Hijinks + Pop Culture Links: The Beastie Boys

IS CABARET ART? DOES IRONY EXIST? Can a performer make a career out of stating their business, over and over? Is it possible to be a huge star when the typical attitude in your songs could be described as defensive? Are name-dropping similes the most boring lyrical device of all time? Is activism the opposite of passivism?

I know I wrote the other week that music journalists should avoid such speculation, but the Beasties are a special case. And the death of one member of the group seems like an appropriate occasion for solemnity. So I’ve been looking over their career, remembering what I liked about them, what some of my friends loved, and I find myself asking: Just what exactly was going on here? How do I describe this? What the hell is their trip, anyway?

The Beastie Boys made their mark right off the bat. They were fresh out of their high school punk bands, and they made a rap record, and it was pretty big. Their prescriptive good-behavior vocals on some songs (“be true to yourself”, etc.) recall preachy Chuck D, who gave them a nod with “Party for your right to fight” (this spoof of a spoof feels pretty wack looking back). Their glory in sampling well-known offbeat tunes was ear-poppingly fun. Their videos were adventurous, sometimes home-made looking affairs, which was new for rap, and often pretty funny.

In the grand arc of rap, NWA and Nas were the trailblazers for the chart-toppers of the last twenty years. What can we say about the Beasties’ influence? Maybe that kids who are like them, living in Brooklyn, clever, multi-talented, very funny, are now making the most genius animated shows on Adult Swim and elsewhere? That the SNL skit songs are the contemporary manifestation of the same energy? That their only kin in mainstream music are creepy and weird?

That doesn’t quite encapsulate it.

In the early days of rap, the Beastie Boys revealed an aspect of New York culture that was complex and different from what we’d seen previously. As time went on, the Beastie Boys came off as more of a West-coast post-hippie jam band than the fey Manhattan brainiacs posing as brats of 86.

Eventually, they came to adulthood and politics. A-Rock married Kathleen Hanna and they became spokespeople for ‘boys’ and ‘grrls’. Mike D married Tamra D, and the goofin’ continued.

With a name like ‘The Beastie Boys’ you can only expect a certain standard of humor. The authentic articulation of the teen experience was not a strong field in the decade of their origin. Their cabaret style of constantly referencing themselves, and their previous songs, does not make for a long-lasting contribution to the form. And their flirtations with real misogyny leave me pretty bored as such things do in art. As they grew up they got more serious, but that’s just what happens.

Despite their weird politics and occasional melancholy, the spontaneous spirit and originality stayed alive till the end. When I look at recent photos of them, I like them so much more, and that’s rare in music. They look like good men you’d want to have around, men who wouldn’t feel the need to talk your ear off about the old days because they’ve kept the best of it and dumped the rest of it. The entertainment business is a wild ride, talent has to keep up with its humanity, bumps and bruises are guaranteed.

5 Beastie Highlights

1. RHYTHMS AND RIFFS: Although they weren’t virtuosic players, they were probably one of the most musical of all rap/hip-hop groups ever. The tunes glitter with melody, rhythmic intrest, development, musicality. Their first hit had a leading tone for the chorus shout, total genius. The bass lines in ‘Sabotage’, this is what makes music fun for people.

2. VOCALS: With MCA, they had the first totally hoarse rapper to rock out totally hoarse, like he’d been screaming for days. It sounds amazing and has not yet been imitated. They also were progenitors of high-pitched male brat rap, Ad-Rock especially. It just sounds so good. We surely haven’t heard the last of it.

3. CARING ABOUT STUFF: Celebrities universally suck at this, and while I don’t find the Beasties exceptionally good or thoughtful with it, and it might be a contrived way of making up for their earlier misogyny, what’s wrong with contrition?

4. GET-UP-AND-GO: The Beasties clearly would get right busy in the studio when their raw materials amounted to a bunch of dumb jokes and a couple of “hey look at this genius riff I can barely play” on various instruments, and I credit them for it. The music sounds spontaneous, it pops off, and they care about making it as fun to listen to as it is to play.

5. BALLS: I think what attracted my friends and I to this band when we were young was the balls, the energy, and the feeling of being a weirdo fighting to be heard and to get people psyched, that they did authentically convey.

They weren’t so much artists as pitchmen for embracing a lot of culture and having it all under the same roof. I’d call them cabaret because they were sort of like the most amazing birthday party band you’ve ever fucking seen (one of their formative gigs was a birthday party/video shoot, so there you go). They’re not there with a message, not asking you to indulge in their song that’s ‘about something’, they’re just trying to make you laugh, reminding you who they are, and dropping pop culture references that make you feel cool.

Pop-cultural references aren’t really known for their longevity. And after you strip those out of some of those early songs, there ain’t much left. But they celebrate the good, bad, and ugly of their cultural surroundings, showing off what they know and appreciate with the music and the lyrics, in an attitude of “we can do it just as good or better”. And I think that’s what gave so many teenage boys, who would grow up to quote Star Wars and The Big Lebowski from one cubicle to another, warm fuzzies when they listened to this group.

Here’s a great description of the Beastie Boys from Chuck D.


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