An Oral History of the Beastie Boys: “The Story of Yo”
How did three beer-chugging, groupie-grabbing white boys in matching Chinese gym suits become hip-hop elder statesmen and the brains and conscience of alternative culture? Old roommates, high-school friends, funky bosses, hangers-on, and the occasional pop star cough up everything you never needed to know about the Beastie Boys.
Jill Cunniff (member, Luscious Jackson): The funeral reminded me of the Studio 54 thing. They were all going to party, party, party, and then people start dying.
Schellenbach: We all kind of reconnected when Dave died. Some other guys from our scene had passed away, too. We all went out to dinner [in New York] and remembered how close we had been. We were like brothers and sisters. It was like, “Wow, these people are the same. They’ve gone through their craziness, but it seems like they’ve really settled down.”
Caldato: Dave’s death really put an emotional touch to the record. That inspired the final push — to try to make something good out of what happened. Lyrics for songs like “Gratitude” started coming together after that.
Sean Lennon: Check Your Head changed my life. The music was brilliant and they had evolved as people and as a band, like when the Beatles did Sgt. Pepper.
Rollins: I took Mike D to the gym once while we were on the Check Your Head tour. I showed him a couple of lifts, just some basic stuff.
Powell: They’d put on mullet wigs and Ian Anderson-type beards and go walking through the crowd. River Phoenix came out for a couple days in Florida. He was doing roadie work for them. I remember him wearing checkered highwater busboy pants.
Erin Potts (director, Milarepa Fund): I was living in Nepal on my college year abroad. Adam [Yauch] came over to Kathmandu, and it was a big deal for the expatriates living there. I could give a shit — I hated the Beastie Boys. I didn’t hate any band as much as I hated them. On that trip, the group he was traveling with had run into a bunch of Tibetans who had just escaped. They were so excited to be out that they had an impromptu party right there. Their story had a big impact on Adam — enough so that the day after I met him we drove around the Tibetan part of town and sat in a monastery for a long time.
The Captain: When Yauch came back from Tibet, he had definitely changed. The whole Buddhist thing is detaching yourself from pleasures and material goods — at this point, he’s even given up snowboarding. He’s sworn off drinking for life. But he still has a big-screen TV.
Evan Bernard (director, “Root Down”): At first when people would call Yauch a Buddhist, he’d say he wasn’t a Buddhist, because he didn’t feel that he was committed enough to command that label. But I guess now he’s, like, full-on. He doesn’t like me bringing food into his apartment. He’s afraid that it would attract bugs and he can’t kill anything.
Eddy: Now that the Beasties are Buddhists, I should break in somewhere and pour water on them. That would be the ultimate revenge, since they’re not allowed to fight back.
Caldato: After we finished touring, everyone was excited, like, “Wow, let’s make another record.” So we went into the studio and did it in six months.
Yauch: On Ill Communication, we just expanded what we did on Check Your Head, trying to perfect those styles.
Q-Tip (member, A Tribe Called Quest): I was pretty fucked-up when we did “Get It Together.” I can’t really remember making it, but I know Ad-Rock took that beat from an old Moog record. The Beasties are the fucking Bugs Bunny of hip-hop. They just come up with the ill shit.
Bob Mack (former editor, Grand Royal magazine): Ad-Rock wrote “Sabotage” at the last moment. The album was in the bag, but he reached back into the can and pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
Jake Fogelnest (former host, Squirt TV): “Sabotage” is the greatest music video. It was the first time a band that had worked so hard to be taken seriously could put on funny costumes — and still be taken seriously.
Spike Jonze (director, “Sabotage”): Everyone was supposed to grow their own facial hair for the video. Yauch forgot and Mike D can’t grow any, so they used the glue-on kind. But Horovitz grew all his own. He’s like that — he does what needs to be done. Yauch is a professionally trained stuntman. The emergency-brake slides and high-speed reverse 180s — that’s all him.
Nathaniel Hornblower (auteur; gadfly; cheese farmer): Making videos is like cheese farming. It takes a team of experts each doing their part. “Sabotage” was a finely aged Appenzell Gruyère.
Bernard: I worked on Lollapalooza ’94 as the Beasties’ juice pimp. It went from the guy who would go out and hand backstage passes to girls to the guy who would secure fresh fruit.
The Captain: Marriage changes shit. There was a time in LA. when everyone would hang together at Mike’s house because he had a pool — we called it Club D. And then when he and [film and video director] Tamra [Davis] got married, we didn’t have a pool to hang out at anymore. Horovitz and lone Skye just seemed perfect for each other, there was so much love. When I heard they split up, I was just like, “You know what? That means there’s no hope for any of us.”
INTERGALACTIC EMPIRE: 1994-’98
Mack: The Beasties got sick of searching for places that had leftover pairs of Adidas, and no one was really making cool T-shirts and wacky magazines. Rather than complain, they created their own thing. That’s how [the clothing franchise] X-Large got started. Mike D was the brainstorm behind it — not really the money, but the seed. He kept on thinking and the whole Grand Royal concept emerged. It’s about them not really being a band, but more like a cultural thing, a way of life.
Gary Gersh (former president, Capitol Records): When I got to Capitol, the label had already passed on a [distribution] deal with Grand Royal Records, but I felt that it was essential to building the core of Capitol and bringing it into the future.
Mark Kates (president, Grand Royal Records): The band has to be cool with anything Grand Royal does, because I may be the guy sitting at the desk, but as far as the world’s concerned, it’s completely their label.
Natalie Carlson (label manager, Grand Royal): Mike D used to be really involved, but he wanted to go back to being more in the band. The Beasties are really more A&R staff than anything. Mike brings in Ben Lee, and Yauch brings in the punk-rock element. And Horovitz finds things like BS 2000, which is all over the place.
Lennon: Grand Royal is run kind of like a summer camp. Contracts will be written on napkins and shit. Mike Mills (graphic designer): They don’t even send me copy for the shirts and posters typed out, they just tell it to me over the phone. It could be a little more bureaucratic.
Bernard: Bikini Kill were doing a fanzine that they’d hand out at concerts and the Beasties thought that was cool. So they kind of bit the idea for Grand Royal from that. At first the magazine was just to keep fans updated with what they were up to, but then it turned into this completely other thing.
Eric Gladstone (former editor, Grand Royal): In the beginning, it was Bob Mack and one computer in a broom closet. It was very punk.
Mack: We wanted to do something that the kids would be interested in that wasn’t just a toot on the Beasties’ own horn. The fans expected a lot of the band, and this would let the Beasties turn the kids on to what they were into.
Mike Watt (Columbia recording artist): When they toured with me, they noticed I always protected my knees. I was born with bad knees and had to have surgery in my 20s. They wanted to know the whole story, so I turned in 10,000 words about my knees.
Mack: Yauch didn’t want any guns in the magazine, or any glorification of violence. He was going through a Pharcyde layout [in the first issue] and he noticed that one of the guys was flashing a gun. We hadn’t even noticed, but he was like, “What the hell is this?”
Gladstone: The other guys withdrew, but Mike was very hands-on. He has an incredibly good journalistic instinct.
Frere-Jones: The magazine’s huge cover story on Lee Perry was one reason why there was a resurgence of interest in him. The Beasties have become avatars of cool, which is not a bad thing, because they happen to have good taste. If you’re young and trying to figure out what you like, the Beasties step up to the bat. There’s a whole generation of kids who’ve grown up thinking about music through the filter of the Beastie Boys.
Yauch: After Lollapalooza, we got involved with different things, like the Aglio e Olio EP, the hardcore tour, and the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
Paula Heredia (film editor): Tho first cut of the FreeTibet [concert film] was horrible. Yauch and I started from scratch and put together something we felt good about, but we realized that we had lost the feeling of Tibet at the end — that something was missing. There was a moment where he was saying good-bye to the monks and one of them came up to him and cried. Yauch was very concerned about not glorifying himself, but we knew that moment was the resolution.
Fogelnest: I was at the Tibetan concert in D.C. this summer, watching Herbie Hancock, when all of a sudden I hear this weird crash. Lightning had struck the field Security guards cleared the stadium and all the rock stars crowded into Beck’s tour bus. Everyone just felt so bad for Yauch.
Potts: The Tibetans who come to the concerts don’t know the music and when people ask who their favorite band is, they all say the Beastie Boys. There’s a huge following now in India and Nepal and, I think, in Tibet, though we have no evidence of bootlegs there yet.
Horovitz: It’s been four years between records, but it wasn’t like we were sitting at home. We basically saw each other almost every day.
The Captain: I think they decided to go back into an old-school direction on Hello Nasty because Horovitz was more behind it. He’s always been into the beats-and-rhymes thing.
Caldato: Yauch didn’t really want to rap. He doesn’t want that heightened energy or something. They also recorded a country album-with Mike singing.
Fogelnest: A Japanese woman named Toco used to work for their publicity company, Nasty Little Man. She wouldn’t answer the phone like, “Nasty Little Man, may I help you please.” She’d just say, “Hello Nasty” with this thick accent.
Gabby Glaisr (mombor, Luscious Jackson): The songs are really complicated but still make you move. You can hear the early-’80s hip-hop thing again, but you can also hear how far they’ve come as a band.
Joey Garfield (sea monster, “Intergalactic” video): During the “Intergalactic” shoot, the giant robot and I could barely see. At times we were really beating the shit out of each other. One time he dotted me in the eye and I tried to hit back, but the fucking thing was stepping on my flipper. I was yelling, “This is real now! This is real!” If there’s an “Intergalactic 2: Electric Boogaloo,” that robot’s going down.
Adams: Now that they’ve gotten older, Mike is the business guy, Yauch is the social-causes guy, and Horovitz is the music guy. They all have these totally different worlds.
Madonna: I see Mike at the yoga center all the time.
The Captain: Yauch’s wedding was crazy. It was the Jews from Brooklyn meet the Buddhists from Tibet [Yauch’s wife, Dechen, is Tibetan-American]. Things like the Jews dragging the Tibetans out onto the floor to do “Hava Nagilah.” And then a traditional Tibetan band played and they dragged all the Jews out to do this weird chanting-stomping thing. Her family got up and gave very regal, kind of Zen speeches. And then Yauch’s family got up and embarrassed the fuck out of him.
Bernard: His relatives were referencing Licensed to Ill. Two or three people somehow worked “Fight for Your Right to Party” into their toasts. Sean Lennon was like, “Don’t these people know they recorded other albums since then?” Yauch’s parents rapped. It was really cute.
Simmons: Yauch and Horovitz are more spiritual and a little more sensitive to things that Diamond’s not interested in. Diamond likes being a rock star. I would say that the other two are the ones who bring in the elements that make the Beasties new and original. They’re the craziest and the most artistic. And Diamond is the glue that holds them together.
Rubin: Yauch embraced that out-of-control, rock’n’roll thing more than anyone else. Looking back, I think he was searching for who he was, and now he’s found that person. It makes perfect sense to me that he was the way he was and ended up the way he is.
Diamond: Obviously there are moments that you look back at and cringe — things in the past involving violence or disrespect to women or disrespect to other people that are so far away from what I want to put out there now. But it’s actually a privilege to be able to change and be making records that reflect that change.
Serch: Now, in retrospect, I think they’re brilliant orators and storytellers. If we ever do a new 3rd Bass record, I might have to put an apology song on there.
Frere-Jones: There’s now an entire genre of Beasties-inspired music, from Beck to Cornelius to all the Limp Bizkit-type bands referencing Licensed to Ill. You even hear tons of Beasties samples in big beat and jungle.
Q-Tip: For me, it’s the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J, and KRS-One, and that’s about it. And I definitely consider the Beastie Boys hip-hop artists, because they can’t sing.
Additional reporting by Matt Diehl and Steve Appleford
This story originally ran in the September 1998 issue of SPIN.