Beastie Boys Book

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Read 17/05/2020-24/05/2020

Rating 5 stars

Beastie Boys Book opens with Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) talking about the best Beastie Boy – Adam Yauch (MCA). I loved MCA. He was a renegade. He seemed to live life at a million miles an hour, curious about everything, folding his experiences into his creative output. Horovitz knows Yauch was the best Beastie Boy, too. It’s a beautiful tribute to Yauch.

Beastie Boys Book is a collection of reminiscences by Horovitz and the other surviving Beastie Boy, Michael Diamond (Mike D), with essays by music critics, famous fans and musical collaborators mixed in. There’s a comic strip and a mini cook book. It’s full of photographs with no captions, because they need no captions, because they capture the essence of the band (there are captions – at the end of the book – if you really need them). It’s a history of how Beastie Boys emerged and evolved. It’s about how new Hip Hop was in 1981 (so new it wasn’t even called Hip Hop yet) and how Beastie Boys and their contemporaries caused a revolution that excited people like me and enraged people like my dad.

I knew nothing of Beastie Boys in 1981. The world didn’t really know much about them until they toured with Madonna in 1985 and released Ill Communication in 1986.

I was 16 years old when I encountered Beastie Boys. It was 1987. I was watching Top of the Pops. Onto the screen came a promo video. My dad, ever the disagreeable critic of culture not his own, declared it degenerate decadence. I loved it. What was it? “Fight for Your Right” by Beastie Boys.

They were gobby, obnoxious, hilarious and alive. I loved them without wanting to, hating them for being so laddish and making me like them in spite of myself. I loved them because they were filled with rage and funny in how they expressed that rage. I loved them because they were Hip Hop but they were also Hardcore Punks. I didn’t want to love them because they were so dickish about women, just like the goons at school and out on the street. At 16, I was just starting to think about feminism, about the unfairness of how society treated women. It was puzzling to like a band who objectified women. But then, the band I’d loved up until that point also objectified women. Duran Duran’s objectification made empty trophies of women. Beastie Boys, in contrast, were unsophisticated loons who, like the boys at school, knew nothing about women.

I still love them. Over the years, as they grew up, it was impossible to hate them. They were too important, and they owned their juvenile mistakes.

There’s an essay in the book by feminist journalist Ada Calhoun that captures how she and her friends felt about Beastie Boys. She encountered them in the 1990s. Her essay takes the form of a lab report and makes the point that sexism and chauvinism was rife in society, openly so, to a greater extent than it is today. Bad stuff happened and women had no comeback. Writing in 2018, she says

My Stuyvesant [High School] friends and I didn’t get much satisfaction back in high school. Those teachers never got in trouble. [One reenacted Mussolini’s rape of a journalist as a teaching point, another wrote a sexist joke in a science test paper.] We never did get apologies from the flashers or harrassers. But New York is different now, and so are Beastie Boys. Those of us who trusted our positive instincts about the band have had our enthusiasm repaid a million-fold.

The 1980s were the scene of my adolescence and they felt different at the time to what went before, as experienced by my older siblings, and feel different to what came after and is now. Music critic Luc Sante is describing New York City (NYC) in 1981 in the detail, but he captures every city when he says, “… music is ambient throughout the city. It is everywhere, whether you like it or not.” It plays on radios in cars and shops, on boomboxes. There are no headphones, no personal listening spaces.

I’ve been thinking about music in the late 1970s and early 1980s recently, particularly the punk and post-punk scene in Manchester, so it was interesting to read about a similar period in NYC.

Much as the Sex Pistols playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall in summer 1976 kick-started the Punk scene in Manchester, Black Flag’s gig at the Peppermint Lounge in early 1981 inspired the scene that Beastie Boys emerged from. Despite five years separating these events, there are lots of parallels between the Manchester that spawned Joy Division, the Nosebleeds and Durutti Column and the NYC that gave us Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and the Lounge Lizards. Both cities were economically depressed. Teenagers wanted to do things differently. There was an eclectic live scene. Technology made recording, manipulating and sharing music easier. Portable multitrack recording equipment, drum machines, synthesisers were significant advances in tech for bands in both cities as the 70s turned into the 80s. I didn’t realise it then, but how lucky was I to be entering my teens and becoming obsessed with music just as all this innovation and change was happening?

And the whole thing of being white boys making rap music was significant. Diamond’s recollection that Russell Simmons – manager of Run DMC who would take on Beastie Boys and set up Def Jam records with Rick Rubin – saw them not just as artists but as a route to getting black music into the mainstream. It worked. Beasties made it onto Top of the Pops in the UK, people like me saw them and suddenly a world of black rap artists opened up to us.

It’s strange to think how separated black culture was back when I was a kid. I know it’s not exactly integrated now, but it feels less deliberately, offensively separate. At my primary school, the entire time I was there, we had one black kid and, briefly, one Iranian kid. I knew two other black kids from going to a Saturday music school. Secondary school was no better. I went to a private school. It seemed that only families with Asian and Middle Eastern heritage could afford the fees. There wasn’t anyone from a black family among my schoolmates.

I guess we were tourists of black culture. We couldn’t be anything else.

Horovitz and Diamond look back over a 40-year stretch of time from the vantage point of 2018 and the age demographic of being in their 50s. There’s nostalgia in what they remember, the past is a more recognisable part of who they are now than it can ever be when looked at over the shoulder. Their essays are laid out beautifully on the page, with inserts as asides rather than foot- or endnotes, making it feel more like you’re in the room with them, and less like those asides are an optional extra. They’re funny, too. Both men have a wry take on their experiences. Each expresses himself in his own way. Diamond comes across as more measured, like he’s thought things through and reflected on the band’s past to deliver an account for posterity. Horovitz writes in an explosion of thoughts that jump off in crazy directions. It’s like he’s only just thinking about things, and what he remembers surprises and delights him.

Something else that struck me about the way Horovitz and Diamond write about the scene they were part of: they are very outward looking, describing their friendships and their family backgrounds as well as their gig-going and endless band rehearsals. The focus on needing to play music and be in a band is similar to what their British contemporary Johnny Marr describes in Set the Boy Free, but his reminiscences seem more insular. Marr talks about being in bands but always from the perspective of what it meant for him as an individual. Beastie Boys Book is all about the collective. In tone, it’s more akin to Stephen Morris’s Record Play Pause.

I enjoyed the insights into what the band was listening to around the recording of each album. I loved their growth from clueless teens to musicians who knew what they wanted and how to achieve it. Horovitz is perceptive about the group dynamic. Yauch was slightly older, an only child, Horovitz and Diamond both the youngest of three children. Yauch was the innovator, the explorer, often the one setting the direction of their musical experimentation. There was an interesting exchange around the recording of what became “To the 5 Boroughs”.

Yauch declared that whatever our next record was gonna be, it had to be an all-rap record. No instrumentals. I don’t know what led him to that decision, but that was is. Me+Mike tried to argue with him about it – why did we have to decide now, why not just see what happened – but Yauch was not the wavering type. He was the most determined person I knew. Maybe it’s something to do with being an only child, and since Mike and I are both the youngest of three-kid families, we’re used to not getting our way. Or at least giving in to battles that weren’t that important to us.

It’s that last line that interested me. I’m the youngest of three siblings and I recognise that feeling. More interesting is the sense gained through the book of how certain of himself Horovitz is. Indeed, in this part of the book, he goes on to talk about how he likes to be in control, needing the freedom to do his own thing. And yet that youngest child thing still has a strong grip. Maybe it’s the cause of the absolute certainty in other areas of life. It gave me pause, because I am quite often rigidly certain in my rightness about the best way to do things, but I also often (grudgingly) give in to others because fighting about it is tiresome. Thanks, Ad-Rock, for being my mirror.

Reading this book made me realise that I have never listened to “Hello Nasty”. I rectified this immediately and confirmed to myself that Horovitz is right to consider it the best of their albums. I disagree with him about “To the 5 Boroughs” being mediocre, though.

I loved all the fun stuff in between the memoir stuff. The memoir stuff is fun, of course, but also serious. Most of all, I loved that this book is a love letter to Yauch. It’s beautiful and imperfectly perfect.

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