This story originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of SPIN. As the Beastie Boys’ To the 5 Boroughs hits its 15th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.
“That’s the dog. That’s the dog.”
Adam “King Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Michael “Mike D” Diamond are in the back of a Lincoln Navigator, and we’re all driving towards a loft on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where the Beastie Boys used to play music while battling blood-hungry rats and unscrupulous landlords. We’ll arrive at the loft in ten minutes. But right now, there’s a terrier crossing the street, led by an old man wearing a cowboy hat. “This is a great story,” Yauch says, looking at Horovitz. “Tell the story about the dog.”
“This fucking little piece of shit dog bit me twice,” says Horovitz. The others don’t laugh, but not because the statement isn’t funny—they don’t laugh because these guys always seem to communicate through one-liners. In Beastie World, this is conventional dialogue. Diamond sardonically voices fear that such a statement will make the Beastie Boys seem like animal haters, but Horovitz is unmoved.
“I don’t hate animals,” he says. “I hate that dog. And that dude with the cowboy hat? That’s my neighbor. I went over to his house when I first moved in, and I rang his doorbell to introduce myself. But there’s no answer. I wait and I buzz again. This time I hear the dog inside barking and barking. The guy finally comes to the door, and he’s 80 years old, and he’s completely naked, except for his underwear. He opens the door six inches, and I say, ‘Hi, my name is Adam,’ and he says, ‘Don’t let the dog out.’ So I bend over and block the door with my hand, and the dog bites my finger and will not let go. I finally push the dog away, but now blood is everywhere. It’s all over my shirt. And the guy says, ‘I can’t talk now, I’m in my shorts.’ He closes the door on me. He never said a single word about the dog!”
This is only the first half of the story, the second half details another incident a year later involving the same terrier diving into Horovitz’s calves with extreme prejudice. Diamond questions the accuracy of the story, pointing to Horovitz’s inability to describe the old man’s underwear. Yauch suspects that Horovitz just visited the neighbor so that he could later ask to use the man’s swimming pool. The conversation feels like something from what MTV would have classified as a “rockumentary” in 1989. It’s clever, rapid, and a bit vapid.
We’re driving around New York because more than anything, the city defines who the Beastie Boys are. We’re touring the places they loved before anyone loved them, and the trio is at the apex of their comfort: operating as an insular group, obscurely referencing one another’s obscure references, bantering about the quality of pedestrians’ mustaches, and making a living off their sharp, city-bred wits. When all three Beasties are in the same place at the same time, it’s impossible to get a straight answer about anything.
And it’s not much easier when they’re alone.
For nearly 20 years, the Beastie Boys have represented all things to all people; they just haven’t done so at any one time. On 1986’s Licensed to Ill, they were downtown wiseass punks pretending to be suburban imbeciles; they toured with Madonna, dated Molly Ringwald, and embraced black culture so aggressively that they almost seemed to ridicule it. By 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, they had evolved into musically protean West Coast stoners with an affinity for billy goats and Japanese baseball legends (Sadaharu Oh). Check Your Head proved they could play their own instruments and became 1992’s college-rock prototype for knit-hat slackers. Ill Communication showed how rap rock should be done with “Sabotage” and became the soundtrack for ‘94 Lollapalooza ticket holders who wanted to reminisce about episodes of Starsky & Hutch they’d never actually seen. Hello Nasty was for Buddhist-loving electro ironists interested in Boggle and insane reggae legends (Lee Perry). And through it all, the Beasties have always been a step ahead of the cultural curve.
Few groups have changed their ideological existence as much as the Beastie Boys. For more than 40 years, the Rolling Stones have expressed the same general sentiments that they did in 1964; AC/DC has been around for 31 years, and they’re still expressing the exact same sentiments that they did in the summer of ’74. Ideologically, the Beastie Boys have almost nothing in common with who they used to be. If the ’86 B-Boys and the ‘04 B-Boys met each other now, somebody would end up in the emergency room—or at least covered in egg yolks.
Yet one thing has remained unchanged over the years, and it’s the unifying principle that has allowed Horovitz, Yauch, and Diamond to remain relevant longer than anyone could have anticipated: The Beastie Boys understand what it means to be cool. It’s almost as if being cool is their full-time job. They can make any retro reference seem contemporary; they innately sense the line between savvy cultural recognition and esoteric self-indulgence. They basically discovered Spike Jonze, made shouting out neglected soul-jazz musicians trendy (Dick Hyman, Eddie Harris, Richard “Groove” Holmes), and taught people born in 1978 to care about the American Basketball Association. The Beastie Boys are hip-hop’s version of the “mavens” that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Tipping Point: They are cool hunters for the rest of us.
But during the six years since their last album, it’s become clear that the Beastie Boys have become less invested in the process of manufacturing cool. They closed their magazine and record label Grand Royal in 2001, then officially declared bankruptcy in 2002, even holding an online auction to sell the label at bid4assets.com. They’ve made social responsibility an increasingly important part of their identity: The group has chastised fans they felt were being abusive toward women in mosh pits; in 1999, Horovitz publicly apologized for the group’s homophobic lyrics circa Licensed to Ill, Yauch remains an earnest celebrity frontman for the movement to liberate Tibet; and last year, they posted to their website the antiwar song “In a World Gone Mad,” which was mocked for its simplistic (if well-meaning) message.
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—last 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 lone 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 sand 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.”
Back in the SUV, we’re pulling up to 55-59 Chrystie Street, a downtown New York City building next to a cooking-supplies store. In 1983, Yauch and Diamond lived in a room now labeled APARTMENT 15, which also doubled as the trio’s practice space. Today, the building looks innocuous, but they say it was once rife with illicit activity and vermin.
“The unique thing about that loft was that part of the floor was actually blacktop,” says Yauch. “It wasn’t concrete—it was like the blacktop on the street. I know that must seem like a lie, because I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else.”
Yauch recalls the rent being $800 a month, which almost makes Diamond mad. “We were paying $800 a month for that shithole?” Walking up the stairs, Yauch tells a story about how the landlord, who they’d heard also ran a massage parlor/brothel and a fortune-cookie factory out of the same building, offered them women and fruit to offset their inexplicably massive electric bill (they demanded money instead). He relates another story about how they crashed the building’s elevator by filling it with amplifiers.
“We were only here for a year, but it was a formative year,” says Yauch, 39. I ask what they feel when they recall their days on Chrystie Street. “Nostalgia and pride,” Diamond says.
But that’s not how they feel about the songs they wrote when living in this place. It’s impossible to avoid the dichotomy between who the Beastie Boys used to be and who they are, and it’s a subject they’d prefer not to discuss. In 2004, the Beastie Boys are among the most politically progressive pop acts in the world, and this is always going to be fascinating when one considers that they used to rap about violating underage girls with playground equipment (on “Paul Revere”): “The sheriff is after me for what I did to his daughter / I did it like this / I did it like that / I did it with a Wiffle-ball bat.”
“Well, of course that line would make any of us cringe now,” says Diamond, 38. “It’s tricky, because when you say (those lyrics] now, it’s easy to take them out of context, and it’s easy for me to say, ‘Ah, that’s fucked up.’ But I don’t want to come off as defensive. Fuck it, that was our sense of humor at the time, and that’s where we were at. That said, it’s not like we were going out on the town with Wiffle-ball bats. A song like ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ was the most ridiculous notion we could put forward at the time. We were dead serious about it being a joke, but the public just took it as us being dead serious.”
Certainly, some of what the ’86 Beastie Boys said can be dismissed as youthful, bad-joke indiscretion. Everybody says stupid shit when they’re 29, but most people don’t have artifacts inside every Virgin Megastore to remind them of it. Licensed to Ill has sold almost ten million copies, and there is nothing the Beasties can do to stop the album from being perceived as their definitive work. Yauch compares the record to an old, slightly embarrassing snapshot of yourself. At the time, they were creating a caricature of what they thought was funny: snotty white-trash brats who drank beer, smoked angel dust, and made fun of girls. Before Licensed to Ill was released, Yauch had been a straight-edge Minor Threat fan who didn’t drink or smoke dope. He says the obnoxious hooligan he played in the video for “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” was just indicative of a phase he was going through.
It’s possible that Yauch has came full circle, but it’s just as possible that the group’s interests are always going to be transitory. Despite the kinetic goofiness of the single “Ch-Check It Out,” To the 5 Boroughs is without question the most political record the Beastie Boys have ever made. Did it give Capitol Records pause?
“I never feel like it’s my place to censor artists,” says Andy Slater, Capitol president and CEO (and the Beasties’ manager during the Paul’s Boutique era). “But at the same time, [this record] doesn’t seem overtly leftist to me. There’s still some playfulness. It’s not like Rage Against the Machine.”
On the track “It Takes Time to Build,” Yauch asserts, “We’ve got a president we didn’t elect / The Kyoto treaty he decided to neglect.” It’s safe to say many fans won’t grasp such a reference (i.e., George W. Bush’s rejection of an international environmental agreement he viewed as detrimental to the domestic economy). However, most of the album’s lyrics are not as sophisticated. At one point, the Beasties insist, “Never again should we use the A-Bomb,” which is almost like protesting the use of catapults and boiling oil. It’s obvious that they hate the war against Iraq and America’s military influence on foreign nations. What’s less obvious is how much they’ve really thought about these issues.
“Part of [this album] is what we’re feeling and part of it is hoping that it will affect the political process,” says Yauch, drinking a mug of tea in the studio. “I think Bush is terrifying. The guy is a lunatic. We’d be hard-pressed to find somebody worse to put in there. Maybe Adolf Hitler.”
This statement makes me wonder how much Adam Yauch really knows about Adolf Hitler.
Certainly, the degree of political engagement differs from one member to the next. “What do you mean when you ask how politically engaged I am?” Horovitz says. “Does that mean I’m at political functions and out campaigning for people? Or does that mean that I’m in the park with my friends, talking about how fucked George Bush is? I guess I’m in the category of talking to my friends about how fucked George Bush is, and how sexism is fucked in society, and how racism is fucked in society. That’s how politically engaged I am.”
Actually, that’s a very accurate answer to the question. Similarly, To the 5 Boroughs expresses murky personal emotions rather than hard political opinions. The record’s centerpiece is a song called “An Open Letter to NYC,” set against a sample of the Dead Boys’ 1977 punk anthem “Sonic Reducer.” Filled with random shout-outs to New York’s boroughs and
subways (which are mirrored by the record jacket’s artwork), it’s a tribute to a city still recovering from the attack on the World Trade Center almost three years ago. Yet when I ask Horovitz what he remembers about the morning of September 11, he gives a strange answer.
“I couldn’t get coffee,” he says stoically. “We didn’t have any coffee. I kept trying to go up the block to the coffee place, and every time I’d go, a fucking plane would hit the building. And then I’d try to get coffee later, and a building would fall down. And it was just like everybody in the neighborhood was crying and screaming. It was fucking crazy.”
We’re back in the Navigator, driving past a place that was once the A7 club (and is now the bar Niagara), where the Beasties used to see Bad Brains perform. We pass their all-time favorite record store (the now-defunct Ratcage) and head toward the comer of Ludlow and Rivington streets, the Manhattan intersection where the Paul’s Boutique cover was photographed. The Beasties are all getting a bit nostalgic, a common feeling lately. (The hometown boys have even been hatching a plan to play surprise concerts in all five of the city’s boroughs on the same day; a helicopter may be employed as transportation.)
“Okay, Grandpa is going to tell a story,” Horovitz begins. He’s talking about Save the Robots, an early-’80s, East Village after-hours club that illegally served drinks to hipsters past 4 A.M. “This is about how the Butthole Surfers saved my life,” Horovitz continues. “Me and [ex-Beasties producer] Rick Rubin were coming back from Save the Robots. This was, like, 1984. Earlier that night, we had seen the Butthole Surfers play at the Ritz, but now we were walking home at six or seven in the morning. Nobody is on the street. Suddenly, I see these two kids creeping up on us, and one of them has this huge knife. I’m like, ‘Oh no, this is it.’ But right when they’re behind us, the Butthole Surfers pull up in this huge car, and there’s like ten people in this two-door car, and [Butthole vocalist] Gibby Haynes is driving. And he’s like, ‘Get in.’ So that’s how the Butthole Surfers saved my life.”
Much like the tale of the dog who bit him twice, the beginning of this story is more engrossing than the ending—it’s a little anticlimactic. It’s up to the Beastie Boys to make sure that this isn’t the case with their career. How people will respond to their continuing maturation remains to be seen. The Beasties don’t seem the least bit worried, but maybe they should be. Has this 20-year inside joke overextended itself?
“I don’t think any one of us thought it would last this long,” Yauch says, half-smiling. “If we had, I don’t think we would have called ourselves the Beastie Boys.”
But they did, and they are. And we’ll all just have to see how that works out.