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The Boys Are Back In Town

How three punk-rock wiseguys from New York made some records, changed America and built an empire of cool by doing whatever the hell they wanted

August 6, 1998
Beastie Boys, Adam Horovitz, Ad-Rock, Adam Horovitz acting, Ad-Rock acting, Ad-Rock rolling stone, Beastie Boys Rolling Stone
The Beastie Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone on August 6th, 1998.
Mark Seliger

W

hen the Beastie Boys go on tour, as they will this August for the first time in three years, this is how they register at their hotels:

Mike D – whose entrepreneurial bent has left him with a reputation as the group's unofficial CEO – registers under the name of whoever is leading the PGA Tour at the time.

Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz – who manages to be at once the most Beastie and most serene of the boys – uses his own name.

And Adam "MCA" Yauch – the spiritual seeker – what of him? He registers under the name I. Clouseau, as in Inspector Clouseau, for he is a huge Peter Sellers fan. His favorite Sellers movie is The Party. "He plays an Indian actor," Yauch says, "and the movie was banned in India because he is playing this bumbling idiot in the middle of all these white people, and some Indian people were insulted by it. But the irony is that he's really the only intelligent person there – all the other people are morons. So it has a cool theme."

Cool, yes, and you are free to interpret it as you wish: as an anti-racist parable related by a white rapper; as a parable about the Beasties themselves, who started out acting the idiot and worked hard to convince the world that they are, in fact, intelligent people; or, more simply, as the plot of a fairly funny movie from the Sixties.

We join the Beastie Boys as they prepare to retake the center stage of American popular culture with the release of their new album, Hello Nasty. They have been here before: first in 1986, as the loudmouthed brats who played brats with even louder mouths on Licensed to Ill, which arrived shortly after the pop breakthrough of Run-DMC (with whom the Beasties then shared management) and which became the first rap album to hit Number One. And then again, starting with 1992's Check Your Head, which arrived shortly after the pop breakthrough of Nirvana (with whom the Beasties then shared management) and which put the Beastie Boys at the center of a bohemian diaspora that gradually overtook mainstream culture, making the world a safer place for punk rock, skateboard sneakers, Spike Jonze Nissan commercials and Beck.

Specifically, we join the Beastie Boys in a white van approaching the Queens Midtown Tunnel. We are headed to a soundstage in Long Island City, Queens, where filming on the video for "Intergalactic," Hello Nasty's first single, is being finished. Mike D rides shotgun. Adam Horovitz sits behind. Adam Yauch, who has both a wedding and a Tibetan Freedom Concert to prepare for, is nowhere in sight. We are discussing old video games – specifically Pong and Breakout, as played on the old Atari, "the one with the console that had the knobs that you twisted" – and whether Horovitz ever played them at the duplex apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side where Mike grew up. It is decided that he did. There is a pause.

A Jay-Z song comes on the radio. Horovitz blows a raspberry, somewhere between a Bronx cheer and a fart noise, several times. Then he begins to quietly human-beatbox along to the drumbeat. "Hey, Mike, you know what we should do?" he asks. "We should call some people tomorrow morning and get a game together." The Beasties rent a Manhattan high school gymnasium for twice-weekly basketball games with their friends, but Horovitz has something different in mind. "Do you know that court on Canal and Sixth Avenue? They just redid it. I walked by there this morning – it is so beautiful. And tomorrow – Friday – in the morning, there won't be anyone there."

"That's the idea," Mike says.

The van pulls into the parking lot. "Did you bring the catalog?" Horovitz asks.

"I have brought the Good Shit catalog with me," Mike replies. He pulls the Merrygarden Custom Activewear catalog, which sells high school athletic uniforms, from his bag. Once inside, Mike D and Adam Horovitz huddle briefly with video director Nathaniel Hornblower, who also directed the Beasties' videos for "Shadrach," "So What'cha Want" and "Pass the Mic," among others, and whom the June 13th Billboard describes as a "Swiss independent filmmaker." Adam Yauch is still nowhere in sight. (It should be noted, though, that if you take away Hornblower's lederhosen and white beard, he bears a striking physical resemblance to Yauch. Questioned later about the similarities, Yauch looks straight ahead and declares convincingly, "He's my uncle.") The conference with Hornblower finished, Mike D disappears into a back room to talk on his cell phone, and Horovitz settles into a director's chair, where he studies the Merrygarden Custom Activewear catalog with deadly intensity.

"Can I ask you a question?" he says to a woman standing next to him.

"Sure."

"What do you think of this?" He indicates an athletic jersey and matching shorts of indistinguishable merit. "Is the brown and yellow OK? Would you wear it? It doesn't have to be the short shorts." Horovitz wants to have Beastie Boys soccer outfits ("you know, with the high socks") made for the band's upcoming tour. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, he will scrutinize the Merrygarden catalog and solicit opinions on various shirt and shorts combinations and color schemes.

For Hello Nasty, the Beastie Boys wrote their rhymes together – the first time they had done so since Paul's Boutique, the 1989 follow-up to Licensed to Ill that they made after moving to Los Angeles. Their manager at the time advised them not to tour until Paul's Boutique went platinum. They never did tour for the record.

Instead, they sweated out their twenties and began growing up. Mike D started a business and married director Tamra Davis; Adam Horovitz acted in two movies and married actress Ione Skye (whether or not they are still together, he won't say); Adam Yauch went snowboarding and began his spiritual journeys. Together they built their own studio-office-basketball court, G-Son, and recorded Check Your Head, on which they picked up their instruments and returned to their punk-rock roots while mapping out their funked-up future. Two years later, in 1994, came Ill Communication, a better version of Check Your Head.

It has been four years since the last Beastie Boys record. Not an extraordinarily long time, but long enough. Hello Nasty was recorded in fits and starts, beginning in October 1995 at G-Son. But soon after, Adam Yauch decided to move back to New York, and the others followed. Hello Nasty is a New York album – the first sound on it is a subway train – and an old-school album. "On Check Your Head and Ill Communication," explains Mike D, "most of the lyrics are much more 'OK, you take that and I'll say that' – they're split up. But on this record, we went back to the three of us just getting together and sharing ideas, then piecing something together and spreading it out. So it's much more of a collective where we're all saying each other's lyrics, like on Paul's Boutique."

Which brings us here, to the video for "Intergalactic," which is old school in a different way. "All these people, we've known each other since high school," Horovitz says, looking around at the crew. "Arthur, the cameraman, I've know him since kindergarten. He got a bass, like, two weeks after I got a guitar. I started my first band" – a hardcore group called the Young and the Useless – "with him. He shoots a sitcom in Los Angeles now. And the other cameraman, Vanya, his wife, Abby, was in the Young and the Useless. She quit before we ever played shows or anything. I don't think she has any regrets. Hillary, the art director, he used to live at my house. It's funny, us all being here on this big soundstage." A faraway look is in his eyes, as though he can see all of the past – the good and the bad – laid out clearly before him. Then he turns to the person next to him.

"Can I ask you a question? Would you wear this shirt with these shorts?"

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