With their latest release The Mix Up being a collection of instrumentals and jams, one wonders what kind of statement, if any, the Beastie Boys—one of the earliest success stories in hip hop culture—are trying to make about the status of hip hop music. “We’ve been getting asked that a lot lately,” says MCA, and AdRock follows up by saying, “In a way, the album was a reaction to our hip hop. Our last record was an all rap record, so when we started recording [The Mix Up] we wanted to work with some instruments, and it just sounded cool, so we kept with it.” But Mike D offers another explanation. “We get asked, ‘What do you think of the state of hip hop today?’ a lot. Maybe I’m being defensive, but it seems like people always look for us to come out and criticize hip hop. But hip hop is what we grew up on, and it continues to be one of the only forms of music left that strives on evolution and innovation. Yeah, we might be in a spell where we’re waiting for that next record to come out and change everything—but still, that’s what hip hop is and that’s what puts it in its unique place.”
On some level, it must be difficult for Michael Diamond (Mike D), Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (AdRock) to field questions like these. Together, the Beastie Boys are a polite, incredibly funny and relatively soft-spoken group. But to this day, 20 years after the release of their debut record, License To Ill, they are still asked if “they still feel the need to fight for their right to party”? And if that wasn’t bad enough, they are still rather crudely regarded as “the white boy rappers” by certain journalists. “I’m not trying to call anybody out,” says MCA, “but we always seem to get asked by journalists about being white rappers. There seems to be some kind of focus on that, and I’m not sure why. I think what is most important is that people are making music regardless of what color they are. Some people are making interesting music, and some people aren’t, that’s just how it is.”
Even their Jewish heritage is still a topic of discussion for some people. To this point, Diamond offers, “I think how we identify ourselves with being Jewish has more to do with how we identify ourselves as being New Yorkers. It’s more of a cultural connection than a religious one. When we started out, I was living in Brooklyn Heights, and Yauch lived a few blocks away. Once we started playing, a lot of our friends were in bands as part of this downtown New York City hardcore scene. We never thought it was going to last this long, let alone be successful and inspire people, but at the same time, if it does inspire people for whatever reason, that’s good.” Yauch adds that, “I don’t think we really were conscious of the fact that we were all Jewish until journalists started pointing it out.” And as Diamond concludes, “Let’s face it: to find three Jewish kids hanging around New York City is not uncommon.”
When asked how much their punk rock and hip hop influences overlap each other, Horovitz says that “they are very similar forms of music, in a way. I feel that punk rock and rap have the same headspace. You know, that attitude you have when you make punk records is very similar to when you make rap records.” Diamond adds that there is a commonality of energy and attitude within the genres. “It’s easy to look at outward trimmings of each, but when we were growing up and going to clubs, all the new wave/punk rock clubs that we would go to would play all the new hip hop records when they would come out, and it seemed to all fit together in a very natural way.”
If the major music industry is, at the very least, experiencing a period of transcendence, the Beastie Boys don’t seem to mind. “It seems to me that the tools for doing it yourself are more available than ever before,” says Diamond. He continues on by saying, “When we put out Pollywog Stew, we had to actually go and press a 7”—you don’t have to do that anymore. Now you can use your MySpace page.” When asked if the way things were done back in the day is a testament to longevity, Diamond seems overtly unsure while remaining optimistic. “For me, I’m excited to see what people can do using their home computers or their video cameras. Some of it might be wack, but there will be some that are completely self-reliant, and will attain its own audience.” Horovitz adds that, “The whole idea of success and “making it” is changing into a different thing. Do you want to be playing arenas, or do you want people to just watch your YouTube video? So, we just have to see what happens next.”
The Beastie Boys will be playing a benefit concert for The Institute for Musical and Neurologic Function at NYC’s Terminal 5 on March 4.