ROCK / Triumph of the ill: Fight for your right to . . . your own clothing range? Ben Thompson meets the Beastie Boys

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'BOYS ENTER Anarchic States Towards Inner Excellence' - that's what the Beastie in Beastie Boys stands for. No, I didn't know this either; until it leapt out at me from the sleeve-notes to a recent compilation of the group's formative moments, aptly titled Some Old Bullshit. More than a decade has now passed since Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA - aka Michael Diamond and the two Adams, Horovitz and Yauch - hit upon this snappy acronym, but their prescience was uncanny, since it sums up the Beasties' extraordinary career to what keen golfers such as themselves would certainly recognise as a tee.

Having made the dramatic leap from New York high-school punks to pioneering global brat-rappers - selling more than four million copies of their 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill and instigating a media witch-trial in Britain the like of which no visiting American pop phenomenon had experienced since the rather more deserving case of Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old cousin - the Beastie Boys could easily have blown up or grown up. They would still have been remembered for ever as the people who made German car owners live in fear for their logos.

Instead, they overcame their inauspicious origins - not just white and middle-class, but white and Jewish and middle-class, which is like stepping out across the ethnic minefield of US hip- hop culture in snowshoes - to become one of the most influential names in rap music's short and turbulent history. In the process they seem to have arrived, apparently without effort, at the perfect synthesis of art and life.

The erstwhile Three Stooges of rap are now based in Los Angeles. Ad- Rock is a part-time film star, recently married to Ione Skye, a full-time film star (which, incidentally, makes Donovan his father-in- law). Mike D is also recently married, to film-maker Tamra Davies. He is an executive force in X- Large, a successful clothing company. He also runs the Beasties' record label, Grand Royal, and interviews fellow rap stars for their excellent magazine of the same name. MCA now finds himself typecast as the snow-boarding Buddhist of the group.

Far from letting these outside interests distract them from their music, the Beastie Boys have just released an album which resists categorisation more thoroughly than any other they, or anyone else I can think of for that matter, have ever released. Ill Communication somehow achieves a seamless blend of heavy funk, jazz fusion, old-school hip-hop and hardcore punk, without losing its distinctively beastial character. So, what do its authors' think of it?

'Whatever we've done most recently is always most listenable to us,' observes genial Mike D, between mouthfuls of hotel toast, 'but that is neither here nor there, qualitatively speaking.' In person as on disc, all three Beasties are not averse to a rhetorical flourish, but their speaking voices do not correspond to their recorded selves. Mike D's is a thoughtful drawl, Ad-Rock's lives for moments of emphasis but has no helium squawk, and the gruff, hoarse Yauch likes nothing better than to drop into Cary Grant cockney.

On the back of Some Old Bullshit they've reprinted an angry letter received in their punk days, accusing them of 'not knowing the meaning of real hardcore'. Not knowing the meaning of 'real' anything has been the secret of the Beasties' success from the beginning. They admit to finding their first, clumsy embrace of rap, 1983's profoundly unsavoury 'Cooky Puss', 'a little hard to listen to' now, but they have fonder memories of 'Beastie Revolution', the lumbering reggae spoof they recorded as the flip- side. A short while after its release, they heard the song coming out of a friend's TV, being used without permission as the soundtrack to a British Airways advert, and the five-figure sum they were awarded in compensation allowed them to move out of parental homes in Brooklyn to a rat-ridden loft in Manhattan's Chinatown.

It is somehow gratifying that the Beastie Boys got their first break as copyright plaintiffs. But how did they get from the cack-handed 'Cooky Puss' to the pristine foolishness of 'Hold It Now, Hit It', their first single on the all-conquering Def Jam label? 'I don't know,' says Ad-Rock. 'There was a little,' Mike D hesitates, 'I don't want to say dues paying.' The Beasties progressed from weird hybrid excursions - putting down their instruments, MC-ing in front of turntables - to straight-ahead rap shows. The leather- clad figure behind the wheels of steel was DJ Double R, aka Rick Rubin, co- founder of Def Jam and now one of America's leading music moguls. Rubin's Def Jam partner Russell Simmons helped integrate the Beasties into the burgeoning hip-hop scene by booking them club dates alongside acts such as Kurtis Blow and the Fat Boys. 'We did make fools of ourselves,' Ad- Rock admits, 'but people were into it.'

The resulting process of cross-pollination was more complex than is widely assumed. The Beastie Boys did not bring heavy metal to rap so much as rap brought heavy metal to the Beastie Boys. 'I hated Led Zeppelin at school,' Ad-Rock remembers. But by 1984-5 punk was fading, and hip-hop DJs were already borrowing John Bonham's beats and Jimmy Page's guitar. 'We were free to discover Led Zeppelin and AC/DC,' Mike D continues, 'and it was something completely new.'

The result, Licensed to Ill, was an irresistible, delinquent pantomime of drink and drugs, guns and girls, made palatable to all (well, almost all) by its obvious lack of malice. Were the Beastie Boys interested in notoriety? 'We were interested in having a good time,' says Ad-Rock.

Still, do they ever feel a pang of guilt that, as one of the first rap acts to cross over to a mass audience, they helped set the hostile tone of the music's reception by the media? 'The only thing that upsets me,' Mike D replies, 'is that we might have reinforced certain of the values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different.' 'I don't know,' says Ad-Rock. 'At the time some of our values were a little twisted.' His partner in rhyme is forced to agree, but still battles on. 'There were tons of guys singing along to 'Fight for Your Right to Party' who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them,' Mike D insists. That's often a problem with, well, would you call it satire? 'Irony,' says Mike D. 'Irony is oft missed.'

He isn't kidding. After falling out with Def Jam over their refusal to record an instant follow-up, the Beastie Boys signed to Capitol. Secure in the knowledge of a certain chart-topper, Capitol was pleased to indulge its new stars. Holed up in an LA recording studio, consuming huge quantities of marijuana and dressed in a bizarre wardrobe of Seventies fashion relics, the Beastie Boys did what they do best - they relaxed. And when they finally got around to working on Paul's Boutique, they forsook the instantly accessible hooks of their debut for a dense and intensely funky new sound which the public was not yet ready for.

This second album was undoubtedly a work of genius, but it sold only about a tenth as well as its predecessor. 'It wasn't a premeditated idea to make stuff that nobody would want to listen to,' Mike D remembers, almost shame-faced. And it's not as if Capitol didn't get value for money. If you listen carefully to the song 'Three Minute Rule' you can even hear the table-tennis table it paid for.

The Beastie Boys used their small amount of remaining credit wisely, building themselves a studio with en suite basketball court and skate-ramp. They also picked up their instruments again, and tried to master the loose- limbed funk sound they'd sampled on Paul's Boutique. 'It would definitely have seemed unobtainable to us before,' says Mike D, 'I don't know why that should suddenly have changed.' He is being unnecessarily hard on himself. Check Your Head, the result of all this endeavour, was a thrillingly diverse and adventurous record, and an unexpected commercial success, which allowed the Beastie Boys to spread their commercial tentacles.

'Prejudice against entrepreneurial behaviour is ridiculous,' says Mike D, modelling his X-Large jacket, 'to me it's just freedom of expression. Making money is fun, but the goal is to make things: to make clothes and records - to create (and here the true Beastie in him comes out) shit that is fly.'

A boutique, then, is not a bad place in which to see today's Beastie Boys. Last Sunday afternoon, they played a show downstairs in Covent Garden's Rough Trade record shop. The smug and lucky audience is crammed in between the CD-racks. Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D, on guitar, bass and drums respectively, are augmented by their faithful DJ Hurricane, a percussionist and possibly a keyboard player - it's hard to tell through the mess of bodies. They play rap numbers, they play funk numbers, and just when the whole thing threatens to mellow out into one long Starsky and Hutch incidental moment, they throw in their punk thrash 'Egg Raid on Mojo' to wake everyone up.

The music is vibrant, but it's the words that really get you. The Beasties exploit all the opportunities for idiosyncratic self-expression that rap's unique mixture of bluster and etiquette can supply. 'I'm a newly wed not a divorcee,' Mike D boasts on 'The Sure Shot', one side of their superb forthcoming single, 'and everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey.' Being able to make this sort of line scan is one of the Beastie Boys' most important gifts.

In the same way that they have broken down the barrier between live instruments and sampling, the Beastie Boys make a gleeful mockery of the high / low cultural divide. As two of them once said, 'I've got more stories than JD Salinger - I hold the title and you are the challenger.'

The Beasties' magazine, Grand Royal, is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in late-20th- century life. It features designs for a James Brown stamp, coverage of a Kiss fan convention, Bruce Lee's favourite foods and an investigation into The Gap's evil plot to take over the world.

One of Grand Royal's most whimsical articles - grunge pioneer Mike Watt detailing his crisis with plaid shirts - actually cuts to the heart of what makes the Beastie Boys so important. The moral of their story is that culture and commerce, if properly handled, do not have to be mutually antagonistic. Clouds in the Beastie sky? I really don't think there are any.

'Ill Communication' and 'Some Old Bullshit' (Grand Royal) are both out now. The Beastie Boys play the Astoria, W1, 071-434 9592, Wed; Glastonbury Festival, 0272 767860, Fri.

(Photograph omitted)