IN MEMORY OF ODB
The following is the original intro I wrote for the Beastie Boy story which is now featured in Heeb Magazine Issue 7 (the cover story). Due to space constraints, the text had to be significantly re-worked and edited so here it is as it was originally written in all it's length and wonder. [When you do pick up the new issue, look on page 5 for a good chuckle]
As children, our grandfathers had a saying in Yiddish that they would repeat quite often: shver tzu zein a yid. And while we knew that indeed “it was hard to be a Jew”--after all, we were never allowed to watch Saturday morning cartoons— we still felt it was even harder to be a cool Jew. Faced with the prospect of being either an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer (flexibility allowed the option of also being a real estate developer), we noticed a great disconnect from our Hebrew schoolteachers to the Crockets and the Tubbs, the Mike Seavers, and the Duran Durans of the world.
But then in 1986, that all changed when we walked into our local record store, stood in the “rap” section, which was nowhere near the Elton John tapes, and picked out a cassette copy of The Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill.
After repeated listens, we walked differently. We dressed differently. We rebelliously wore sunglasses to school and lifted our collars up. We bought fake I.D.’s or just tried to get the adults to buy forties for us. No longer would we restrict ourselves to being accountants, lawyers, and doctors. After all, thanks to Ad Rock, MCA, and Mike D, not only could we grow up to be cool but we could even become rappers.
Years later, I am walking to the Beastie Boys headquarters located on an exclusive and private street on the Lower West Side. It’s a surreal moment and I’m not quite sure what to expect. I turn up the block to find that MCA is also making his way towards the building. We are both almost a half-hour early for the interview. Perhaps even icons get tired of showing up late for interviews and making a grand entrance. With a lethargic shuffle, lazily sipping an iced coffee, Adam strolls down the block, as if his feet were cemented to the sidewalk. His grayish hair and a three-day salt & pepper stubble growing on his face adds to his humble presence which confuses me; as a child, The Beastie Boys were cultural role models, living proof that even Jewish adults could possess a reverential cool. They wore orange jumpsuits, manically pounced around a circumferential stage, shouted their pop culture-heavy rhymes to the point of vocal exhaustion, But now, MCA, who taught me how to fight for my right to party, looked like he wanted nothing to do with either fighting or partying.
I nod. He nods back, then looks down, and takes another sip of his large iced coffee.
It doesn’t really make sense, does it? Three wisecracking Jewish teenagers from Brooklyn, NY with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and an almost exclusive hardcore punk background come along with their after-school pranks in 1986 and dominate the hip-hop community. In fact, to further illustrate the joke, their first song, “Cookie Puss” sampled a crank call and the titular Carvel Ice Cream mascot. But still, everyone from Run DMC to Russell Simmons touted The Beastie Boys as the next generation of rap. The B-Boys, on the other hand, were still laughing all the way to the bank. Their innovative approach gave birth to a new kind of Jewish sensibility, bringing the shtick without ever using the word “shtick.” They were the summer camp pranksters we could all relate to. They could crank call punk icon, Ian Mackaye, and twenty years later, still be proud of it.
Adam Horovitz, known as Ad Rock (sixteen years old at the time), MCA, and the third member, Michael Diamond, going by the name of Mike D, were hardly veterans when, months later, they were opening Madonna’s Like A Virgin Tour but nevertheless, they stole the ray of limelight from the Material Girl. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine a towering twenty foot phallus standing firm on the stages of sold-out arenas across the country which, later that night, would be hosting one of America’s most adored sex symbols…but it happened. Add to that, that the three under-aged frat boys were dancing around the large member (yes, circumcised) praising the value of girls and their dish-washing skills and promising to the bewildered crowd that they’d continue their self imposed insomnia until they reached Brooklyn.
Then a few years later, after they had already been dismissed as one-hit, ok, a few-hit wonder, The Beastie Boys returned with Paul’s Boutique, a masterpiece that broke barriers, stole samples, and cited Patty Duke, Fred Flintstone, and Alice and Sam from The Brady Bunch all in the first song. If you thought that they had nerve in 1986, then consider how many bands today would use samples of The Beatles, James Brown and Led Zeppelin on their album without permission. We watched The Beastie Boys graduate from being instinctual party boys to actual musicians. The influence and impact on the Jewish youth was becoming clear. For example, MTA, an all boys Yeshiva in Washington Heights, took credit for the Brooklyn three’s chutzpadic development claiming that they had all attended the Jewish day school and were even kicked out for eating in a White Castle. In a Paul Is Dead rumor fashion, the urban myth was perpetuated by the fact that there were “intentional” hints in song lyrics and on album covers. And even before our interview took place, ex-students and current teaching staff called me and asked that I get to the bottom of this average-height tale (do you know of any Jewish tales that are tall?).
Moreover, the oddest discovery for the trio was that Paul’s Boutique was garnering critical acclaim. Music critics went so far as to grant the album classic status with five star reviews and adulation. In old band interviews, amidst the gags and “clever” retorts, after being rebels for so long, The Beasties admit to their surprise with this newfound acceptance. Even now, when we talk, MCA, Mike D and Ad Rock belittle their cultural relevance, claming that throughout their career, they were just being themselves, not trying to be the purveyors of ever-evolving trends. They are at ease with being themselves. Yauch doesn’t die his hair. Horovitz embraces his inner “funky-ass Jew” and Diamond talks about his children most of the time.
But we should confess; we know that The Beastie Boys have graced just about every magazine cover in the past few months. Well, hasn’t it been six long years since we all spent time together? Like family we haven’t seen since the last Bar Mitzvah, the fans wanted to catch up and take advantage of their return (and also find out why two of them aren’t married yet). And a notable return it is. Embracing their Judaism on the record for the first time with call-outs to kugel and matzah, The Beasties have suddenly become eager to pronounce their heritage and of course, an affinity for falafel. In fact, when I tell them about the best falafel stand in New York on 46th and 6th, Yauch writes it down and swears to go there. It’s a curious thing to me; while we only discuss their Jewish lyrics peripherally, I can’t help but consider this overlooked notion as an embracing of their roots. As the years pass, perhaps the Beastie Boys realize why they are so important. Not because they were successful white rappers—there were some before them and they will always continue to emerge and exist. Not because they were politically active—after all, didn’t we already have a Public Enemy, a Tribe Called Quest, a KRS-One? Adam, Adam and Mike were so relevant because they broke a cultural barrier and helped to define and shape a majority of us. We would be naïve if we didn’t admit to that. They produced a commercial and mass-appealed defiance that felt more entertaining, more celebratory than the angst and the non-conformity of the Joey Ramones or the Lou Reeds. A Lenny Bruce-like insurgence that you could also “shake your rump” to.
But moreover, the 5 Boroughs is also a place where Adam, Adam and Mike skewer the President and demand that we, the listeners, instigate a force of change, all the while, still incorporating phrases like “doo-doo” and “hairy ass.” Like a Shul rabbi who reprimands his congregation, the Beasties provided the serious rebuke while inserting jokes to balance it out.
But, sadly, up to now, every interview and article we’ve read, approached the Beasties as products, as political spokesmen, or as hip-stars. Personally, we’ve yet to read nary a word about the men behind the Boys, about their families’ lineage, about their true opinions on the Licensed to Ill era, or for that matter, where they all went (or didn’t go) to high school.
I sit with Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz (Mike, who just had a baby, spoke with me on the phone from LA) in their cramped dining room, outside the recording studio. There is nothing fancy or ostentatious about their headquarters with the exception of a noisy ice machine. Horovitz, wearing a Le Tigre T-shirt (lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, is his girlfriend) and an uncharacteristic gold chain bracelet with an emergency response tag, fidgets a great deal. He has the younger brother complex of the three, easily distracted and perhaps less inclined to take himself (or my questions) seriously. Yauch, with his weathered Tom Waits-like rasp, answers me with a subtle hesitance, almost suggesting a fragile self-awareness.
Overall, our conversation, which almost fools me into thinking that we are indeed old friends, is relaxed, honest and completely…conversational. Most strikingly, the Adam two, the interviewees, even ask me, the interviewer, a few questions--a Haley’s comet-like occurrence (once in every seventy-two interviews).
I ask the Beasties about the questions they’ve been asked repeatedly, in order to avoid them and also to get straight to the more Jewy stuff. One of the queries that comes up constantly, Ad Rock tells me, is where have they been all these years. Another one which they find particularly asinine is do they regret taking the name “The Beastie Boys.” The answer, of course, is no. And while they don’t elaborate on the rationale behind that succinct response, our conversations helps me come up with a logic of my own. See, the three middle age-men that make up The Beastie Boys haven’t changed in their near-twenty years together. They are still having fun, doing something that makes them genuinely happy. It’s not complex. It’s not political. It’s not intentionally seeking out trends or new styles. Sometimes, it’s as simple as being a rapper. Sometimes, it’s as simple as not being an accountant.