Back in May 1990, the phone rang, I asked who it was, and an unfamiliar voice said, “Ricky Powell.”
“As in ‘Homeboy throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell,’ of Beastie Boys fame?”
“Yeah, listen,” he said directly. “What’s this you’re dissing the Beasties in SPIN?”
Uh-oh. In my “Hip Hop Map of America” [Spin, June ’90], I had written “L.A., by the way also acts as a rest home for retired rappers Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys.” So I did what any critic would do in that situation: I blamed my editor.
This pacified Ricky Powell, and that’s a good thing. Because Ricky Powell—part-time photographer, cable-TV personality, substitute teachers, and stand-up comic—is what you might call “the fourth Beastie.”
Of course, in the same way there were many “fifth” Beatles, so there are a few fourth Beasties. There’s DJ Hurricane, who took over the wheels of steel from MTV’s Dr. Dre in summer 1986. There’s Mario Caldato, Jr.—engineer, coproducer, and cowriter of six songs on the collection of funky instrumentals, fuzz-bass rock, hardcore, progresso psychedelia, and, oh yeah, 21st-century schizoid hip hop that is the brilliant new Beasties album, Check Your Head; in other words, the poor bastard who helped cull an LP from the 50 songs scattered throughout 100 hours of digital audiotapes. Finally, there’s Caldato’s high-school buddy Mark Ramos Nishita, a master carpenter and keyboardist who first came into the fold when some girl ran her car into the entrance gate of the “G-Spot,” an incredible ’70s-type pad that the Beasties rented in 1989 during the recording of their last album, Paul’s Boutique. Nishita fixed the gate before the owners came back and later helped the band build their new studio. In the end, he cowrote nine cuts on the new LP and added tasty keyboards in an array of textures, ranging from Jimmy Smith-type jazz to Pink Floydish razzmatazz.
Nevertheless, there was still only one Ricky Powell. He had grown up in New York’s West Village, playing basketball and going to elementary school with Adam Horovitz’s sister, Rachel. Eventually, he toured the world with the band, chronicling with Instamatic camera the carnage of various tours that accompanied the Beasties’ multiplatinum 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill. Nowadays he hangs out, waiting for the band to tour again—still pissed at their old manager, who reportedly wouldn’t let the band tour in support of Paul’s Boutique unless they played arenas. If Ricky were to hang around any other band, he’d be a flunky. But perhaps more than any of the Beasties themselves, he is just plain ol’ funky.
In other words, I saw my in. “So Ricky, what are the boys up to?” They were working on a new album, he said. As a band. Playing their own instruments. They had their own studio and everything. “Jeez, Rick,” I said, trying to play cool, “that’s a great story. You wouldn’t be able to hook me up with them, would you?
Ricky Powell said he’d see what he could do, and in early 1991 he gave me the phone number of Michael Diamond, known as Mike D, of the Beastie Boys. I left several messages with Mike D to no avail, but one day I finally got through. The only thing I remember him saying was: “Gene Simmons is a man of wealth and taste.”
I could do the story, but I’d have to wait until they got it together. That wasn’t until June. Even once I was in L.A., I wouldn’t go over to the studio until they finished doing some vocal tracks—at 1:30 A.M.
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 of 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 head 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 fucking’ 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.
Put Your Worries on Hold
Though he no longer looks like an urban lumberjack, Adam Yauch really does live in a log cabin in the Hollywood Hills. At 27, he is the oldest Beastie Boy, and his temples are already graying. Though all the Beasties are going from being boys to men, Yauch is arguably the most mature.
Maybe he’s just the most seasoned musician. He has played bass for 12 years. In 1984, he was an assistant engineer at Arthur Baker’s noted Shakedown Studios, and the following year he released a single, “Drum Machine,” with an engineer called Burzootie.
Not only experienced, Yauch is also remarkably focused. He has always been determined. “Going to Edward R. Murrow High in Brooklyn in 1979 dressed as a punk was definitely a nice little challenge—getting hassled by the dudes with freeze-dried hair and acid-wash jeans.” During the recording of the new album, the band worked from mid-evening to early morn. But Yauch would go home and keep slaving in his own studio “Till the crack of dawn / Mowing down MCs like he was mowing down the lawn.”
It was his idea to make the new record instrumental. When that proved unfeasible, he was the first to bust rhymes. Accordingly, his love vibe informs the entire album, culminating in the last song, “Namaste,” Yauch’s inspiring and inspired stream-of-consciousness rap that sounds like a cross between “Riders on the Storm” and Robbie Robertson.
“Namaste” is no joke. It reflects where Yauch was at during the recording of the live instrument tracks. Nowadays, he’s in a more traditional Beasties mood, but at the time, he hardly ever drank or smoked herb. Instead, he spent his time “getting in touch with his higher self” by reading spiritual texts and checking out different perspectives. Coming from anybody else, I’d cry, “Goofy!”
We started the day by going to his friend’s house and recording an Indian instrument called the tamboora (which appears in “Finger Lickin’ Good”). After that, we eat lunch at an Indian restaurant, and along the way, we hit a record store where he explains this new vibe.
When the Beasties first met each other, Kate Schellenbach and Jill Cunniff were in the posse. Schellenbach had been in the Young Aborigines with Mike D before the Beasties formed and was in the Beasties up through 1983’s Cookie Puss. When Rick Rubin came along, however, the girls say his sexism brought out the hitherto-unseen worst in the group.
Fortunately, Yauch has outgrown the urge to write songs about “shooting people and disrespecting women,” songs that he now claims were tongue-in-cheek. “I was on a mad woman hunt back then. Now I’ve got a girlfriend, but it’s not like ‘Oh, I can’t say that because my girlfriend.’ It really just isn’t going through my head.”
Yauch, for one, has checked his head. “If fucked-up things are going on in my life, it’s probably because fucked-up things are going on in my head.” Needless to say, Adam Yauch’s life is not fucked up.
Jill Cunniff wonders if his new mellowness will affect the sense of humor of the kid who cowrote the script for the band’s aborted comedy, Scared Stupid—and who used to hawk Italian ices by yelling, “Get ‘em while they’re hot.”
But you can “Put your worries on hold,” as Yauch says on “Pass the Mic.” For one thing, Yauch is not all love and kisses on the new album (check his bit on “Professor Booty”). And for another, he seems comfortable with the indelible mark L.A. has left on him. “A lot of people in New York think L.A. is soft. I used to say that shit, too.” He also says he is homesick for New York.
You Know How It Is
Legend has it that Adam Horovitz once said he knew he would be famous from the day he was born.
Certainly he has the confidence that breeds charisma. “What are you gonna say that I don’t know already?” he asks in “Pass the Mic,” adding that “I’m like Clyde, I like to rock it steady.” (Rockin’ Steady is the name of the biography of former New York Knick Walt “Clyde” Frazier.)
I wasn’t gonna tell this guy anything he didn’t know already. Like Alexander, he’d conquered the world before he was 21. Then he’d romanced several Hollywood hussies before settling on his true love, actress Ione Skye. As Horovitz likes to say, You know how it is.
Actually you and I don’t. Which is why Ad-Rock is a hero to kids of all races and classes- from actor and oil heir Balthazar Getty to the scores of middle-American teens who still call the number found on Paul’s Boutique. He’s living out our fantasy. “I got it made,” he says without gloating. “I’m the luckiest kid in the fuckin’ world. I love it. I love it.”
On a typical day he’ll meet for breakfast with Skye, their friend actor Max Perlich, and whichever other Hollywood kids show up. After eating on Sunset, we go next door to the record store, but Horovitz has most of them already. “You’re not buying a zydeco album, are you?” he teases Perlich.
He shows me his backyard playroom, where there’s an eight-track tape player, ramshackle drum kit, and portrait of Mush Mouth. In his bedroom, we watch a video about reggae featuring the Gladiators. “Listen to that voice,” he says with unexpected and disarming sincerity. “I watch this tape fuckin’ every day.”
We drive to a café, and I say that Kate Schellenbach remembers how, when they were teenagers, Horovitz would “stop to call his girlfriend at every phone booth.”
He also ran up enormous phone bills after he met Molly Ringwald on the Licensed to Ill tour. He and Ringwald also went to Ireland to track down their roots (Horovitz’s mother was Irish). And even though he couldn’t drive, he went to L.A. and lived in the valley. “That should tell you what I’m like,” he admits. It should also tell you why he had ulcers.
What’s more, according to Horovitz, he met Skye when he was still going out with Ringwald. “So I stayed out here and waited until I could go out with her. Kinda secretly.”
At the café, Horovitz asks the waitress to turn down a power ballad simpering from the speakers. “I hate this shit- Michael Bolton. They just take everything, and don’t give anything back.”
This reminds me of “Gratitude,” where Horovitz sings like a rock star, “When you’ve got so much to say, it’s called gratitude.” There are not a lot of words on the new Beasties album, not because the band nothing to say but because it has too much to say.
“It’s, like—” he says. Silence. “That’s what. If I had to say something, it would be ‘Lighten up. Be cool.’ There’s just so many buffoons out there.”
Still, Ad-Rock unnecessarily downplays his quite flavorful guitar playing. And I wonder if his reluctance to do vocals isn’t the result of chickening out on being the front man he’s so obviously fated to be. “No, Yauch is James Dean,” he says, already retreating. “I can’t sing. I like being in a band.” Looking away, he adds, “I like Mike D. We kept trying to get him to go solo. He wouldn’t do it.”
Je Suis Music
There’s something about Mike D. He’s everybody’s favorite Beastie—even the other two Beasties’ favorite Beastie. After all these years, they still can’t help saying his name—”Mike D!”—with utmost glee. The others helped create the look of a white kid pimp wearing a Volkswagen hood ornament. But when Rick Rubin suggested that they could do without Mike D, that was the beginning of the end. For Rubin.
Mike D is certainly in charge of his own shit nowadays. As he says in “Finger Lickin’ Good,” “(I’ve) got a million ideas I ain’t even rocked.” Diamond is the group’s spokesman, a liaison between the band and a world of squares. He deals with the press, accountants, promoters. His fax and car phone, in other words, aren’t just props. While the others rent houses, Mike D owns “Club D,” a Spanish villa with custom pool, subzero fridge, the works. His girlfriend, Tamra, is slightly older and has already been married. He has part interest in a hip clothing store called X-Large, where he sells the T-shirts he manufactures. The band’s lawyer, Ken Anderson, says that Mike D will have his own label someday. Business, however, never gets in the way of pleasure.
“Basically, all there is—is music. Records. Beats. New shit. And learning.” Already solid as a drummer, he has the potential to be a Steve Gadd-type studio pro. He isn’t just into music. He is music. Indeed, on the back of his favorite baseball cap is stitched the phrase coined by disco legend Cerrone: JE SUIS MUSIC.
“I grew up totally on the alternative shit,” he says. “I came to the rock shit later. The opposite of how you grew up. I figure if most kids in high school were gonna smoke pot and listen to Zeppelin, then fuck that.”
Mike D worries today’s kids don’t feel as strongly about music as when he and I grew up—when the difference between punk and pothead was a big deal. “I hated Zeppelin then. It wasn’t the music, it was more like culture.”
As Jill Cunniff points out, the club-kid culture she and Mike D soaked up as prepubescent punks in the late ’70s was a very urban, liberal, sophisticated ideal. Before the jocks jumped on the hardcore bandwagon, the scene was a godsend for misfits and nerds. In the streets, Mike D, Cunniff, Schellenbach, Yauch, original Beasties guitarist John Berry, and others played hide and seek and clobbered each other with giant cardboard tubes. Once inside, they’d hold hands in a circle and scowl at clods who stumbled onto their turf.
As different as this was from my own boilerplate suburban background, Mike D and I have somehow met halfway after all these years. While he now smokes herb and listens to jazz fusion, I now give hardcore the time of day. “So what you’re saying is that we’ve become Genesis,” he says.
Mike D knows me too well. But I press him, and eventually he concedes one point: “Our picture of a person listening to our album is somebody buying the vinyl, looking at the artwork, smoking a joint, putting on the headphones and listening to it. Which I guess is a classic-rock concept, in a way.”
“In a very big way,” I add. “That’s precisely the image that punk reacted against.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
Actually, it was only half true. As an incorrigible Led-head, I wanted to say that Check Your Head was the best prog rock album since Physical Graffiti. But I had to admit that, in fact, it’s the best punk rock joint since London Calling. I had been vindicated, but it was the Beastie Boys who had triumphed.