges (which were eventually dropped) for allegedly throwing a beer can at a female fan. Recently, he was sentenced to 200 hours of community service when a cameraman for Hard Copy accused him of assault after Horovitz and a friend tried to stop him from filming a private memorial service for River Phoenix, which was being held in Horovitz's back yard.
"What I work hardest at is just trying to not let things get me crazy," says Horovitz. "Life can be hell on earth. Just being away from home gets me kind of hectic. I'm insecure that maybe I'll never be able to go back."
Whatever insecurities exist are very clearly internalized. On the outside, Horovitz bounds around like a cartoon mouse. He is all smiles, hugs, 1970s pop-culture trivia and innate magnetism. It might be one dimensional, but it's certainly enough for him.
"I just see myself as a little kid, listening to KABC radio playing all those songs from the '70s," says Horovitz. "I was smoking joints when I was a little kid in the schoolyard, playing basketball. Nothing's changed. I've got this picture of myself climbing on the fence at PS 41. I'm wearing corduroys, a burgundy T-shirt, a green winter knit cap, and I've got Puma Clyde's on. I'm that same kind of kid I was back then. I'm happy. I don't need to change that."
The past is a precarious place for the Beastie Boys. On one hand, it's home to the '70s and the myriad references that define their music and fashion. On the other hand, it also houses the days of Licensed to Ill. When it comes to assessing that period, the Beastie Boys have been the benefactors of more revisionist history than Richard Nixon. Now all seems to be forgiven. Boys, the theory goes, will be boys. In their case, however, boys will be bastards. It's a fact the Beasties are well aware of. Their most visible period was unfortunately their youngest, drunkest and most embarrassing. No matter how much they've matured which, to be fair, is an amount just over leaps and bounds the Beastie Boys are still dragging around the image they projected in their early 20s.
The list of grievances reads like an uncensored peek into Bob Packwood's diaries. On the Licensed to Ill tour, women writhed onstage in dancing cages. A friend was hired for the tour as the band's "trim coordinator." The original title for Licensed to Ill was Don't Be a Faggot. Almost every dressing room was rendered a wading pool of Budweiser and broken glass. Their stage show featured a 25-foot hydraulic penis. Subtlety was far from the band's forte.
"A while ago I looked back and cringed," says Yauch. "These days I just look back and laugh. The bottom line is that it's all part of the learning curve."
In a strange way, the excesses of that period have proven to be a perverse saving grace. Soon after the Ill tour, the Beasties split with Rubin and their manager, current Def Jam president Russell Simmons, over a dispute about royalties.
The parting paved the way for the Beastie Boys to move from New York to Los Angeles and record Paul's Boutique, a less-than-mainstream project that never would have transpired if Rubin and Simmons had remained in the fold. Paul's Boutique tapped into 1970s funk years before the Beasties' peers began mining that era for samples. Despite low sales, it stands as a landmark moment in hip-hop and the Boys' most accomplished and underappreciated work.
"People think we were wild characters on Licensed to Ill and then mellowed out and made our little second record," says Horovitz. "We really started getting ill while we did Paul's Boutique. We had so much damn fun. All new place, new faces, new clubs. That was the total Hollywood lifestyle."
So, as the Boys pranced around L.A. (often in clothes left behind by their landlord's wife), they found themselves on a new career path. Where Licensed to Ill gave them mass appeal, Paul's Boutique brought musical credibility. Once again, they were cool. The heavens, in turn, realigned. Finally, with the platinum success of the more instrumental Check Your Head in 1992, they had it all.
Which brings us to Ill Communication. The album finds the band simultaneously casting its musical nets wider while retaining equal focus on each of its chosen styles. With Horovitz on guitar, Diamond on drums and Yauch on bass, the instrumentals while not about to gain any of them a moonlighting job as a studio musician are nonetheless much more polished. The rapping reads less like rhymes than carefully crafted lyrics. The production, recorded to sound like the band is singing between two tin cans and a piece of string, brings as much urgency to Horovitz's nasal rasp as it does to Yauch's lowered vocal boom. In short, there are a number of bands that are better funk instrumentalists. And as Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest proves when he guests on the track "Get It Together," there are better rappers. Heck, there are dozens of better punk bands in existence. There's just nobody else that makes it so much fun and helps it all make so much sense. That magic belongs to the Beastie Boys alone.
"It would be nice to look at ourselves as innovators," says Horovitz. "I think we are creative, but in terms of being masterminds, no. We're just making some music that we like."
The only criticism the Beastie Boys can really take these days is that in-jokes still render their every conversation vaguely similar to hanging out in the most cliquish junior-high locker room in America. "We're snobs, definitely," says Horovitz. "That's why we have our little Grand Royal scene. If I was in New York and saw us living out in Hollywood and doing our whole thing, I'd probably think it was pretty funny."
How they will fare with the pulsating mass of like-minded individuality at Lollapalooza is anyone's guess. "Lollapalooza isn't really our scene at all," says Horovitz. "I definitely didn't want to do it at first. I don't think any of us did. It's so corny. But festivals can be really fun to play. Now I'm looking forward to it."
It's very possible people might look at my being into Buddhism and think it's a goof, but I have to follow my heart and then let people think what they think."
Adam Yauch is sitting outside at a Greek cafe, trying to add some clarity to his enigmatic image. It's just past 2 in the morning, and our investigation has once again led us to Brussels. The quiet that has descended over the city is interrupted only by the occasional car wending its way through the cobblestone streets. Yauch is smiling easily, speaking softly and sincerely and sipping on a leafy concoction that looks more like the refuse from someone's yardwork than a suitable beverage. Not surprisingly, the topic at the moment is Buddhism. Along with the snowboarding that fills his time through the winter months, Buddhism is Yauch's tag. He even wrote a song for Ill Communication called "Bodhisattva Vow." It's a bit of type-casting that Yauch doesn't mind so long as people understand the dedication inherent in the description.
"The main thing I'm striving for right now," says Yauch, "is integrating the ability to only put out positive energy toward all other beings. I want to integrate that into having fun and functioning in the band."
Brooklyn Heights, the upscale neighborhood that housed the Huxtable family on The Cosby Show, was not exactly teeming with Buddhists when Yauch was growing up. He was an only child more into electronics than karmic energy.His father was a painter and architect, his mother was a social worker, and theology played no role in the household whatsoever. "I remember asking my mom if there was a God," says Yauch. "She said, 'What do you think?' And I told her, I really don't know.' She just looked at me and said, 'Neither do I.' So that was it."
Instead, Yauch was encouraged to explore other cultures. He made several pilgrimages to Mexico in order to study the country's various ruins. He also toured Ireland and Europe. "A teacher said she thought that I was really insightful because I had traveled," says Yauch. "I think it gave me other perspectives."
What Yauch didn't have was musical potential. Despite his obsessive love of music, when he took a high-school aptitude test, the results revealed that he would be successful in any career other than the one he most wanted. As a solution, Yauch did what any 16-year-old would do. He joined a band anyway. "When I first started jamming, in the back of my head I thought, 'I have been tested, and my aptitude is not in music,' " says Yauch. "I told it to a friend, and he told me it was just bullshit."
The rest, as some are wont to say, is history. The punk-rock scene. The Beastie Boys. Two years of college at Bard before eventually dropping out. "My mom was trying to give me the "You need something to fall back on' routine," says Yauch. "I was telling her, 'No, I'm going to be a rock star.'" He laughs. "Now she just says, 'You were right, you told me.'"
What Mama Yauch probably didn't know is that while her boy was gaining stardom, he was also smoking more marijuana than is found in most glaucoma wards and dropping what he deems "huge quantities" of acid. By 1990 both had ceased.
"At first, smoking a lot was just fun, and then after a point it would make me feel insecure around other people," says Yauch. "I think part of taking the drugs was opening myself up to the fact that there's a lot more going on than what you see in the immediate world. The problem is it's not a very controlled way of approaching that."
If this was Hollywood, right about now, central casting would probably send in a healer. And as we've already established, the Beastie Boys now call Los Angeles home. So with the help of a spiritual healer, Yauch began his studies in earnest. What he learned, among many other things, was meditation, massage work and energy fields. Now, Yauch believes he's "a little closer to leaving this dimension." He's worked through virtually all of his insecurities and claims that very little upsets him on a day-to-day basis. Around the Beasties entourage, he listens to people intently, laughs often and then, without warning, disappears. Most of his possessions are in storage, and he rents an apartment on a month-by-month basis. He is also, by far, the most accomplished musician in the band.
"I'm very happy with my life right now," says Yauch. "Amazingly so. I often sit and reflect on it. I sit in my room before I go to sleep at night and think, 'Damn, this is nice.' "
He pauses and absorbs the quiet of the night.
"The stuff that I'm talking about is the stuff that too many people have pawned off as being some bullshit or me being elusive," Yauch says. "What I'm talking about is my true belief and my true understanding of reality. I'm working on being more focused on living in the present. Most of the other interviews I've done have taken what I said to be some kind of aloof avoidance. That is just not the case."
Michael Diamond is staring into the tape recorder like a suspect eyeing a polygraph machine. This might have to do with the fact that Diamond is a tad media obsessed (he even toyed with the idea of writing a piece for Grand Royal Magazine that rated all the Beastie Boys articles). Or it might be more directly linked to the fact that he stopped off in the room of his DJ, DJ Hurricane, for a bit of herbal inspiration and is to put it as simply as possible really stoned.
It's tough to blame Diamond. As the president of Grand Royal, he is the only Beastie who actually has less work to do when he schleps off on tour. Diamond deserves a little downtime. In a few hours, in fact, he plans to call his mother to ask what museums he should check out during his stay in Brussels.
Aside from pop culture, visual art is one of Diamond's only releases. His father, who died when Diamond was 16, was an art dealer, and much of his life on New York's affluent Upper West Side revolved around the artistic community. "The greatest education that I got was at my own dinner table," says Diamond, the youngest of three brothers. "I look at the true privilege of how we grew up not being so much economic there's no question we were very fortunate but the privilege really came out in an intellectual and geographic way. We were constantly exposed to these total New York characters."
Because of his brothers, Diamond was also exposed to punk rock at what he calls "a ridiculously early age." He attended a small, liberal private high school but spent most of his time at the clubs. "When my dad died, in certain ways I cut off," says Diamond. "In an everyday way, I became a much more silent person. I'd turn up at school, and where I would have used to have raised my hand and talked in class, it was 'Why bother?'"
College brought the same response. Not wanting to cause a confrontation with his mother, Diamond attended Vassar, where he lasted a semester and logged more time in Manhattan than he did on campus. Not long afterward, British Airways used a portion of a Beastie Boys single, "Cookie Puss," without permission, in a commercial. The band sued and was awarded $40,000. His business sense piqued, Diamond quit his day job in a bookstore and concentrated on the band. Legend has it that the group's split with Rubin had more than a little to do with the fact that Rubin viewed Diamond's musical and business senses as replaceable.
"There was a point where Rick probably didn't want me in because I deal with the business side," says Diamond. "Ultimately there was going to be a source of conflict there."
Horovitz is less diplomatic. "Rick thinks he knows what's best for everybody," says Horovitz. "Rick was the expendable motherfucker."
Granted the unanimous vote of confidence, Diamond set about building his Grand Royal empire. Which isn't exactly Xanadu. The entire office houses four or five employees, including Diamond, who lords over the manor behind a metal desk that he has had sprayed orange by car painter Earl Scheib.
Diamond's every action seems a struggle between his left and right side of his brain. At one moment he's laid-back, tossing off creative ideas and jokes. The next he's talking business or flashing a smile that looks surgically removed from a used-car salesman. If there is an angle to work, Diamond will find it. Usually he doesn't need to go searching. Most days involve spending time at home in the arty L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake with his wife, director Tamra Davis (Gun Crazy), overseeing Grand Royal affairs and trying to work in as much golf as possible. And if his band mate is as insightful as he seems, days might get much busier very soon.
"I'm taking any bets, and I say that it'll be under a year before both Mike and Adam are expecting kids," says Yauch. "They won't admit it, but I'll lay odds. They'll both be amazing fathers."
Family and adulthood are themes that continually resurface in conversation with Diamond. He talks about being "constantly surprised at how adult" his home is. He plans on buying a second home, this one in Manhattan, when Lollapalooza ends. He worries about the inevitable moment when he'll realize that his kids don't think he's cool. He even frets about being too happy in his own family life.
"It kind of horrifies me," says Diamond, "that even though we picture ourselves as this totally eccentric family from the Upper West Side, we're actually a completely typical mature family. Like any New Yorker, I'd like to think that the experiences we go through and what we are as people are completely different than anyone else possibly could be. But ultimately the way we are is not that different than a family from Wisconsin."
At the moment, the Beastie Boys look less like architects of their own private kingdom than they do all-American kids at the park. In about 45 seconds, they'll be bounding across the stage in front of a sold-out crush of chanting Belgians. Right now, however, it's a tie game with two outs and a man on second. Yauch, clutching a broom handle, is at the plate. There's a pitch, he swings, sending the wad of rolled-up tape high over the beam that's been designated as home-run height.
As the room erupts, the tour manager shouts from the doorway that there is, in case anyone seems to have forgotten, a show to play. The band members scramble down the stairs and huddle next to the stage. They bump one another's chests, New York Knicks style. Then again. And again. Finally, the music comes on, and they storm the stage singing "Sure Shot."
It might not be your typical means of instigating a cultural revolution, but for the Beasties, it does the job. Every move they make is met with adoring screams. Every fashion accessory they've ever worn is duplicated somewhere on the floor. And every word they rap is shouted back, albeit in slightly broken English. The seizure of Belgium has been a success.
"People would perceive it as all these people trying to look like us or it being some fashion thing," says Horovitz. "But the key is, I don't think there's any difference between those kids and us."
Which might in the end be right. The music of the Beastie Boys is about bringing together as many different styles, ensuring that there's a little something for everyone. If you don't like the rap, try the funk. If that's not good, may they suggest the punk rock. Maybe another band on the Grand Royal record label would suit your taste better. Or if you're not into music at all, there's a humor magazine.
Yes, the execution might be overly exclusive —
"I don't want to say that we are better than anyone else," says Diamond. "For anyone in general to develop that attitude is potentially dangerous. But at the same time, with everything we've created and everything we thrive on, we have created this little fantasy world that maybe is elitist." but the results are populist. And for the Boys, at the end of the day, it's all about the family.
"It's just such cool chemistry between the three of us," says Yauch. "I don't even completely understand how it all interconnects. It's just that the three of us together is much stronger than any one of us working individually. We've been together for so long and care about each other so much, it's really like brothers."
This story is from the August 11th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.