What Comes Around: Beastie Boys Interviewed
Beastie Boys can’t, won’t and don’t stop. Though their recording career concluded with the death of founding member Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch in 2012, the lifeblood of their boisterous brotherhood is unstoppable. Celebrating the trio’s enduring history with a new and unique career-spanning autobiography, Mike D and Ad-Rock tell Clash how the Beastie’s bond keeps going strong, like since the way back.
Beastie Boys Book is a hefty, brick-like tome. Like, it’s really fucking heavy. Sandwiched (or should that be Calzoned?) between Lynn Goldsmith’s iconic 1987 shot of the three fresh-faced Beasties outside East Village institution Stromboli Pizza (RIP), is 594 pages that chronologically bring to life the group’s formation, growth and development through their own and other informed voices.
But these are no ordinary tedious memoirs: each succinct chapter focuses on a specific memory, event, character, place, or song that plays a part in the Beasties’ backstory, and their distinctive playful humour is inherent in every absurd anecdote. Collectively they form a hilarious and captivating narrative that’s as vivid and colourful as the expertly sourced photographs that illustrate it, and allow a hyper-realistic insight into the group’s sometimes-unbelievable adventures.
The scene is set with an evocative depiction of New York City in the early-’80s by eminent author Luc Sante, painting a gloriously animated backdrop that’s redolent with the sound of the streets - where competing strains of punk, disco, jazz, reggae, funk, and the embryonic rhythms of hip-hop emanate from countless boomboxes - onto which the Beasties’ story begins.
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It’s here in this potent metropolis that Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz immerse themselves in the city’s hardcore scene, form bands, come together, discover rap, and embark on a rollercoaster journey to global stardom that will invariably encompass novelty records about cake, Rick Rubin’s bubble machine, Madonna, a hydraulic penis, Liverpool jail cells, dubious acting roles, a drug dealer named Hippie Steve, the Dalai Lama, and an impressive array of wigs. Honestly, if history class had been this entertaining, I’d have a fucking PhD.
Throughout all this reminiscing, Yauch is entirely present; his ingenuity, wit, resourcefulness and spirituality are repeatedly exalted by friends whose lives evidently retain a gaping MCA-shaped void. It’s a stunning tribute to a fallen comrade - Mike D and Ad-Rock choosing a definitive and respectful closure to the Beastie Boys as an ongoing entity over any new musical forays.
Their unyielding affection for Yauch is palpable, too, when the pair take to the stage of London’s O2 Kentish Town Forum on the penultimate day of November 2018. The mere mention of his name in the first few minutes of the show - a fantastic, naturally unpolished multimedia reading presentation, replete with costumes, video screens, and Mix Master Mike - merits a lengthy and resounding cheer from the sold-out audience.
Then, as Ad-Rock concludes the evening in the spotlight, perched alone on the lip of the stage, he becomes overwhelmed with emotion, choking up as he recites ‘Wild Card’, the book’s introductory eulogy to Yauch, and is unable to continue. A male audience member leaps up from the front row and embraces Ad-Rock, who duly passes the book and implores for him to continue. At its emotional climax, the crowd take to their feet and make known their appreciation not just for this heartwarming gesture, but for a whole evening in celebration of a prolific and unrelenting lifelong friendship.
The following day, Clash meets Mike and Ad-Rock to get the inside story on their inside story.
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When you first started planning a book, how did it develop to become what it is: an amazing hybrid of yarns, comic strips, recipes, etc?
Mike: We wanted to have an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach in terms of being able to tell a story in whatever means necessary, whether it was a graphic novel or a cookbook [courtesy of chef Ray Choi], or whatever. We got everything in there. And then another thing was we also wanted it to be equally visual as written, because most music books are like you get 100 pages of text and then you get four pages of crappy black and white photographs, and then another 100 pages of text.
Ad-Rock: Which is fine for someone that’s good at that, or that knows how to do that… We were like, ‘Short stories. It seems easier. Three pages? We can do that.’
Mike: The short story thing worked for me because it’s also like how our lives is, which is like: ‘Oh, remember this time? Remember that time?’ and then that’s a story. That to me is ultimately more real to how it was, rather than: “And then, in 1862 when we crossed the Delaware...”
Ad-Rock: Wait, you did what?
Mike: That was before you were in the band.
Ad-Rock: I know. Things got so much better after.
The overriding theme in the book is really friendship. There’s a deep affection that’s tangible in every story and clearly endures. What’s the key to keeping that friendship surviving?
Ad-Rock: Well, it was contractual. That’s the thing.
Mike: Also, Adam paid. A lot of people don’t know this, it’s sort of a secret - this is a scoop that I’m going to give you: Adam pays me to be his friend. I hope it’s a good deal.
Ad-Rock: It’s worth it.
Mike: It’s not a lot, but it keeps me in the game.
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The absence of Yauch is the first thing that’s addressed in the book, but his voice and spirit is constant throughout it…
Mike: Yeah. I think that was the hardest thing when we were starting the book, talking about how are we going to have Yauch’s voice in there. I mean, in an ideal sense he would have been there with us creating the whole thing. So it was like, ‘How do we do that?’ I’m happy to hear you say that.
His illness and death is mentioned only once: was it a deliberate choice to not dwell on the sadder aspects?
Ad-Rock: I think we just wanted to get that out of the way. That’s not who he was. He was a person. His sickness wasn’t him. Like all of our friends and family that we’ve lost, it doesn’t define you if you have cancer. Cancer doesn’t define you.
Luc Sante’s essay on New York really captures the musical melting pot that was the city at that time. What was it like to grow up with such a vibrant palate of inspiration?
Mike: I think we do feel really, really incredibly lucky and grateful that that’s the world we grew up in. We felt like we had to explain that because you can’t explain us without explaining this whole world that we came from… It was important because it’s like, if we hadn’t gone to this club and seen Afrika Bambaataa DJ, if we hadn’t gone to the Danceteria - all these countless nights and hearing all these different songs. If I hadn’t gone to see the Bad Brains play, or Black Flag play, or The Slits or whatever, I don’t know, we wouldn’t have just all of a sudden had these ideas.
I was especially interested in the journeys you all undertook in search of an identity - both as individuals discovering music, and then as a group trying to find your own sound. Were you aware at the time of this stylistic progression to discover yourselves?
Mike: You’re definitely not aware. I even think we’re still that way, but especially when you’re younger; you just hear this thing and you’re like, ‘Oh, I love it. We’re going to do that!’ That’s also part of one of the things about why we’re so lucky to be in this band; it’s like, we’d literally come into the studio and Yauch might be like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this today,’ or one of us would be: ‘Oh, you gotta hear this. We need to make something like this.’ That's what we did our whole lives, basically.
Ad-Rock: I don’t think it was that different from anybody else that just discovers new things for themselves, that listens to new music. We were in a band so we would make things, and that stuff that we would make reflected all the things that we would discover through our friends, or from walking around New York or whatever.
I think it was just different because we were in a band that loved The Clash, and The Clash were a band that made all kinds of music. I guess we had a thing that if you’re interested or inspired by something and you’re a creator, then why not create something that you’re inspired by. It makes sense. People do tend to stay in their lane. You don’t have to.
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As the Beasties’ performing career began, you were simultaneously doing live cabaret sketches as the Three Bad Jewish Brothers...
Ad-Rock: That’s deep! You’ve gone deep now.
Did you find that inserting comedy into what you were doing made people mistake that you were taking it as a joke?
Ad-Rock: I mean, we were taking it as a joke. When it’s a joke, it’s a joke, but with the music, I think we’re always pretty serious. With a lot of our lyrics we were saying things to make each other laugh or to be funny or whatever, but then the 808 drumbeat is dead serious to us.
Mike: A lot of our lives is spent literally trying to crack each other up. But then I think that’s the thing is that people want you to be one thing or another thing. It felt very natural to us to be inclusive of everything, whether it’s joking around about something or really wanting to say something about something.
Ad-Rock: If we’re rapping and I say something that’s intentionally really stupid and the joke is that it’s so dumb, so are you taking that seriously or not taking it seriously? I don’t know. Like if you’re making a fart joke, right, what is the seriousness? Like, I’m serious about wanting Mike to spit his food up. Yes, we take it all so seriously, but it’s comedy, so that’s a grey area when things are comedy, if it’s serious or not.
You describe the 1986 song ‘Hold It Now, Hit It’ as “The Song That Changed Everything”, because it was the first real product of you not trying to sound like someone else. How essential to success is originality?
Mike: The only thing that makes bands important is by being unique. I mean, otherwise, whatever. But I think also that’s the thing: we just did what so many bands before us have done, which is that we tried to sound like other things - even going so far as making records that kind of sucked, because we were trying to sound like other groups, and other people, and other MCs, and then just kind of by screwing around.
I think it’s a combination of trying to sound like something else and failing at it, and then just becoming more comfortable and actually figuring out what you do… It was really only after the fact that then you realise, oh actually, that kind of worked.
In the wake of ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ in 1987, you became a national sensation, and constantly had to out-do your excessive behaviour, becoming caricatures of yourselves, which seemingly became very boring very quickly. How did you react to the expectations put upon you?
Ad-Rock: Well, we broke the fuck out. We left. At the time it was weird: I still lived in my apartment that I grew up in, and being around the neighborhood and friends and shit, you get famous and people are weird to you or people want money from you, and it just got weird.
And then especially with everything happening with our record label, Def Jam - they just stopped paying us. Shit just got hectic. It’s weird being fucking 20 and all of a sudden you’re on TV all the time. Especially when everything is kind of falling apart. So, we just went to California, because being 20 in Los Angeles in the ’80s? I mean, it sounds great, right? What’s the problem?
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Meanwhile, over in the UK, the tabloids were on the attack. The Daily Mirror called you the “world’s nastiest pop group” and claimed you’d jeered at “dying kids”. How did it feel to be on the receiving end of such hostility?
Ad-Rock: We didn’t know the tabloid stuff. The newspapers in the States aren’t like that. There’s a paper in New York that’s kind of like that, but they don’t put cover stories about bands; it’s like mobsters and stuff. So we didn’t really know anything about tabloids or what that was like. Imagine if you’re on the cover of the newspaper. What?! And then the next day, it’s not even that you’re on the cover of the newspaper, it’s them saying that you made fun of dying children? You’re like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? This is nuts.’
Did you find it funny? Were you hurt?
Ad-Rock: It’s definitely not funny, but it was fucking weird.
Mike: Yeah, it was alienating and surreal.
Ad-Rock: Some of it was funny.
Mike: Well, the thing about me and the bag of whips...
Ad-Rock: There was an article about Mike with a bag of whips, which, you know, he did not bring with him, so I don’t even know what they were talking about.
Mike: I do [pack one] now, since learning about it from the story.
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All that trauma - the hostility, the split from Def Jam - pushed you to the edge and the group came close to splitting. What brought you back together and motivated you to continue?
Ad-Rock: Well, it’s not like we didn’t want to. Things just got really weird. Like I was saying, in New York at the time you just didn’t want to go walk down the street, because you’d run into somebody that you didn’t feel like running into. So, being far away was really great.
Mike: We thought we had this great situation with Def Jam, and then it became this really bad situation where it was like, ‘You do this, and if you don’t do this, we’re not gonna pay you.’ We were like, ‘Fuck you. We're gonna do what we want to do.’ And so we really wanted to get away from that.
And also, when you’re from New York and you go to LA, it’s like freakin’ awesome. When you’ve grown up your whole life and being in New York City where it’s cold and you’re riding down the subway to get everywhere, then all of a sudden you’re renting a car and you’re driving and it’s sunny. It was great.
In revisiting this stream of memories and cast of characters, were there any regrets that popped up? Anything you would have done differently?
Mike: There’s a million things. Of course you’d do it differently. That’s just life. There’s a million things we’d do different, but the thing is it’s hard to say, because if we didn’t then what would the trajectory be? I’d like to think that we’d be smart enough to have learned some things without having acted badly, but I don’t know that it’s possible.
There’s a reason for everything, right?
Mike: Well, I think you have to be careful not to excuse behaviour by saying that, but as long as you’re learning from your mistakes and acknowledging them. It sucks to stay stuck in them.
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Words: Simon Harper
Beastie Boys Book is out now.
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