Interview: Beastie Boys
We met the group just before Yauch was diagnosed. Never put the piece online before. Here it is. RIP MCA.
Words Cyrus Shahrad
Photography Spencer Murphy
From issue 23, October 2009
Tired and bored, the Beastie Boys yawned their way through a UK promotional tour this summer. But something was up…
As Beastie Boys videos go, it’s an understated affair. Adams Yauch and Horovitz — MCA and Ad-Rock respectively — are seated in front of a large mixing desk. Yauch wears a red collared shirt and does most of the talking; a bearded Horovitz stares blankly at a point somewhere in the distance, as though weighing up the news for the first time. What few laughs there are appear due to nerves, and neither man seems particularly comfortable looking into the camera.
“About two months ago I started feeling this little lump in my throat,” says Yauch, “like you would feel if you had swollen glands or something like that, like you’d feel if you had a cold. So I didn’t really think it was anything…”
He says that the cancer is localised in the perotic gland and the neighbouring lymph node, and wants to reassure fans that it’s both easily treatable and unlikely to affect his vocals. But the main reason he’s making the video is to apologise to those who have made plans to see the Beastie Boys in the near future: forthcoming tour dates will have to be cancelled, something he describes as “a pain in the ass”. He thanks Adam for coming along, and there’s a moment of surreal humour as the pair go off on a tangent involving fake beards and country music side projects. Then the gravity of the news swings back into frame, and there’s a lingering silence, eyes finally meeting the camera before the clip suddenly ends.
The first video responses were up on YouTube within hours. Some were unduly morbid — one gentleman went to great lengths to shoot down Yauch’s assertion that the cancer is easily treatable, a clip that single-handedly justified the decision to disable comments on the original announcement. Most, however, were simple messages of goodwill from fans of all ages, sentiments echoed by countless artists over subsequent weeks. At the All Points West festival in New Jersey, which the Beasties were due to headline, Chris Martin made a typically execrable stab at turning ‘Fight For Your Right’ into a piano ballad; Jay-Z performed a more commendable cover of ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’; and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O took to the stage wearing an armband that read ‘Get Well MCA’.
The subject of affection had by this time emerged from surgery and returned home “to relax, have home-cooked food and hang out with the family”. He was avoiding painkillers for fear they would slow his recovery, and remained optimistic, though he admitted he wasn’t looking forward to radiation therapy.
“No sooner am I on the mend from this first torture than they are lining up the next one,” he said in a statement, which ended by thanking all the friends, fans and artists who had sent positive thoughts his way. “I do think that all of the well wishes have contributed to the fact that my treatment and recovery are going well.”
I’d met Yauch and Horovitz a few weeks earlier on the promotional tour for their now temporarily shelved new LP, Hot Sauce Committee Part 1. The interview was preceded by an album listening session at the EMI offices in Kensington — the music industry equivalent of a communal wank with complete strangers. There were the usual cavity searches for recording devices and disclaimers guaranteeing worldly possessions against any financial loss incurred by the label, after which we were shepherded into a small room and seated around a table laid with bowls of flavourless crisps. In one corner was a small fridge stuffed with beers and soft drinks, a sign taped to its door reading ‘Beastie Boys: Help Yourselves!’, as though Horovitz, Yauch and Diamond had popped out for five minutes but would be back to serve hors d’oeuvres imminently. There was no press release. No track names. Not even an album title. We were simply made to sit nodding along to a nebulous stream of party music, coughing awkwardly in pauses that would normally be filled with the sound of crowds cheering and glass breaking. On top of that, the CD started skipping halfway through.
It’s not easy to appraise a record under such circumstances, but it sounded decent, which is to say that it sounded like a Beastie Boys album, all fuzzbox basslines and breakneck beats, and shouty vocals distorted as if through a megaphone. It appeared to be more heavily produced than their last hip hop record, the stripped-down To The 5 Boroughs (the largely forgotten all-instrumental The Mix-Up was released in 2007). There was a track on there with a laser bassline that bordered on sounding like a drum’n’bass tune, and a couple of collaborations — Santigold, I think, and Nas. Oh, I don’t know. Go and listen to it yourself. It’s probably been leaked on to the internet by now. Though not, I should emphasise, through any fault of my own.
The interview itself took place at the swanky Soho Hotel in central London. Mike D was on his way out the door when I arrived, which left me with the two Adams. Both had the air of men unexcited by the prospect of their 10th interview of the day: Ad-Rock, sprawled across a couch in his slippers, struggled to keep his eyes open; MCA sipped tea and gazed absently at the far wall. Part of me wants to say that he kept rubbing his neck, but I may have imagined it. Either way, it seems pretty obvious with hindsight that concerns about his health had begun to sour the tour. At the time I registered their apathy as understandable behaviour for men in their mid-forties, if not quite in keeping with the party personas on their latest album.
“Oh, I still party all the time,” yawned Horovitz. “Do you know ‘Party All The Time’ by Eddie Murphy? I listen to that song pretty much on repeat. I’m basically a party machine.”
Yauch said that the new record captured the sound of old friends having fun in the studio — their own Oscilloscope Laboratories in New York, which has hosted the likes of M.I.A. and the reformed Bad Brains, whose Build A Nation LP Yauch produced.
“It was definitely a silly time, for sure. All three of us know how to use Pro Tools, so most days it’s just us in there and we can mess around as much as we like. That’s when the craziest shit happens; when we’re just playing.”
I told them that travelling across London I’d seen a kid who couldn’t have been older than 15 wearing a Beastie Boys t-shirt, and that on arriving at the hotel, a receptionist in her fifties had asked if I was interviewing the same band that advocated stealing VW emblems for necklaces in the 1980s. (“Because if so they still have one of mine, and I want it back.”) How did it feel to have taken what was initially dismissed as fad music and developed it over decades? What was it like to straddle so many generations of fans?
“It’s definitely interesting,” said Horovitz, sounding anything but interested. “I remember the first time I noticed kids in the audience that were younger than the band, and that was a long time ago.”
“Our music has always been about having fun,” added Yauch. “If we’ve been popular all these years then that’s because having fun never goes out of fashion, however old you are, whatever generation you belong to.”
At the same time, the guys acknowledged the importance of certain musical transformations along the way. Charting the development of the Beastie Boys is a little like recounting the evolution of hip hop itself, from their 1986 frat hop debut, the Rick Rubin-produced Licensed To Ill, which Rolling Stone reviewed under the headline ‘Three Idiots Create A Masterpiece’, to their 1988 follow-up, Paul’s Boutique, which the same magazine referred to it as ‘the Dark Side Of The Moon of hip hop’. Their output in the first half of the 1990s — Check Your Head and Ill Communication — both coined and captured the trend for scuzzy funk, monster basslines and old school skate aesthetics. After that they began embracing flamboyant theatrics and wild experimentation: from 1995’s Aglio e Olio, an eight track EP of punk numbers clocking in at just 11 minutes, to 2006’s Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That, a movie of a Madison Square Garden gig filmed entirely by audience members.
“There have definitely been some landmark moments,” said Yauch. “The sampling thing made a huge impact on our music, and on music in general. When we recorded Licensed To Ill people were using these enormous machines that could trigger single fire, second long samples. Two years later the Dust Brothers were producing Paul’s Boutique, and the amount of samples being layered on there was just insane. That whole cut-and-paste approach is taken for granted these days, but back then it took the whole world by surprise.”
“But sampling is just one part of our music,” said Horovitz. “We’ve never stopped using live instruments, partly because of the warmth they bring to a cut, partly because it’s so much easier to just sit down and play a riff you have running through your head than spend weeks rummaging around your record collection looking for a sample that sounds vaguely similar.”
I suggested that playing live instruments also linked them to their punk roots — the trio first started performing as a hardcore outfit in 1979, and a tendency to rock out still surfaces regularly.
“Possibly,” said Horovitz, “but we never record with an agenda. We make the music we’re compelled to make at the time. If that happens to be punk, we make punk music. If we felt compelled to mess around with flutes, we’d make flute music.”
To which extent, said Yauch, the inimitable Beastie Boys ‘sound’ was more a lyrical than a musical trademark.
“I think we’ve experimented a lot with tracks over the years. Some of the instrumental stuff could be by any number of bands. But when the three of us start rhyming it’s always going to sound like a Beastie Boys tune. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around that.”
At which point the interview was brought to a close. Not the worst of all time by a long shot, but muddied by an unpleasant sense of irritation on the part of two men clearly wanting to be somewhere else.
What had I expected? That they’d ask me to go skateboarding with them in the car park? That they’d dress me up in a Godzilla costume and throw toy planes at my head? The poor guys probably heard the same questions in every interview the previous week, and no doubt had plenty more of the same to look forward to.
At the time I assumed that being absorbed into the belly of a beast like EMI had effectively taken the fun out of promoting their record, and that knocking on for 50 probably didn’t help either. But I couldn’t help but feel cheated: I worshipped the Beastie Boys growing up, and seeing them so drawn and deflated had seemed like the final nail in the coffin of the party they’d long ago told me to fight for.
Now, of course, I know better, and I’m ashamed for having doubted them even for a second. It’ll never happen again.