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."
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