Way to make a man feel old. July 25th marks the 25th anniversary of one of hip-hop's most vital, most inspired and influential albums, Beastie Boys' 'Paul's Boutique'. If you've half a clue as to its DNA and the artists that drew from its rich pool of colourful samples and dizzying rhymes in the wake of its (at the time not all that successful) release, then you need no further introduction. To those who are new to the Beasties - and they are an act that continues to attract fresh followers - it's a record that really needs to be up there on that shelf, or better still on right now and in your ears. It's a bizarrely ageless artifact, a set that feels simultaneously relevant to the times we're in today and like a time capsule, brimming with here-come-the-1990s zest and playfulness.
I met the three Beasties as they were promoting what was to be their last (as it stands) studio LP, 'Hot Sauce Committee Part Two' - part one at the time, before changes came into effect. Back then, in 2009, the album was set for a September release - but a two-year delay put the album back to 2011 to allow Adam Yauch, aka MCA, to recover from a cancer he had diagnosed only days after I met him. Sadly, MCA died on May 4th, 2012.
Here's my cover feature with the Beasties from 2009. RIP MCA, and may the songs that these three MCs (and sometimes just the one DJ) always stand up to the test of time.
(You can listen to some of the interview via the player above, too.)
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Beastie Boys, 'Shadrach', from 'Paul's Boutique' (1989)
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Five minutes ago we were discussing ‘Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1’, the Beastie Boys’ eighth studio album.
Now, I’m lost in the playful banter of three men who’ve been tight with each other since I was three-years-old. How many ways can you write ‘out of my depth’? “It contains the maximum amount of caffeine, nicotine and sugar that you’re legally allowed to put into a drink,” says Adam Yauch, better known as MCA, with a wicked grin plastered across his face. “It’s also combined with snake’s blood and turtle semen, so it’s a really invigorating product. It has natural jojoba in it, but the thing that’s key is that it has analgesics, and it contains an expectorant.”
He’s describing The Antidote, “a sports drink I’m doing to battle Steven Seagal’s drink, because he’s getting too much heat right now”. Adam Horowitz - Ad-Rock - is curious to learn more. Me? I’m wondering how I’m going to get this interview back on track. (If you are too, the answer is that I don’t.)
“What about B12?” asks Horovitz. “And a mild Viagra?”
“It contains the maximum legal amount of B12 that you’re allowed to put into your body,” comes Yauch’s reply; he’s trying desperately not to burst into laughter. “Plus it has the maximum legal amount of alcohol in it. Viagra? Yeah, it’s got all that shit. Ginseng!? Anything and everything you need is in this drink.”
“I think you need to do a non-alcoholic one,” suggests Horovitz, “and maybe a chocolate one.”
“So it’s for children?” Yauch is now laughing, but regains some composure to bring our unexpected conversational tangent to its close. “It’s Mountain Dew with a kick. It’s gonna be great - it’s called The Antidote, so look out for that. It’s like Gatorade. It’ll be good for cricket players.”
Everyone laughs, but how’d we ever get here? Pause. Breathe. Rewind…
The Beastie Boys as they are today - Yauch and Horovitz alongside Michael Diamond, AKA Mike D - formed in New York back in 1983. Before that, Diamond and Yauch had played together as part of a hardcore punk band initially called The Young Aborigines. The track ‘Cooky Puss’ was their first attempt at rap, and attracted the attention of Rick Rubin, co-founder of the Def Jam label. After high-profile tours with the likes of Madonna and Run DMC, the Beasties released their debut album, ‘Licensed To Ill’, in 1986. It would make them stars, but not necessarily for the right reasons: critics saw the trio as dumb, jock-like in their swagger and projected misogyny, and while the hit single ‘Fight For Your Right’ took the world by storm, controversy followed the Beasties on tour. Change was necessary, or the group would be washed up by the end of the decade.
1989 was a massively important year in hip-hop, and the Beastie Boys had to make their mark a significant one or else they’d be left behind as a creative force. Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, released in ’88, shook the genre up like nothing before it, proving that rap acts could create enthralling, educated and influential long-players capable of crossing critical borders and attracting amazing commercial attention. The bar had been raised, and the Beasties knew their second album needed to not only represent a considerable progression from their debut, but that it also had to match their own expectations for what a hip-hop album should be in 1989, after the three had soaked up both ‘Nation Of Millions’ and De La Soul’s phenomenally important ‘3 Feet High And Rising’. That album was ‘Paul’s Boutique’.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago, at all,” says Diamond when I bring up the album that, really, set the ball rolling for what’s become the socially conscious, sonically audacious and politically charged trio I see before me today. “Twenty years sounds like a really long time, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago, to me, that I was listening to all those incredible records.” “I remember listening to ‘Nation Of Millions’ over and over again when it came out, with headphones,” recalls Yauch. “That was the first time someone had approached a hip-hop album like other artists - rock artists is what I mean - would approach an album. I don’t think it was until Public Enemy that hip-hop really embraced the album format.”
“Our first album was just a collection of songs, really - it didn’t really work together as an album,” continues Diamond. “But I remember, at different points of making and finishing ‘Paul’s Boutique’, listening to ‘Nation Of Millions’ and ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ and feeling both excited and depressed. I was excited because both were incredibly great records, but depressed because whatever we made wouldn’t really mean anything, as they were so good.”
Although it didn’t sell as many copies as ‘Licensed To Ill’, ‘Paul’s Boutique’ hit a critical homerun, and has since been reappraised, following a twentieth anniversary expanded reissue, to the tune of perfect scores across a wealth of music magazines and websites. The rappers’ on-record rapport with producers The Dust Brothers was wonderfully realised; their relationship one that began with surprise, but soon ran smoothly.
“They had a bunch of music together, before we arrived to work with them,” says Yauch. “As a result, a lot of the tracks on ‘Paul’s Boutique’ came from songs they’d planned to release to clubs as instrumentals - ‘Shake Your Rump’, for example. They’d put together some beats, basslines and guitar lines, all these loops together, and they were quite surprised when we said we wanted to rhyme on it, because they thought it was too dense. They offered to strip it down to just beats, but we wanted all of that stuff on there. I think half of the tracks were written when we got there, and the other half we wrote together.”
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Beastie Boys, 'Shake Your Rump', from 'Paul's Boutique' (1989)
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The record was the Beasties’ first to earn them a production co-credit, and ever since the trio has spent more time in the studio than many a rap peer, tinkering with levels and re-recording beats, layering rhymes and simply enjoying being a part of the process from start to finish.
“I think in rap, a lot of the time, when you see the word ‘producer’ you assume that’s who made the track,” comments Horovitz. “But we write everything. We’ve made records with other people, like Mario [Caldato Jr, Beasties producer until 1998’s ‘Hello Nasty’], and that’s why they’re credited, but we’re always there, at every step.”
Yauch continues: “When you see ‘producer’ on there, a lot of times it means that whoever that is, they made the whole beat, or the groove; then the MC just showed up, threw down some vocals and walked out the door. Then the producer sat there and moved his vocals around and made the song, but we’ve never really worked like that. Even with The Dust Brothers, we spent a long time working with them. We didn’t throw down the lyrics and walk out the door - we put a lot of work in together.”
Horovitz’s memory sparks: “Do you remember, years ago, we were going to do a record with The Prunes (Newark hip-hop crew, later called N3xT 0N3’z)? We never did it, but we were like: ‘We should do a regular rap record’. One where The Prunes do all the beats, then we rap on it. Remember when we used to be into The Prunes? We didn’t really talk about it all that much.” He turns to me, almost apologetically: “I’m just saying... I’m free flowing.” “We’re on-the-road poets,” says Diamond. Cue incredulous looks. Everyone laughs.
‘Paul’s Boutique’ was followed in 1992 by ‘Check Your Head’, an album that saw the three take a few steps back to their punk roots, with songs like ‘Time For Livin’’ and ‘Gratitude’ packing a considerable rock punch - the latter was later covered by Swedish post-hardcore outfit Refused. But while the album was ostensibly heavier than its predecessor, its hip-hop traits remained apparent, with the Beasties’ love of sampling culture just as obvious as it was on ‘Paul’s Boutique’ with its unlicensed array of steals - listen out for snatches of Jimi Hendrix, Mantronix, Bob Marley and Sly And The Family Stone.
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Beastie Boys, 'Sabotage', from 'Ill Communication' (1994)
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1994’s ‘Ill Communication’ returned the group to the commercial heights of the ’80s, with the single ‘Sabotage’ continuing to conquer dancefloors to this day; its success was thanks in no small part to the appeal of its Spike Jonze-directed video, in which the rappers dressed as officers of the law to spoof the intro titles of a cop show. (You’ll have seen it, really, at least once in your life; if not you should probably seek out an optician, as you’re evidently blind.) The album topped the Billboard chart in the US - something its makers hadn’t achieved since ‘Licensed To Ill’ - and featured a guest turn from Q-Tip, then very much a member of A Tribe Called Quest. Surprisingly for a rap act now on their eighth album, the number of guests to feature on Beasties records over the years is very few. Lee “Scratch” Perry and Miho Hatori (of NYC group Cibo Matto) drop in on 1998’s sublime ‘Hello Nasty’, but the group has been fairly economical with their vocal collaborators ‘til now.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” says Diamond, before Yauch adds his thoughts: “It’s not something we think about too much in the studio, but every now and again we’ll have a song where, for one reason or another, it makes sense to bring someone in. In some ways it’s simpler for us to just do our thing, because we’ve known each other for so long.”
‘Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1’ features two noticeable guests - the first is Santigold (nee Santogold) on ‘Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win’, the second celebrated rapper Nas on ‘Too Many Rappers’ - an ironic title given the Beasties’ preference for keeping their rhymes to themselves. Stylistically wedged somewhere between albums three and four based on a first listen - at the time of writing Clash hasn’t received a copy of the album, and even when we heard it we weren’t given track titles (something that will soon rile Yauch) - ‘Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1’ is the first fruit from a particularly purple patch of productivity: according to the threesome, there’s plenty more to come in the inevitable part two.
“We had a deadline to meet, and we were looking originally to release the record in May, which has come and gone,” says Yauch. “We were pretty geared up to do that, to have a record done, but pushing it back to September allowed us to write a lot more songs… and now it’s done again. We thought we’d be done in time, and we were, but it’s been cool to take more time and write more songs. Later we’ll release a bunch of the other stuff.”
“We’ll have a part two,” confirms Diamond. “It’ll eventually come out as a whole album, but we’re looking to release the songs… I won’t say unconventionally, but in a different way. Like, people might get a seven-inch every few weeks. Or, if people prefer, maybe we’ll email an MP3 or whatever. We’re trying to figure it out. We were having fun making music, so we just kept going for a while. The first time we thought we’d finished the record - well, the first few times really - we had too many songs and it was hard to make sense of it. But then when it got pushed back, and we made even more songs which, and I know this sounds counter-productive, somehow made things clearer. I think when we were sequencing the record, it presented itself: these were the songs that will be on part one. That seemed pretty clear.”
For a time the Beasties considered releasing a double album - but then the three took a moment to consider the very few genuine classic double albums of the past, and just how few of them they could agree on. ‘London Calling’, since you asked, seems to be the only unanimous choice. “Also, we thought a double album would be too long,” says Yauch, “but if we made it two albums, the other songs might not stand up to being their own, standalone collection. But ‘Part 2: The Weird Shit’, that could work. Did the label not tell you this was a two-part record? No? F*ck…”
Yauch gets up and turns for the door, slamming it tight behind him. Nobody laughs. The rapper returns with a sheet containing all of the new record’s song titles; he’s pencilled in ‘Pt. 1’ beside the album title. Clearly there’s been some confusion regarding what the label can and can’t say, and the Beasties are puzzled. “If they’re playing the songs, why not give you the titles?” asks Horowitz. “Who cares about the names of the songs?”
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Beastie Boys, 'Make Some Noise', from 'Hot Sauce Committee Part Two'
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But surely the band recognises the need to keep a new album of this level as under wraps as possible? A net leak could kills its momentum, already slowed somewhat by the delayed release date. They begrudgingly agree, knowing full well that consumers today are not only partial to taking their music for free - ‘thieving’ is another word for it - but that some will never even listen to ‘Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1’ as the band intend it to be heard, thanks to the cut-and-paste nature of download culture and set-to-shuffle playback.
“We’re still stuck in the album world, because of how we grew up,” concedes Diamond. “We grew up worshipping albums. Well, maybe I should speak for myself there, but I have spent so many hours of my life not only listening to albums, but also looking at the covers and memorising who played on what, and who produced what. We still spend a long time on sequencing, but we know there’s a percentage of our audience out there who will never listen to this new record in its ‘right’ order.”
“And sequencing was so important back in the day,” adds Yauch. “That’s the order you had to listen to a record in, for a very important reason. Now, shuffle has brought the album into a whole other realm.”
“We’ve been doing this for so long, y’know, so this is what we do,” says Horovitz. “Although Michelle Wunderbarg has now emerged, so things do change…”
“It’s my drag identity,” announces Diamond, inviting his colleagues to back him up. “We’re just here to support Mike on his drag tour,” confirms Yauch, leading Horovitz to chip in: “Did you wanna ask Michelle about wine and stuff?”
Turns out Mike - sorry, Michelle - had a pretty poor bottle of wine (and he/she is quite the expert nowadays) the night before, while out at a certain celebrity chef’s restaurant. “The woman brought over the first bottle and said, ‘The chef recommends this wine for you’. And you know what? It sucked. It sucked. Straight up. The first wine sucked. The second wine wasn’t anything special, but it was decent enough. At least it was a real wine, I chose that… the first wine might as well have been a friggin’… bottle of pee. I mistakenly thought it was The Antidote. But it was not, it was some kind of hoax.” It falls to Yauch to close our interview with perhaps the most unlikely closing statement-cum-threat I’ve ever heard in several years of meeting musicians. Leaning in, face on fire: “I’ll give you the fucking antidote, Mike, and it’s got snake urine in it!” Everyone laughs. And I do a little wee in my pants.
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Words: Mike Diver
Related: Spotlight: 'Ill Communication'