Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia: The Beastie Boys

 

I know what you're thinking. "Well, this is far different than the usual entry." You're right. I haven't really spent a lot of time doing an entry on a musical artist because, to be honest, I don't consider myself really qualified to do so. Sure, I love music, I can write about music, but I'm not an expert in the field. I'm find just watching my shows and movies, I suppose, and having fun writing about those.

But then I realized, it's not that I can't think of anything to really write about music, as much as it was I simply wasn't overly inspired to do so. I have a ton of favorite bands going back decades, even to before I was born. But there's one that really was always around since I could remember. Well, there's a few of those, but not many that really put an emphasis on my generation. That credit, in case you didn't take the time to read the title, is the Beastie Boys. With the passing of Adam Yauch, it made me realize that this group that had been around since I was born, always delivering and never forgetting their roots or their audience, showing a care for the genre they helped make popular and never growing into ego-maniacal assholes like one might expect, was no longer going to exist.

The death of an artist quiets their voice forever. Sure, I'm willing to bet there's some b-sides and unreleased material out there and I'm sure someone is going to put it out for people to buy, but it's bittersweet at best, a bit morbid at worst.

The first time I heard the Beastie Boys was, like many, from their first big hit (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party). That song played for years on the radio and on MTV. Hell, it still plays a ton on the radio (not MTV, obviously). From there they grew and eventually I bought my first Beastie Boys album, Ill Communication in the early 90s. Rap was in full swing by that time, "gangsta" rap especially with The Chronic coming out in 92 and Ready to Die also out in 1994, by Dr. Dre and The Notorious BIG respectively.

I enjoyed those, but there was something about the sound the Beastie Boys carried with them. In fact, out of all the rap groups, they were the only one I really liked. They each were distinct, but blended together. The only other group I can say I honestly liked that shared that quality was A Tribe Called Quest who were also at a popularity height during this time and, too a lesser extent but in no way a lesser group as a whole, RUN DMC.  The larger groups felt inconsistent and, often, too noisy. Maybe three was just a magic number for me, and all three of those groups had three members.

From that, I journeyed with them and rap as a whole. This was a great time for rap music and it showed in the overall creativity of all those involved. Rappers and groups began to experiment, create, try new things - this during a time when rock music was faltering. No wonder rap and hip-hop took off and suburban white kids found it so appealing: what else were they going to listen to that "spoke" to them? As the years went on, I bought all of the Beastie Boys' albums, when you could still buy albums and not download them, and I still have them in a box somewhere. None really impacted me as much as Licenced to Ill and Ill Communication, even the ones I went and retroactively bought like Paul's Boutique, but they were part of an ever-evolving legacy of one of my favorite bands and I enjoyed them as both a person who loved the sound, but more importantly respected those that created it.

That's something the Beastie Boys had and didn't every have to demand. Respect. From their peers. From their fans. They never made compromises and grew as artists and people over three decades of music. That's not an easy thing to acquire in the music industry, much less from fickle fans that might cringe at the thought of changing up a sound. The fans didn't, they welcomed it. The Beastie Boys did everything right and probably respected their fans as much as we respected them. They had that respect then, when they were jumping around on your television screens or yelling at a concert, and they'll continue to have it now that those microphones have fallen silent.


 

A Brief History of The Beastie Boys

-In 1979 in New York City, The Beastie Boys originally came together as a local, hardcore punk band consisting of Michael Diamond, John Berry, Adam Yauch and Kate Schellenbach. They had moderate local success as an opening act for many popular punk bands at the time such as The Misfits and Dead Kennedys.

-1982, at a shoot for a short concert film, the band met Adam Horovitz, who was then in the band that was opening for The Beastie Boys, The Young and the Useless. Horovitz would join the Beasties in 1983, replacing John Berry who left. You can see this new lineup of the three guys we know today and their drummer, Kate Schellenbach, here. That same year they began to experiment and include hip hop into their punk sound. The first recording was a song called "Cocky Puss."

-"Cocky Puss" was a hit, and from that point on the decision was to incorporate rap and hip-hop into more of the songs, changing the band's identity. They brought aboard a DJ, NYU student Rick Rubin. Rubin was in the process of producing his own records, formed a little company called Def Jam Recordings and approached the Beastie Boys to sign on with the new sound. They agreed. This resulted in drummer Kate Schellenbach eventually leaving.

-By this point, they began to work on their first major recordings with Def Jam and Rubin. The band now consisted of the members we know today: Michael Diamon (aka Mike D), Adam Yauch (aka MCA), and Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock). 1985 offered a series of singles and touring/opening for major acts such as Madonna, Run DMC and LL Cool J. This gave them the exposure to begin working on a hopefully-successful first album.

-1986 Licensed to Ill was released, spearheaded by the first single and first major-hit, "(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (To Party!). It was the first rap album in history to go Number One on the charts, and was the most successful rap album of that decade selling over 5 million copies. The singles and a tour would carry the band for the next few years.

-After parting ways with Def Jam, the Beastie Boys signed with Capitol Records and released their second album, Paul's Boutique, in 1988. Produced by the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike, it is one of their most lauded albums as well as looked upon as one of the most influential as it incorporated new rap and hip-hop recording techniques that would reverberate for decades (still often heard to this day). Though it wasn't as popular or successful as their first album, hindsight looks at the album kindly.

-Paul's Boutique led way to the decade of the 90s where the Beastie Boys took all of their collective knowledge and unleashed it, including forming their own label Grand Royal. 1992's Check Your Head was an album where the three members looked to put instruments back into the picture and going double platinum in the process and 1994's Ill Communication gave them another number one debut album. Singles such as "Pass the Mic," "Sabotage" and "Sure Shot" made the albums successful. They also headlines Lollapalooza, meeting a variety of other musical acts in the process. This would late influence Adam Yauch (a practicing Buddhist) to form the Tibetan Freedom Concert (you can watch a clip here), which included many Lollapalooza acts. The Concert would continue for the next few years.

-The bad wouldn't release another album until 1998 with Hello Nasty, which added a full-on DJ with Mix Master Mike and, again, went straight to number one on the chart. This time, though, they took home a couple of Grammys for their efforts, including Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the song "Intergalactic" - the most popular single off the album.

-After lengthy tours and performing at many, many charity events (especially after the September 11 attacks), they returned to recording. Adam Yauch built a new studio, Oscilloscope Laboratories, in Manhattan and their first album out of there was To the 5 Boroughs in 2004. They followed it up in 2007 with another album, The Mix-Up, which was completely instrumental.

-The band's final album came out in  2011 with The Host Sauce Committee Part Two. Originally intended to be a two-part album (the first to be released in 2009), the project was held and delayed due to the declining health of Adam "MCA" Yauch who was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. That same year, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

-On May 4, 2012, Adam Yauch passed away due to his battle with cancer. He was 47. In an interview, it was confirmed by the remaining members that the Beastie Boys will disband, though there are assortments of material recorded before Yauch's death that might be released at some point.  


 

Ten Favorite Beastie Boys Music Videos 

 The Beastie Boys have been around since the dawn of the music video era and decades later still were prolific in it. A Beastie Boys video often became synonymous with the song itself, becoming an artistic and creative expression of the work. It wasn't just a tool to get noticed, most of the time the videos were as creative as the rhyming and beats on stage and from their earliest videos we saw just how much visual talent they had to go alongside the auditory. They were a collective of artistic minds that pushed the boundaries, even up to their final album which produced two of their most creative pieces itself.

Below are merely ten, though their music video catalog is extensive and I could have listed twenty. These are ten, with one Honorable Mention, that I'm personally fond of, nostalgic for, impressed by or get some sort of emotional reaction out of. 


Honorable Mention: Don't Play No Game I Can't Win

Directed by Spike Jonze, this is a purely epic piece of music video making. All done with dolls and lots of explosions. It's not so much the song here, it's more like a remixed version of it which is why I'm putting it only as an Honorable Mention, but the video itself is epic.


10) Hey Ladies

Off of Paul's Boutique, still considered the Beastie Boy's most artistically expressive and bold album, we have a video that's basically a montage of random things mingled in with dancing and the Beastie Boys getting ready for a night out in what looks like Los Angeles. I've always felt there's something weird about seeing the three in an LA setting. They're "living it up" though, with flashy cars, big pools and disco. I think it has to do with the sounds in the song itself, though. It's eclectic in sound, with a bit of funk, a bit of disco, a bit of rap and...Ballroom Blitz? So why not have a video eclectic in imagery as well?


9) Ch-Check It Out

Directed by Adam Yauch, I've always felt this video (and song for that matter) is pretty under-appreciated. It seems to just throw everything at the screen, runs with it and doesn't care if you get it or not. There's so much happening, all at once, but it comes down to the Beasties are trying to do a video, they keep getting interrupted, and then they're in Star Trek uniforms fighting and...well...it's Beastie Boys. It doesn't make sense, but people do start throwing punches.

Beastie Boys - Ch-Check It Out
Get More: Beastie Boys - Ch-Check It Out


8) Triple Trouble

I'll be honest, this isn't one of my favorite tracks from the Boys, but this list is about videos more than the songs themselves. And the first minute and a half or so of this one is just hilarious as the Beasties have made an enemy in Sasquatch. Then they dress a guy up as said Sasquatch and have him run around city streets and highways. And he's big. Huge. Seven feet at least. Then he kicks their asses, takes them back to his lair and has them do jumping jacks and play pong. It's the absurdest side of the Beasties at its finest.

Also, I still haven't been able to find out if the Kanye West coda at the end is real or not. Doesn't matter, it's hilarious either way.


7) No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn

I mentioned this one in my blog, and what it represented visually and so forth, but here it is again. It's one of their best songs and more creative early videos showing them shedding their band instruments for records. Of course, that's not entirely accurate. The Beastie Boys infused rock and roll into their sound for decades.


6) You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party

As big of a statement video as you could ask for, this 1987 video was in constant rotation on MTV even when I actually got MTV in the early 90s. Before I only knew the song itself. It was everywhere. But when I finally saw the video, I seemed to appreciate it even more. It was fun, definitive Beastie Boys in sound and style and completely "illin" in all senses of the word. It's a fun video through and through.


5) Intergalactic

The Beasties loves poking fun at things in their videos. This one, directed by MCA, seemed to signify more than just parodying Japanese monster movies. It was a calling. The beast that is the Beastie Boys have returned. This was the first big hit for them in a while when it was released and the video captures the fact they have returned and with force. When it comes just flat-out rap, they're at the top of their game in this one.


4) Make Some Noise

The final video shot by Adam Yauch, and it was easily his most ambitious. The regular video is already fully of wonder, but then you take into account the 30 minute version and you end up with pretty much a short film that's of countless celebrity cameos. Steve Buscemi being my favorite, but you also have the likes of Elijah Wood, Seth Rogan and Will Ferrel as well. The list is long.

More importantly, is what this video in hindsight represents. This is off the Beastie Boy's very last album and is considered a sequel to their first big hit You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party.  The 30 minute version is actually called "Fight For Your Right Revisited" and you can see the whole thing here.


3) So What Cha Want

Certainly one of the first videos that come to mind. Directed by Adam Yauch (who directed quite a lot of videos, as you've probably noticed, only under the name Nathaniel Hornblower) with a very simple premise. It's an otherworldly type of video that only consists of the three MCs in a forest rapping at the camera with images of weather and disasters spliced in. Even though it's not overly creative, it does capture the "feel" of the song perfectly. The song, too, is a very simple one, but is raw and gritty. The video portrays that emotion incredibly well.


2) Sabotage

Nobody could escape this one, and it is still considered one of the best musical videos of all time. Directed by Spike Jonze, it's a send up of 70s cop movies. Campy. Fun. Ridiculous. But awesome with its frantic pace. There's really no narrative, it's simply the mod and the brilliant camera work that makes this brilliant. The shots are random, many things just happening for the sake of happening as friends on a Thursday afternoon probably would do with any camera, but it's put together with artistry.


1) Sure Shot

Sure Shot, the first track on the Beastie Boys album Ill Communication, was a reckoning. They evolved, as they have a few times before, into more intellectual and intelligent rappers. Instead of rapping just about partying and drinking and girls, they began rapping about issues and life. The sense of "fun" and that energy still never left, but their message became altered into something more organic and real. By becoming more broader, they became more focused. I suppose that doesn't make any sense, but they no longer seemed restrained, and as a result they became the band we came to appreciate even more. Sure Shot may not get as much acclaim as Sabotage's video, but it probably had a little more meaning behind it.


 

I've become pretty bored and often annoyed towards rap and hip-hop the past decade or so. I certainly don't listen to it as much as I used to because so much of it just comes across as noise. There's a handful I like,  great talents with soul, but most come off as disingenuous and simply repeating what others have done. I'm not saying everyone has to be a trend-setter or have an impact of a Beastie Boys, NWA, A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy, but they're often just rehashing what many have already done before.

I suppose it just feels stagnant to me with no real place to go or anything new to say. I know there are a ton of rappers and groups with talent, but everything these days are so over-produced that I feel a strong detachment. Far stronger now that it's more geared towards a younger generation of listeners and fans. Maybe that's the issue: it simply doesn't speak to me. Sure, I respect it, but that doesn't make it appealing. I turn most off today's rap off after just a few seconds.

 The Beastie Boys grew a great deal as artists. They already had the respect, they didn't have to go and reinvent themselves or try new sounds and ideas. But they did. They took chances and those chances paid off into a distinctive sound and style we won't ever hear again. However, they also grew as people. They evolved from over-the-top antics to rapping about life, their city, their roots, their political views and the various attributes of life beyond just "partying". This was expressed in their music and in their videos and we were witnesses to their maturity and evolution from the moment they broke on to the scene.

They never lost the desire to have fun and be creative either. That was their driving force for nearly three decades. They loved being in front of the camera, loved being interviewed, making videos, doing concerts and they loved the people that gave them the chances to do so, resulting in some dynamic relationships with the likes of RUN DMC or Spike Jonze, and especially loved the fans that took all that in and allowed them to do it in the first place. In a way, they kind of opened the door into their world and into their mindset. They certainly weren't reclusive, and now that they have no choice but to fade away, I feel a strange realization that my appreciation and affection towards the genre of music they helped make popular and welcomed me into will fade with it as well. In fact, it already has.

 


 

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