Shplat!” goes the apple pitched by Michael Diamond against the dressing-room wall, exploding into fragments. “Chsploom!” goes the unopened can of Budweiser hurled by Adam Yauch, spraying every-where. “Kee-Rack!” goes the chair Adam Horovitz flings as an after-thought. “Prison, prison,” chants Diamond. “All the way to prison/We’re on a mission.” After Yauch grabs the overhead piping and takes one last monkeylike swing, the Beastie Boys carom toward the stage at the Louisville Gardens.
There was some question whether the trio of young, white New York Jewish rappers, whose debut album, Licensed to Ill, is currently Number One, would ever reach this particular stage. A few days before, their promoter received a letter from the Kentucky facility saying, “We will not tolerate actions that have happened at previous concert dates by the headliner.” These charges ranged from “inciting the crowd” and having “minors from the audience on stage or backstage” to using “adlibbed” lyrics, but the most specific stipulation was “The prop that is inflated…will not be permitted.”
The Prop is actually hydraulic, not inflated. It was conceived when the Beasties were told they could have whatever they wanted onstage: on the right they put giant tall boys of Budweiser (Budweiser has served them with a restraining order); on the left, a cage with a scantily clad dancing-girl volunteer; and center stage, for the grand finale, a black box out of which arises the Prop — a twenty-foot-high pink penis.
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The Prop, combined with the Beasties’ encouraging girls in the audience to bare their breasts, nearly got the Boys arrested in Columbus, Georgia. In Louisville, vendors are not being allowed to sell the Beastie T-shirt with Get Off My Dick printed on the back. The house crew has refused to handle the Prop, but it has nevertheless found its way onstage. And on hand for whatever might happen are three TV crews, four lawyers, a representative from Columbia Records (the Beasties’ parent label), the city’s police chief and members of the vice squad.
Before the show, Diamond, 21 — who is known as Mike D and sports a Volkswagen medallion on a gold chain — told a TV reporter, “We’re doing what we want to do, and that’s why the kids respect us. We’re not listening to older people. We’re going to do it — if for nothing else, just because they told us we can’t…. We are exercising our constitutional right to be fresh.”
Though Diamond means the street term fresh — roughly an Eighties version of cool — the baseball-capped Beasties are in fact just plain old fresh from the moment they leap onstage to the theme from S.W.A.T. “Yo, Louisville, what the fuck is up?” yells Horoviz (“King Ad-Rock”), 20. While DJ Hurricane, 22, spins the backing music (true to rap form, there are no instruments onstage), rappers Diamond, Horovitz and Yauch (“MCA”), 22, prance, slouch and mug, grabbing their crotches and spraying constantly replaced beers on the crowd, which is mostly under twenty-five and is approximately seventy-five percent white. The Beasties show their political bent by addressing a PMRC-type group called Citizens for Decency Through Law. “You have a group here,” the muscular Horovitz says in his exaggerated New Yawk accent. “What’s it called, People Against Something Fucked Up?”
“We’re no good,” admits the unshaven Yauch (pronounced “Yowk”), pouring beer on the stage. When fans scream for some, he growls, “Start a rock band, get your own beer.”
“Hey,” cries Horovitz, expressing some displeasure toward the police, the facility’s management and the citizens’ group, “suck my dick!” He then launches into “Time to Get Ill” which mixes snatches of Creedence, Led Zeppelin and the Mr. Ed theme into a streetwise battle cry.
But when the houselights go up and the Beasties ask, “Is there a lady in the house with great big bouncy breasts?” they get no takers. And despite the stunning appearance of the Prop during a chaotic version of the rap-meets-heavy-metal hit “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” (including an obscene but rousing audience-participation chant), the Beasties leave the stage unescorted, unhandcuffed.
For all the %$¢&*#@! noise, it seems, the down-and-dirty Beastie Boys can’t get arrested.
You probably knew kids like the Beastie Boys in high school: wiseasses who wore beat-up clothes, smoked dope, cut classes and partied till dawn in grungy rock clubs — too antsy to be studious but too upper-middle-class and smart to be real delinquents. Yet how many of that bunch went from high school to opening for Madonna, scoring a Number One album, clowning at the Grammys, commissioning a movie script and dating Molly Ringwald (well, just Horovitz), all while thrusting a twenty-foot phallus in front of racially mixed crowds?
The Beastie Boys have tapped into a long-dormant strain of rock & roll: raucous, up-yours rebellion. Recently, the Top Forty has been dominated by smooth, middle-aged craftspeople with little to say and little in common with the kids who make up the bulk of the record-buying public. And since parents today are young enough to have grown up with rock, teenagers who want to rebel have had to turn to scabrous forms like hardcore and heavy metal.
Whether by shrewd calculation or happy circumstance, the Beasties have crashed the charts with the best album cover in years (a demolished airplane) and an image sure to incense parents. Most adults disdain the Animal House antics of Licensed to Ill (original title: Don’t Be a Faggot), and many decry its sexist and violent imagery — whereas most kids just find it fun and fresh. A case in point is the “Fight for Your Right” video, in which the Boys transform a nerd party into a wet and woolly horror show. Most people over twenty-one won’t sit through it, but it has captured the hearts, minds and crotches of America’s youth. The song’s most memorable line evokes the entire keep-an-open-beer Beastie Credo: “Livin’ at home is such a drag/Now your mom threw away your best porno mag.”
Not that long ago, the Beasties themselves were living at home: Horovitz, son of the playwright Israel Horovitz (The Indian Wants the Bronx), with his mother in Greenwich Village (she died last year, and the album is dedicated to her); Yauch, son of an architect and a school administrator, in Brooklyn Heights; and Diamond, son of an art dealer and an interior decorator, on Central Park West.
They attended different high schools: Diamond went to the elite St. Ann’s, in Brooklyn Heights; Yauch, a public-school dropout, went to Elizabeth Seeger, “a little hippie school with sixty kids in it where I smoked pot all day”; and Horovitz was enrolled in the City as a School program, which gave him credits for working in a recording studio.
They met in their early teens haunting clubs in the TriBeCa warehouse district: Tier 3, the Mudd Club, the Rock Lounge. They’d get incredibly drunk and run around the deserted streets with shopping carts.
In the punk-hardcore scene, no experience was necessary — only lots of energy. “They were just people like you, standing five feet away, and the music was incredible, really powerful,” says Yauch. “It wasn’t like going to see Genesis in some arena, where some guy who’s been studying keyboards for fifteen years is playing ‘dit-dit-doo-dit-dit-doo.’ “
By age fourteen, Horovitz was in a band called the Young and the Useless, and though he barely knew how to play guitar, he taught Yauch bass; Yauch and Diamond founded a four-person, crew-cut wall of noise they called the Beastie Boys. “When hardcore started, people would come up with stupid names,” says Diamond, “and it was the stupidest name we could come up with.” The hardcore Beasties recorded an EP, Polly Wog Stew. (Horovitz joined later.)
Yauch and Diamond took an apartment beneath a sweatshop in Chinatown. Dirty water seeped through the ceiling, machinery shook the walls, but they could play music full throttle twenty-four hours a day.
Punk, however, had already peaked; the new thrills were in break-dancer (“B boy”) clubs like the Roxy. One day the guys placed a crank call to Carvel ice cream’s toll-free number and turned the taped result into an indie punk-rap single called “Cookie Puss”; it became a cult hit in 1983, and they knew they were onto something. They hooked up with NYU student and DJ Rick Rubin, who would soon start Def Jam Records and coproduce Run-D.M.C. Rubin introduced them to Run-D.M.C.’s manager, Russell Simmons, who told the rapping brats, “You’re going to be the most successful group ever.” He took them from their all-white downtown gigs to opening for real rap shows in the outer boroughs: this forced them to get better, fast.
After the Louisville Gig, the Beasties board their tour bus at 2:00 a.m. and head for tomorrow’s show in Memphis, stopping on the way at a White Castle. Back on the bus, Horovitz pops in a James Brown CD and keeps replaying the same a cappella break in “Hot Pants,” dancing around, arms flailing, neck jerking, butt dropping. “Stand up Music bay-aya-ayby,” he wails, eyes scrunched up. Then he cues up a CD of Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, skips to “Cecilia” and replays a percussion break over and over. He tells Hurricane (born Wendell Fite) that he wants to scratch it into a song someday.
This constitutes creativity in the new age: thanks to scratching and audio sampling, the act of songwriting has become more appropriative than ever. Rick Rubin, who produced Licensed to Ill and co-wrote the songs, is vague about whether he got permission to use the pilfered bits, but he says the montages are “part of the art form, much like Dali’s Mona Lisa with a mustache.” Still, Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to much of the Beatles catalog, prevented the Beasties from releasing their raucous version of the Fab Four’s “I’m Down.” (Yauch calls Jackson “Wacko Jacko.”)
Because the album assigns no musician credits and Rubin’s name is so prominent, some have charged that the Beasties are mere puppets, Eighties Monkees. Though Horovitz played some guitar on the album, Yauch some bass and Diamond some percussion, the most dominant sound is the drum machine. But what’s important is the distinctive mix of voices — gruff Yauch, nasal Horovitz and shrill Diamond — and the end result, an original, gritty grab bag of street sounds diluted with horny-honky irony.
Rubin seems concerned about the Monkees charge: “I’ve been getting a lot of questions like this lately,” he says. “People don’t ask Madonna if she plays guitar on her album.” So what did each Beastie contribute? “I don’t remember exactly; I just remember that we were usually in the room together when most stuff happened.”
“Ow — I hate these lights!” Says Yauch, banging his head on a lamp in the back of the tour bus. “Our driver’s a chink for buying them!” Chink has replaced faggot in Yauch’s vernacular; he uses the word to describe Columbia Records, musicians who use minor chords and anyone else currently pissing him off. “I’m not talking about Chinese people,” he says. “I’m talking about slant-eyed people.”
The Beasties are riding the bus to Graceland, the home of another white rocker who popularized black styles and frightened parents. They’re dressed in the same dirty jeans and thrown-on shirts they wear performing. Among themselves, they don’t use their stage monikers, which came about because, Mike D says, “when you start rhyming, it’s hard to find things that rhyme with Yauch, Horovitz and Diamond.”
Plenty of people were calling them other names at the Grammys, where they grabbed their crotches and were heard to say, “Fucking A,” on the air. Yet they were a refreshing relief in a crowd of tuxedos, so when they hung out backstage with B.B. King, Al Green and Stevie Wonder and cranked up their boom box, nobody complained. And after the ceremony, Horovitz says, “Janet Jackson came out behind me and was dancing to the music on the box, and I had a boner. Then she waved at me, and I came. She was soooo def!”
Beastie banter is typically this brash and bullshitty, peppered with the f word, with sex the primo topic: the Boys debate the pitfalls of the area-code theory of relationships, which condones cheating on your girlfriend if you’re in a different area code. A “safe sex” rider in their contract requires a backstage supply of a rainbow assortment of condoms, which aren’t just used as water balloons. And to facilitate their use, there’s nineteen-year-old Dave Scilken, a scrawny friend from Horovitz’s Young and Useless days, who has been hired as “trim coordinator” for seventy dollars a week. Scilken once worked for a congressman and wants someday to be a graphic artist. His current position seems to entail two responsibilities: to find, outfit and train a hot dancer for the onstage cage (his advice: “Act like you want to have sex with every guy in the audience, but you can’t, because you’re in this cage”), and to scout the crowd or local malls for pretty girls he can give backstage passes to. When asked if he has any other job, Scilken replies, “Not really. I help with the luggage sometimes.”
It’s no surprise, then, that while the bus is entering the Graceland gates, the group is watching a movie on the VCR called Tit Fuckers. The Boys reveal a surprising cinéaste streak: Horovitz points out how some of the scenes must have been shot “out of continuity.”
As they disembark, Diamond says, “Pretty awesome — the kings of beer at the home of the king of rock.” They’re greeted by Alene Raiford, a cheerful middle-aged schoolteacher and part-time Graceland tour supervisor, who informs them that Robert Plant and Phil Collins are both visiting soon. “Say hi to Robert for us,” says Yauch, “and tell Phil we don’t care about him.”
Raiford warns the first guide: “These guys only went to school a little bit.”
“We went enough, though!” says Yauch.
Yauch lasted only two years at Bard: “People are in school to either learn a trade or to kill some time while they figure out what they want to do,” he says, “and I had pretty much figured it out.” He started sweeping floors for producer Arthur Baker and worked his way up to assistant engineer. One publication reported that Diamond had gotten into Harvard but turned it down; actually, he and Vassar parted ways after one semester. Horovitz lasted two hours at Manhattan Community College: during registration he recognized someone he thought was an idiot, so he left.
The guide leads them to the dining room and says that rather than sit at the head of the table, Elvis sat on the side so he could watch the TV set in the corner. The Beasties look at each other and burst into spontaneous applause.
Raiford shows them the Hall of Gold, lined with Elvis’s gold and platinum records. Elvis sold over a billion records worldwide, she says, “more than any other artist. When he sold his first 50 million, and he just got out of the army, RCA gave him a TV.”
“A TV?” shrieks Yauch. “Fifty million and he got a TV? You get that for opening a bank account!”
They briefly marvel at Elvis’s gun collection and narc badges, but Diamond stops in his tracks at Elvis’s gaudy jewelry. “Here’s Elvis’s biggest contribution to our career,” he says. “He was the first person to sport B-boy gold.”
Then he notices a diamond-encrusted gold chai (the Hebrew symbol of life). “Hey, was Elvis Jewish?” he asks.
“Well, he studied many religions,” says the guide, “but he was Assembly of God.”
“Did he eat matzos and stuff like that?” asks Horovitz.
“Imagine what kind of seders he’d have,” says Diamond.
Out at Elvis’s flower-laden tombstone, they stand in silence. Finally Yauch says, “What was it the guys sang here in Spinal Tap?”
Outside Graceland, the Beasties are greeted and photographed by a fan named “Slay” Slayton, 18, from Forest City, Arkansas. The Boys can tell Slay is a fan because his shirt proclaims that he is the Most Ilunest B-Boy.
Despite their seemingly rich-boy background, the Beastie Boys were fairly self-sufficient growing up. “My mom didn’t give me any money,” Diamond says. “She figured I’d spend it on drugs. So I figured the only way to make money was to sell pot. I made about $100 a week, and I thought I was in the big time.” Yauch says that until recently he worked as the super of his current building in Brooklyn. Of course, they also told one publication that Diamond had delivered milk from the same truck as D.M.C. and that Yauch had washed dogs (not to mention that CBS had given them a Ferrari and that they don’t leave home unarmed). Such banter is drying up a bit; they seem tired of being expected to be Beastie twenty-four hours a day.
Yet it’s just this quality that they regard as crucial to their surprising success. “I think people are ready for a group that can laugh at themselves, laugh at everything,” Diamond says. “Especially with all this serious bullshit going on — you know, Live Aid, Egg Aid, Beard Aid and Shave Aid. It’s all so serious, it doesn’t have any sense of humor about itself at all.”
They have trouble with charges that they are sexist or a bad influence. “We pretty much insult everything and everybody,” Yauch says. “Everything on the Beastie Boys record is joking around. How’s it gonna seem if we suddenly sing, ‘Drink a lot of beer, but don’t drink if you’re gonna drive, ’cause you might get in an accident and die’?”
But being on the road made Yauch realize that the plot of Footloose — about kids whose parents forbid them to dance — was not as ridiculous as he’d thought. “When we say, ‘Suck my dick,’ ” he explains, “it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s like nothing the kids are ever allowed to say in school or in front of their parents.”
Yet the Beasties seem uncomfortable with being anyone’s heroes. “What I hope people like about us,” says Diamond, “is that we’re three idiots onstage having a good time, drinking beer and saying rhymes. Hopefully everybody in the audience thinks, ‘That’s cool. I could do that.’ I don’t like the thought that they say, I saw the Beastie Boys last night, and they’re mega-stars.’ I’m a lot happier when the kids who come backstage or to the hotel try to give us tapes of what they’ve done, instead of just getting an autograph.”
Still, they are celebrities; Horovitz’s relationship with Molly Ringwald — initiated when he gave his phone number to the producer of her upcoming movie, The Pick-Up Artist — has even made the gossip columns. Yauch remains unimpressed with the whole affair, “The guy hangs out with Molly a little while,” Yauch says, “next thing you know he’s watching Pretty in Pink on TV all the time like there’s no tomorrow. The fucking dude: we went to New York for two days and he went to L.A. to party with her. Horovitz is chinking out on the whole band! He’s a pussy, right? Tell her to come to New York!”
The spotlight makes them nervous. “We all feel we have so much weight on our shoulders,” says Diamond, “because everything we do from now on has to be better than anything we’ve done, and it’s up to us. Most R&B artists probably just say, ‘Okay, now we’re really successful, we’re going to get the best writers and producers.’ Our next album is going to be us and Rick again.”
The Beastie Boys haven’t written any songs for the follow-up album yet, but they do have plans to buy a building and put in apartments for each one of them, along with a recording studio, a pool, a half pipe for skateboarding, a Wiffle Ball stadium and a disco.
They are also overseeing their movie, Scared Stupid (formerly Scared Shit-less), which is set to film this summer, following a European and Japanese tour. The Boys hired a friend from New York, Tom Cushman, 21, to help write the film. “It’s a lot of people run ning around with no clothes on,” says Cushman. “They kept warning me not to make it too cerebral, so I watched a lot of Three Stooges.” Cushman, who has completed three years at Columbia University, is on the tour as an onstage beer tosser and sometime musician. In two cities, when Fishbone, the warm-up band, had to cancel, Cushman and the Beasties donned novelty-shop costumes and went on as a heavy-metal band called Trip Hammer. They enjoyed it. “Next tour,” Diamond says, “we might actually play instruments.”
After the Memphis gig, the Boys are particularly wiped out, partly from having spent the previous night in the bus bunk on the road from Louisville. In the dressing room, Tom Cushman strums an acoustic guitar, and he and the three Beasties sing a somber version of — would you believe? — “Ramblin Man,” though, since they don’t know all the words, they have to mumble most of the verses. Then there’s a brief, almost poignant silence; you can see in their tired faces the three kids behind the strutting façade. Then Horovitz flips on the boom box, playing reggae full blast.
Success hasn’t changed the Beastie Boys. Just ask Dave Scilken. “They’ve never been really nice guys,” he says backstage in Memphis. “So it’s not like they’re famous, now all of a sudden they’re dicks. They’ve always been dicks.”