Living X-Tra Large: A Year With the Beastie Boys

Once they were America's biggest brats. Now they're content to be our coolest cats. BOB MACK spent nearly a year observing the Beastie Boys. Here is his inside story on the making of their new album.

SPIN's May 1992 cover / Photo by Enrique Badulescu
SPIN's May 1992 cover / Photo by Enrique Badulescu
WRITTEN BY
Bob Mack

Friday, June 15, 1991
The control room at the studio is outfitted with a comfy couch, and the walls are covered, like a kid's bedroom, with freaky color photos of the band, a poster from War's Why Can't We Be Friends? LP, and two Tijuana black velvet portraits of Michael Jackson.

"You must be the gentleman from SPIN," Adam Yauch says, extending his long, thin hand. I had expected Yauch, known as MCA, to be the hairy, urban lumberjack I'd feared on Paul's Boutique — the guy who rasped from behind a thick beard that he'd "been making records since you were sucking your mother's dick." Instead, I found a skinny, clean-shaven, almost ghostly, shy guy. Padding around in sock feet, he turns back to some tape machines, where he and Caldato have been tinkering with a reggae instrumental.

From the control room, I look through the windows of two sound-proofed doors into a ballroom, where the Beasties have built a stage, skate ramp, and hoop — which Mike D is taking aim at in his blue double-knit shorts and Meters T-shirt. I wonder who the hell the Meters are. Mike D is thicker than I imagined, and his complexion has cleared since the last album.

In the turntable room, meanwhile, it's hard to see the Alan Arkin — esque movie-star mug of Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. King Ad-Rock) because he's pulled a green knit ski cap down over his eyes like Mush Mouth, the mumbling kid from the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoon. Even so, it's evident just from the way he kicks his burgundy peg-legged Dickies, green nylon Nikes, and black T-shirt, that Sly Stone was wrong. Everybody is not a star; only guys like Ad-Rock are. Right now, he's busy yelling, "Something's got to give" over a herky-jerky beat. Like a lot of the vocals on the new album, these are processed to give them a deliciously ill, tin-can tone.

Mike D offers me something to drink, and as expected, the minifridge is filled with beer. Unfortunately, it's apple beer. I snag the one real brew left, and snicker at the totally Cali kitchen area littered with fruit juices, vegetarian pizzas, and a yuppie Krups coffee maker.

Without discussion, a spontaneous jam breaks out. Mike D runs behind his drum kit and Ad-Rock, though putatively the guitar player, straps on Yauch's bass. Keyboardist "Money" Mark Nishita, who once got pelted with fruit by fellow students during a recital at Robert Fripp's crafty guitarists camp, adds some percussion. The result is a cheesy but groovy jam not unlike a porno soundtrack.

Yauch never joins in, and after ten minutes they turn to hoops. Mike D travels every time he touches the ball, Yauch, though an accomplished skater, is pretty much a spazz, and Horovitz is the most athletic of the three. I remember thinking that they played basketball about as well as they played their instruments, but in retrospect that's an unfair assessment of their musical prowess.

On Sunday morning we meet at Hamburger Hamlet for my first and only formal interview with all three at once. On the ride there, I make fun of Mike D for having the soundtrack to a Steven Seagal movie, and he plays me my first taste of the new Beasties, a three-note riff augmented by the boys chanting, "Funky boss get off my back." At the restaurant, Mike D and I slip into the giant booths, sip even more giant iced coffees, and wait for the two Adams — who are comfortable with West Coast punctuality.

When the other two finally arrive, Mike D starts complaining about the R.E.M. video for "Shiny Happy People."

MCA: Mike nearly got in a fistfight with the singer of R.E.M. Now, Mike's on a crazy mission to find him.
Ad-Rock: Georgia's too far, but I hear Sting's in Malibu!
Mike D: Sting looks like he's in shape.
Ad-Rock: You sneak up behind him, crouch down, and I'll push him over your back!
Mike D: But Sting's the type of guy who'll sue you.

Turns out Mike D was genuinely pissed at Michael Stipe because some other member of R.E.M. dissed the Beasties in England's Q magazine. But when he starts in again on Stipe's admittedly absurd dancing, the other two sense it's time to bring him in line.

MCA: Actually at home Mike lip-synchs to R.E.M. records in front of the mirror.
Ad-Rock: [Imitating Stipe] "That's Mike in the corner, losing his — " I don't even mind that song, man!
Mike D: Aw, you guys are gettin' so soft …
SPIN: The Source said you were soft, Mike, for buying gourmet tuna paté — said you'd been in Cali too long.
MCA: That's a bad attitude. Big Daddy Kane be buying that shit all the time! If Q-Tip bought it, they'd be impressed.
Mike D: People don't realize how much hip hop stars have always been into gourmet foods. Chef B-Boy-Ardee is no joke!
Ad-Rock: I heard a Salt-n-Pepa song one time, where they named every rapper in New York. And they didn't name us! I was like listening to this shit, goin', "Damn, wussup wit that?"
MCA: You could've waited till the cows come home!

Talk of New York rappers dissing the Beasties leads us inevitably to 3rd Bass. First they joke about how 3rd Bass's MC Serch reportedly used to show up at Mike D's house to hang out — and Mike D would throw stuff at him. And though MCA claims that Beasties fans think about it more than the band …

MCA: Serch sounds like he's got a weird thing with being white 'n' stuff.
Ad-Rock: I understand, but work that shit out before you start going 'round. I saw Pete Nice in the barber shop — didn't say shit to me!
Mike D: [Suddenly] I just wanna tell everybody we're coming back hard!
MCA: [Grabbing my recorder] Yo gimme that, I'm gonna bust some rhymes right here!
Mike D: Honestly, people expect like "I'm so hardcore, I shot eight motherfuckers before I left my house!" Who gives a fuck, man?
SPIN: Well, you guys seem happy out here.
Ad-Rock: We were happy at Mike's house yesterday.
MCA: I got a nice life.
Mike D: I'm fuckin' definitely thankful every morning I wake, so I don't have a whole lot of beef.
SPIN: [To Ad-Rock] You said yesterday you weren't psyched to get out on the road?
Ad-Rock: Actually I'm really anxious to go on the road. I just wish we didn't have to go away from home. I get weird and miss my dogs, my girlfriend. I'll bring my dogs on the road!
MCA: I'm down to get out on the road.
Mike D: I'm really down to play shows.
Ad-Rock: I don't wanna seem like I'm not down — I'm just fuckin' around.

Later, Ad-Rock claims again that he was "just fuckin' around," but I'm not so sure, so I ask, "Is the settled L.A. life detrimental?"

Mike D: It might even be detrimental, but myself, I have no regrets about maturity.
SPIN: That's what I'm getting at.

As Mike D drives me back to my hotel, he throws the Steven Seagal tape out the window onto Sunset Boulevard. It's the most mischievous thing I'll see any of the Beasties do for the next six months. Over that half year of getting to know them, however, I formally interviewed each of them only one more time. That was back in October, when I tagged along while they went about the business of a typical day.

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