Beastie Boys were the first big white rap group, and they have stayed popular — at times hugely popular — for nearly a quarter century.
After emerging from New York’s hardcore punk underground in the early Eighties, the trio crossed over into the mainstream in 1986 with their first full-length album, Licensed to Ill, the first rap album to reach Number One.
Featuring “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” (Number 7) and “Brass Monkey” (Number 48 pop, Number 83 R&B, 1987), the album sold 720,000 copies in six weeks, becoming one of Columbia’s fastest-selling debuts ever. In the late Eighties, Beastie Boys’ take on hip-hop began maturing, and throughout the Nineties the group ventured into spaced-out funk, psychedelia and lounge music, yet retaining its adolescent charm and hit-making sensibility.
The members of the group were teenagers, all from wealthy Manhattan families, playing in various hardcore punk bands when they came together in the early Eighties as Beastie Boys. The initial lineup consisted of singer Mike D (b. Michael Diamond, Nov. 20, 1966, New York, NY), bassist MCA (b. Adam Yauch, Aug. 5, 1965, New York), drummer Kate Schellenbach (b. Jan. 5, 1966, New York) — who later formed Luscious Jackson — and guitarist John Berry. Inspired by the DC hardcore band Bad Brains’ mix of whiplash punk and lilting reggae, the Beasties released an independent EP, Polly Wog Stew, in 1982, after which Berry departed. From the hardcore band the Young and the Useless, the Beasties added fourteen-year-old guitarist Adam Horovitz (b. Oct. 31, 1967, New York), the son of playwright Israel Horovitz, who became known as Ad-Rock.
The group’s first attempt at rap came on the 1983 12-inch vinyl hip-hop spoof, “Cookie Puss,” based on a crank call they made to the Carvel ice cream company. With Schellenbach’s depature, The Beasties began taking hip-hop more seriously, teaming with friend Rick Rubin, the producer who would start the Def Jam label in his college dorm room the the following year. The marriage was perfect, producer Rubin working samples into the group’s bratty raps that contained familiar white, middle-class pop-culture references: Led Zeppelin, heavy-metal guitar riffs, and the theme to TV’s Mr. Ed. With thumbs-up from Rubin’s then-partner, Russell Simmons, the head of Rush Productions and manager of Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys signed to Def Jam in 1985. That same year they appeared in one of the earliest hip-hop movies, Krush Groove, performing the single “She’s on It.” The trio also opened for Madonna’s Virgin Tour, during which they shouted obscenities to the audiences and got booed for it. In 1986 The Beasties toured with Run-D.M.C. as part of the violence-plagued Raisin’ Hell tour.
Beastie Boys experienced a watershed in 1987. The success of “Fight for Your Right” led to the trio headlining their own tour, which was plagued by lawsuits, arrests, blame for violence and vandalism, and accusations of sexism and obscenity. The group was criticized for co-opting a black musical form, but the criticism didn’t last long, as The Beasties established themselves as authentic hip-hop artists respected by their fellow rappers. After appearing in Run-D.M.C.’s movie, Tougher Than Leather, in 1988, the trio broke with Rubin and Def Jam over financial and personal differences, and moved to L.A., where they met producers the Dust Brothers (John King and Mike Simpson). With the Dust Brothers, The Beasties created their classic second album, Paul’s Boutique (Number 14, 1989), released on Capitol. It was an artistic leap for The Beasties, turning their white, bourgeois take on rap into a funky, album-long sound collage. The record produced a Top Forty hit, “Hey Ladies” (Number 36), but sold far less than Licensed to Ill.
It trio would spend another three years on Check Your Head (Number 10, 1992), an eclectic album for which The Beasties picked up their instruments again, blending their hip-hop sensibilities with their hardcore punk roots. The album came out on the group’s own Capitol-distributed Grand Royal label, and marked the first appearance of longtime sidemen DJ Hurricane and keyboardist Money Mark (a.k.a. Mark Ramos Nishita). Released two years after Nirvana helped usher alternative rock into the mainstream pop world, Check Your Head broke the Top 10 in a week, even though the music jumps stylistically from funk to rap to hardcore. In 1994 The Beasties released a compilation of their early hardcore singles and EPs as Some Old Bullshit (Number 46), followed closely by a new album, Ill Communication (Number One pop, Number Two R&B, 1994), which continued in the eclectic vein of Check Your Head. That summer, Beastie Boys joined Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, George Clinton, and other big names for Lollapalooza 1994 (with Luscious Jackson playing on the second stage).
It would be four more years before Beastie Boys returned with another full album of new material. Meanwhile, they demonstrated a lingering fondness for hardcore punk on the Aglio E Olio EP (1995), and collected some jazzy, soul-influenced instrumental outtakes along with a few new tracks for The In Sound From Way Out! (Number 45, 1996). In 1998 The Beasties released Hello Nasty (Number One), which was their most eclectic set yet, featuring 22 tracks of hip-hop, rock, soul, bossa nova, opera, salsa, and cutting-edge turntablism from Mixmaster Mike (replacing DJ Hurricane). The band toured that same year, and won two Grammys: Best Alternative Music Performance for the Number One title track, and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “Intergalactic.” Another tour scheduled for 2000 — to include coheadliner Rage Against the Machine — was canceled after Diamond was seriously injured in a bicycle accident.
Increasingly active in political issues, The Beasties spent the early part of the 2000s organizing and performing a post-9/11 benefit concert in 2001 and releasing an anti-Iraq War protest song, “In a World Gone Mad,” as a free download in 2003. After headlining the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the group released its first album of new material in six years, To the 5 Boroughs (Number One, 2004).
By then, however, The Beasties were considered elder statesmen of golden-age hip-hop and alternative rock, and the album got wildly mixed reviews, some hailing its hard-hitting political bite, leaner, old-school sound and tribute to the perseverance of New York City, others suggesting the group had run out of ideas. Three years later The Beasties returned with another all-instrumental set, The Mix-Up, which only reached Number 15 but won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. A new rap album, reportedly featuring guests like Nas, is due in 2010.
During their Nineties peak, Yauch, who had been responsible for some of The Beasties’ wildest early behavior (with girls, drugs, and egg-throwing), embraced Buddhism and organized the annual star-studded Tibetan Freedom Concert, which advocated independence for Tibet. During the same period Diamond assumed hands-on management of Grand Royal, which branched off into a short-lived magazine, and co-owned the clothing line X-Large. In 1993 Diamond married film director Tamra Davis. Horovitz, who in the late Eighties dabbled in acting and was briefly married to actor Ione Skye, created the side project BS2000, releasing Simply Mortified in 2001. In 2006 he married Le Tigre singer Kathleen Hanna, who helped pioneer the Nineties riot grrl punk movement as leader of Bikini Kill.