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Beastie Boys: Twilight of the Brats

Beastie Boys on SPIN's July 2004 cover / Photo by Spike Jonze

To the 5 Boroughs, the trio’s first album in six years, was produced almost entirely by the Beasties (with no notable guest musicians), and it’s full of energetic patter: “‘Cause I’m a freaky streaker like Winnie the Pooh / T-shirt and no pants / And I dance the boogaloo” (from “That’s It That’s All”). Yet unlike Hello Nasty, the music is straightforward, almost stripped down — minimalist samples compressed into a dense crunch. There are New York in-jokes galore and copious talk of skills and “being back” from wherever they’ve been. But is this enough to connect with today’s audience? “With a band that’s been around as long as the Beasties, you have that concern,” says Lisa Worden, program director at WHFS, the Washington, D.C. modern-rock radio giant. “If a listener was 18 when Hello Nasty came out, he’s 24 now, and you wonder if the new 18-year-old will like the new record. But the Beasties have never let us down before. To not play the Beastie Boys would be crazy.”

Still, there’s a larger issue at stake here, and it probably has more to do with the acceleration of culture than with King Ad-Rock or MCA or Mike D. If the core of your success is built so fundamentally on your sense of cool, what’s left when you start to lose interest in coolness? What’s next after you’ve unsuccessfully attempted to save Tibet? What do you do after you’ve spent a few years at home playing Scrabble with your girlfriend? What do you do when you’re pushing 40 and your band is still called the Beastie Boys? “I’m not trying to be a 16-year-old,” says Horovitz, 37, when I talk to him without his peers at the Beasties’ Greenwich Village studio. “I don’t see a kid on the street and think, ‘Oh shit, that kid is cool, I’m gonna be that kid.’ If you fake it, you just seem fake. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why do people really listen to our music?’ And the only thing I can think of is that we think it’s funny.” Horovitz is the one who’s been playing Scrabble. He averages 350 points a game, partially due to his grasp of words that begin with the letter “q” but aren’t followed by “u” [qat, qintar, qanat, etc.). His girlfriend of eight years is Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman for the highly regarded New York band Le Tigre (and former leader of riot grrrl heroines Bikini Kill). These days, he also wears a medical-alert bracelet on his wrist‚Äîlast November, while watching TV with Hanna, he had a full-on epileptic seizure. The illness has been controlled, but he still can’t handle flash photography.

What’s possibly the most interesting thing about Horovitz’s epilepsy is that few Beastie Boys fans seem to know about it. Though it’s not unusual to spot any member of the group on the New York streets, they keep their personal lives surprisingly private. (For the record, Yauch was married in 1998 and has a daughter, Tenzin Losel; Horovitz and actress Ione Skye divorced in 1999; Diamond and his wife, director Tamra Davis, have a son, Davis, and another child is due in July.)

When asked what they’ve been doing as a group since the last album, all three Beasties say more or less “nothing.” “The most embarrassing part of that is how much time we actually spent together over those six years,” says Diamond. “And we got nothing done, most of the time. But I think we can count off that first year, because Hello Nasty had just come out, and we toured and did that whole rock-band deal. And then over the past two years, we started making this album, and we took big breaks for vacations. I was on the island of Kaua’i. I prefer Kaua’i to New York City in August. I love New York, it’s my home, but fuck it — August kind of sucks. But that still leaves us with three good years, and we really have nothing to show for it. We’re not really good at creating under pressure.”

Diamond’s description of the Beasties’ creative process is part of their allure: They do what they want to do when they want to do it; they work when they want to work; they love New York, except when New York sucks. They operate within their own reality, and that’s part of how they’ve remained cool. But that attitude also might explain why they’ve changed so much over the past two decades: More than anything else, the Beastie Boys are relativists. What they say and what they believe is dependent on the situation.

Take sampling, for example. The use of other people’s music is essential to how the Beastie Boys became famous. Licensed to Ill opens with the drum beat from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Some have speculated that Paul’s Boutique has more samples than any major album ever — in today’s more litigious times, it would be financially impossible to release legally. That being the case, you’d think the Beastie Boys would champion the free sharing of music. You’d think they would be flattered that anyone would want to sample them.

You’d be half right. “There’s nothing I can do about people who sample us,” says Horovitz. “But if someone’s making money off me, then I should make some money off them. It’s like the whole downloading thing. If I didn’t have money to buy CDs, I’d download shit for free too.”

So does he accept the fact that people might download To the 5 Boroughs instead of purchasing it? “I would be very upset if it happened before June. If it happened after the record came out, then I’d be like, ‘Well, it’s gonna happen.’ But would I rather have the money on those records that get downloaded for free? Yeah, I’d rather have the money.”