A new documentary by Spike Jonze reveals how the New York trio accidentally became what they hated, Stephen Armstrong discovers.
Zoom is not the ideal method for interviewing the Beastie Boys. The band's infamous tag-team rap style usually spills over into conversations with the press, leaving journalists bewildered. On Zoom, conversely, it's kind of awkward. There are gaps, overlaps and fumbled silences, followed by sudden walls of sound as everybody speaks at once. Although it suddenly occurs to me, halfway through, perhaps this is deliberate. There has never been a point in the band's career when they have not mastered technology while sounding ramshackle and messy. When Michael "Mike D" Diamond starts showing me Santa Claus gnomes, I wonder if I'm just being pranked.
Ostensibly we're on the video chat to discuss Beastie Boys Story, the band's homemade documentary, directed by long-time collaborator Spike Jonze. Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz describes it as "the story of the band Beastie Boys. I'm sorry, I meant the heartfelt story of the Beastie Boys. I'm sorry, I mean the emotional train wreck of our story." The conversations keep drifting to the big kickers in the piece: their shame at key parts of their career, the deep void that the band-ending death of Adam "MCA" Yauch in 2012 left in their lives and — above all — their apology to women.
"We started out as a hardcore punk band, with Kate Schellenbach as our drummer," Ad-Rock says. "We ended up a cartoon rap version of a 1980s metal band and we kicked Kate out. How wrong was that? When the Beastie Boys began, the majority of our friends were girls. It's embarrassing to think we let them down."
There's a key moment in the documentary when the duo unpick the lyrics to Girls, a stupid, disposable piece of clowning from their 1986 debut album, Licensed to Ill — including the lines "Girls, to do the dishes. Girls, to clean up my room. Girls, to do the laundry. Girls, and in the bathroom" — then they jump to an MCA lyric from 1994's Sure Shot: "I want to say a little something that's long overdue. The disrespect to women has got to be through."
The route from firing Schellenbach and recording Girls to Sure Shot is the through line in Beastie Boys Story — edited by Jonze from a stage show by Ad-Rock and Mike D to promote their eponymous 2018 book. "It wasn't supposed to be a documentary," Diamond explains, as Jonze jumps into the chat. "It was supposed to be a document of our show, then Spike decided otherwise." "Yeah, sorry," Jonze says. "What a dick."
The story follows the three scruffy Brooklyn white boys skiving from school to hang out on New York's club scene, forming a band, finding hip-hop, supporting Madonna on tour, worshipping Run-DMC and finally, with Licensed to Ill, becoming hip-hop's most marketable bad boys for white middle-American audiences, their image controlled by the founders of Def Jam: Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.
Their timing was perfect. Run-DMC's 1983 hit Sucker MC's prompted acts such as the Fat Boys, Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick to mess with off-beat pop-culture samples, sharp wordplay and a playful sense of humour — easing rap on to the radio. The Beastie Boys' impish irony fitted in, but was layered over loose, wild punk sensibilities and effortless vocal interplay. This meant they also raised a middle finger to the shiny conformity of the late 1980s.
Under Russell and Rubin's guidance they drank, trashed hotel rooms, toured with a giant inflatable penis and had tabloid newspapers calling for them to be banned from the UK. (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) — still their biggest hit — defined their white-trash image but, they insist, was a joke that went horribly wrong.
"It was making fun of party bros and frat boys," Horovitz says. "We'd never actually met any but we thought they were hilarious to make fun of. Then it became a hit and gradually that's what we started to become. When we started becoming a self-caricature, Russell wouldn't pay us unless we carried on doing it. So we quit."
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At which point the band nearly split. "I think everybody thought it was supposed to be the end of the story, right?" Diamond says with a smile.
Jonze met them around that time — they had moved to LA to record the underrated follow-up, Paul's Boutique, now hailed as a hip-hop landmark and were building a complex music, media and movie empire around them, Grand Royal. Like the documentary, the Grand Royal collective had a slightly ramshackle, handheld feel. It published a short-lived magazine, gave Jonze free rein with daft videos and, most important, signed Luscious Jackson — Schellenbach's new band. Jonze includes a chat with Schellenbach where she mocks the trio for becoming what they hated.
"When I met these guys, they were curious, hungry and loved a huge spectrum of things, from vintage Adidas to obscure musicians like Lee "Scratch" Perry," Jonze recalls. "So this doc was an attempt to capture the friendship at the heart of this. I talked to Mike and Adam and Yauch at different times about the past but never heard the whole story — that there was a fourth member of the band, she was a girl, one of their best friends, who they dumped and reconnected with years later. That seemed the story to me."
All the time, Jonze and the Boys make clear, Yauch was the visionary — yet this documentary goes out on Apple TV+, an unconventional choice for dirtbag former punks. Hip-hop, more than any other genre of music, understands Silicon Valley and its potential. What is it about hip-hop that means it can milk digital in a way no other genre or even industry has?
"Hip-hop is always about reinventing and forward-thinking," Diamond says. "You didn't matter in rap unless you came out with a new style. It's not about tradition. Rock bands always want to be like Led Zeppelin or Black Flag. Rappers want the new next thing and aren't embarrassed to be compensated for what they're doing."
Then a countdown appears in the corner of my screen — showing the remaining minutes before my Zoom time limit runs out. As the screen blinks out, it seems there's another thing they understand about online communication. It's the perfect way to stop a journalist asking pesky questions.
Beastie Boys Story is available on Apple TV+
Written by: Stephen Armstrong
© The Times of London