Beastie Boys: Boychiks in the Hoodie

On 'Ill Communication,' the rappers continue to perfect their interfaith marriage of hip hop and punk rock some 3,000 miles from their beloved NYC.

Beasties at the beach / Photo by Josh Cheuse
Beasties at the beach / Photo by Josh Cheuse
Charles Aaron WRITTEN BY
Charles Aaron

One day after flying from New York to Los Angeles to meet the Beastie Boys, I watched helplessly as the three still-hyper goofballs hopped a plane back home to New York, for no good reason, except that, as 28-year-old Michael "Mike D" Diamond quipped, "I like to front, you know, like I'm jet-settin'." Sometimes you've got to grit and grin. Bicoastal interview fiascos aside, it's hard to play Crabby Appleton around the Beasties. They're so sincerely full of it that you actually start to miss their charade when they're not around. And they did seem homesick.

"See, it's like we're not really here," says Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, 27, earnestly explaining the group's ur-L.A. dilemma. "It's still up in the air. Of course, I've felt like I was up in the air since, like, 1982.

"It's cool sometimes. Mike's got a pool at his house, I've got a pool, and shit, you know, that's kind of interesting … "

"But it's like I'm constantly about to move back to New York," says Adam "MCA" Yauch, 29. "Like I'm on the verge for my whole life."

"It's like I am verge," exclaims Ad-Rock.

We're in Yauch's sparsely furnished L.A. crash pad — snowboard, Mingus CDs, Dalai Lama Path to Bliss cassette — after spending the afternoon fighting traffic to Beverly Hills to see Ad-Rock's lawyer. The room is silent, everyone kicking back. But just for a sec. These are the Beastie Boys, after all.

Twitching a furtive smirk, Yauch begins a riff about the New York-to-Cali rhyme ratio on the group's fourth and latest album, Ill Communication. "So what you're saying is that L.A. is like a space station, right? And like, we were traveling from, say, the moon to Pluto, and we just got caught on this station, and then like, somebody erased our memories, and we don't even know where we came from or where we are anymore; but on this new album, we're having flashes of memory, like unconscious interludes?"

Pause for effect.

"I agree with you!"

"Now that's some shit, Mike," muses Ad-Rock, shaking his head, smiling.

"Fascinating, Adam, fascinating," concurs Mike D.

Despite being the envy of MTV losers — "I wish I was more like them," mumbles Butt-head after wordlessly watching the frenetic, fish-eye-slow-mo "So What'cha Want" vid — the Beastie Boys are reflective of late. Exiled in Los Angeles for six years by choice, they're not disillusioned transplants moaning that the sunshine is tired, or that the fruit has lost its passion. In fact, as the story spun, they became kindler, gentler, and more mature, i.e. not such entitled New York knuckleheads, following the career-reviving platinum success of 1992's Check Your Head, on which the group plugged in their own instruments (like SST session dudes with a funky clue) and rapped responsibly: "Be true to yourself and you will never fall."

Current Beastie pursuits are way wholesome: Running their record company, the sometime Capitol-distributed Grand Royal (roster includes funk-pop players Luscious Jackson, DJ Hurricane, Ad-Rock's hardcore band Dead Fucking Last, and Moistboyz, Dean Ween's side project); publishing the label's slickly hilarious magazine; maintaining an interest in X-Large, the wigger skateboy's anti-Gap; plus, being charitable — benefits for AlDS, Tibet, jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier — and enduring Lollapalooza ("We told 'em we wouldn't do it unless they replaced the piercing guy with one of those games where you shoot water into the clown's mouth," confides Yauch). What's more, two of the three, Horovitz and Diamond, are blissfully married to film notables — actress lone Skye (SayAnything, Gas Food Lodging) and director Tamra Davis (Gun Crazy, CB4), respectively; Yauch, bachelorized after a long-term relationship, is a nascent Buddhist snowboarding whiz.

But no matter how hard they front as savvy entrepreneurs (which they are), hard-working husbands (which Horovitz and Diamond are), spirit-seeking alternative-sports mavens (which Yauch is), or honorary Hollywood brat packers (who cares?), the Beastie Boys will always be smart-assed New York metropolitans at core. They long for long subway rides with loads of teen-style posses, boot-strap immigrants, and badly dressed tourists. And there are enough 600-volt rhymes on Ill Communication to inspire a public service announcement for the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority. And whassup with the early-'80s Manhattan club nostalgia; you know, when punks and hip-hop heads actually shared something besides drug habits?

"I'm the first to admit," says Mike D, "that we were totally dependent on a particular place and time … for us, seeing Minor Threat at the CBGB hardcore matinee was just as necessary a force in our lives as the Treacherous Three at Club Negril, or the Funky Four + One More at the Rock Lounge."

Yep, the Beasties are in full yearn for a time when, as teenagers, they snacked on different cultures like bodega rock candy, and honored hip hop by goofing on it. Now they're caught in between, too detached and presumptuous for rap's reality check, too self-possessed and creative for alternative rock's market analysis. Meanwhile they're working that eternally transient, displaced itch-that-needs-to-be-scratched vibe. Like expatriate artists suspended in time. Or maybe just like three prematurely famous brats nearing 30, wondering how they got from there to here.

Where the Beastie Boys grew up, people walk their dogs instead of dodging drive-bys. And for a while, that wasn't such a huge deal. Many folks simply marveled at the boychiks' chutzpah, bemused by their wacky mimic- ry. But after millions of white teens sent 1986's Licensed to Ill to No. 1 on the pop charts, and a lawsuit against their label Def Jam and manager-racial mediator Russell Simmons dragged on for years, the original uneducated rappers had their temporary street cred permanently revoked.

Which stung personally and forever damaged their chance with black kids, but never hurt their art a whit. Ever since Paul's Boutique — the 1989 follow-up dense with expansive narratives and oblique beats — the group has taken aesthetic giant steps. The crucial difference between the Beastie Boys and say, 3rd Bass, or Young Black Teenagers, or Chilly Ice, or Vanilla Tee, or whomever, is that they don't use hip hop to lament their plight as rejects from white society, or as a plea for acceptance from blacks, but as a way of questioning (sending up?) the whole obsession with group identity. What does it mean to wrap yourself in the hoodie of race or religion? Does it really keep you warm at night?

"I know for myself, and maybe I'm weird or whatever," says Mike D, "but the whole thing is about constantly redefining identity. Like the second issue of the magazine [Grand Royal] is a lot about questioning what happened in the first issue and what people's comments were. And to me, that's the best thing that could possibly be happening, an ongoing self-and-group critique or dialogue. That's what it's all about."

Instead of being defensive about their so-called privileged lineage, the Beastie Boys have always shot it full of holes from both sides. With their hardcore shenanigans (now compiled on the Some Old Bullshit CD), and their yowling about Betty Crocker and Colonel Sanders over samples of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (who, as good punks, they hated) on Licensed to Ill’s "Rhymin' and Stealin'," they affectionately harshed on white-trash culture, which was as foreign (or close) to their experience as black culture. In many ways, their "whiteness" is just as constructed as their "blackness."

For the record: Horovitz grew up in Manhattan's arty gay-identified West Village; his dad is the playwright Israel Horovitz. Mike D grew up on Manhattan's liberal-Jewish-yuppie-identified Upper West Side, a product of Bronx-striver parents. Yauch is from Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough's most affluent nabes; his dad is a retired architect and painter. Mom, as one can catch from the new album's "Do It," grew up on Brooklyn's Coney Island and Manhattan's Lower East Side.

And of course, there's the Jewish issue, relevant because of hip hop's insistent anti-Semitic nattering, usually via the Nation of Islam's endorsement of such viciously fallacious tracts as Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The subject still gets the devoutly secular Beasties going.

"Our Jewishness was never part of our upbringing at all," says Yauch. "I think all of us came from families with one Jewish parent and one Catholic parent, anyway."

"No Catholics in my family," demurs Mike D.

"No?"

"Damn straight." He puffs up his chest.

"I thought Hester [Mike's mother's maiden name] was," says Yauch. "Where'd Hester come from?"

"The Bronx — straight out. South muthafuckin' Bronx!" He raises up into full "Mike D" voice.

"Really?" Yauch reconsiders. "In any case, I guess I don't know what these guys' religious backgrounds are, and that's probably because none of us ever really discussed Judaism, as you're now seeing here … All I knew was that once every year or so, my mom would take me out to a Seder and my Uncle Freddy would scream, 'Pass the matzoh!' and I didn't know what the fuck was going on."

"I don't want to throw the term assimilationist around too lightly," Mike D says. "But ultimately, it was more an economic issue — moving from the South Bronx to Manhattan — than religious … And when you look at how Jews have been persecuted, and still are, assimilation makes a lot of sense … I remember one time, when I asked my pop what religion we were, he said, 'Capitalism.'"

"Yeah," says Yauch, "when I asked my mom, 'Is there a God?' she said, 'I don't know. What do you think?' One thing about it, though, that's true and cool is that I get a lot of Jewish kids coming up to me feeling pride and strength from what we're doing. And I definitely don't wanna take anything away from that."

"A lot of Jewish kids do identify with us," agrees Ad-Rock, sitting up. "I remember this one kid sweatin' me in a club, and he was like, 'Check it out!' He opened up his jacket, showed me this Star of David shirt he had on, and was like, 'Yo, see you Saturday!' I was like, 'What up, kid!'"

Chart-topping pop stars before they could drop out of college, the Beastie Boys eschewed crazy fame, contriving a self-contained world in which they could save their sanity. Now they wonder how much longer they can deal with the unreality. Like so many rootless artists — including boho Jews from Nathanael West to Rick Rubin — who've come to L.A. to cash in or convalesce or both, the Beasties spend a lot of the time convincing themselves that I'm OK — You're OK on the identity tip.

"L.A. is a town built upon segregated, individual fantasies," expounds Mike D. Now we've got our own little fantasy going on — we've got our studio, a little record company action, a little magazine action, and it's total fantasy … But, you know, that's what L.A.'s all about, people creating their own fantasies … "

And all things being equal, that would be cool. But of course, all things aren't equal. And the irony of creating a hip-hop virtual reality in early-'90s Los Angeles is jarring. The hip-hop generation's definitive sociopolitical moment — the LAPD's beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots — had about as much to do with the Beasties' everyday existence as the price of a Tibetan life in China. But really, what the fuck were they supposed to do? Cruise over to South Central, jot down a few notes, and cheer on the looters? Bust some rhymes in solidarity? Move to Fresno?

More encouragingly, the Beasties acknowledge that the mob-deep crew of baggy-wearing whiteys who've checked out hip hop because of them need to follow their example further and explore the culture that produced the music. "You can't really expect them all to go out and read Ishmael Reed, you know," says Mike D. "But if they check out a 'Groove' Holmes ('60s jazz organist cited on Check Your Head) record or Grandmaster Flash's 'Flash to the Beat,' that’s great."

And maybe, because of the Beasties own evolution, there's reason to hope for more. "When we first started MC'ing, I was coming from a real ignorant perspective," says Yauch. "I didn't understand how jazz had come from black culture and then became absorbed into mainstream society and how the same thing happened with rock'n'roll. And how the process just repeated itself with us and hip hop. When people pointed it out, it definitely humbled me quite a bit.

"See, I don't think there's just a young, black male identity crisis going on out there — practically everyone is going through an identity crisis. The whole fucking planet's trying to figure out who they are and why they're here. And so are we."

This story originally ran in the July 1994 issue of SPIN.

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