On Second Thought: The Beastie Boys

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They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that seemed to be the case when I first heard the Beastie Boys: Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz.

It was 1986, and the rap trio had just released their first full-length album Licensed to Ill. The frat boy humor-filled “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” single and video took over MTV, and I became distinctly unimpressed. Great, I thought, a bunch of rap wannabes who are actually privileged suburbanites: In other words, Run DMC they were not. When the Beastie Boys embarked on their 1987 world tour, stories of their notorious stage show –replete with scantily-clad women dancing in cages and a huge inflatable penis a la the Rolling Stones — seemed to seal their fate.

I figured they would become obsolete in a year, as their immaturity and misogyny would surely grate on everyone. Sometimes first impressions can be deceiving.

My conversion began not with their now classic album Paul’s Boutique (unfairly, it received little radio and video airplay), but with their third release, 1992’s Check Your Head. Back when everyone was making mix tapes, a cousin presented me with one that included “So What’cha Want.” The crunching guitars, the distorted vocals, the funky sampling — all of these ingredients set it apart from other hip hop tracks of the time. Gone was the sexism and toilet humor, replaced by clever wordplay and outrageous imagery. The late MCA’s gravelly delivery caught my attention, along with these tongue-twisting lines:

Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce
You’ve got the rhyme and reason but no cause
Well if you’re hot to trot you think you’re slicker than grease
I’ve got news for you crews you’ll be sucking like a leech

This seemed light years away from “Fight for Your Right.” But was it just a fluke? The Beastie Boys proved me wrong again with their subsequent album Ill Communication, which spawned among other stellar tracks “Sabotage.”

The satire-filled video (directed by then-hot director Spike Jonez) elevated the trio’s image to one of smart, inventive musicians who had matured, but refused to take themselves too seriously. The clincher came when they appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1994, where they performed “Sabotage” with a live band. This was virtually unheard of in the rap world, where many hip hop acts relied on prerecorded samples and listed a DJ as their “backup band.” Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock all played instruments, and they and the band tore the roof off the studio. It illustrated how hip hop was infiltrating other genres, and picked up where Run DMC and Aerosmith had left off with “Walk This Way.” In other words, rock and rap could coexist, and suddenly rock fans could like hip hop, and vice versa. I was officially converted into a Beastie Boys fan.

With each album, the trio just got better and better, and their sly videos also reflected their ever-evolving artistry. 1998’s Hello Nasty saw them saluting their ’80s beginnings with the robotic sounds of “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin,’” and 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs demonstrated that time had simply enhanced their creativity with jams like “Triple Trouble” and “Ch-Check It Out.” By their final album, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, their status as hip hop pioneers was sealed with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The first single, “Make Some Noise,” shows that only they could incorporate cowbell into a rap song and make it work. MCA particularly shines on the song, delivering lines like “I burn the competition like a flame thrower; my rhymes age like wine as I get older” with authority.

When MCA died after a long bout with cancer on May 4, 2012, it marked the apparent end of a forward-thinking group that brought hip hop to a greater audience and transformed sampling into an art form. In addition to feeling sorrow, I reflected on how I greatly misjudged the Beastie Boys more than 25 years ago as a “flash in the pan.” Over time, they won me over with their evolution from boys smashing beer bottles on their heads to adults who learned from their mistakes, became involved with causes like Tibet’s freedom, and drove to expand the definition of rap. “We’re originators you can’t feign,” they said in “Triple Trouble,” and I can honestly say that I’ve never been happier to be wrong about artists as innovative as the Beastie Boys.

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