Beastie Boys still cold kickin' it live: Mike D and Ad-Rock reflect on Adam Yauch, the band's legacy, and bagels
A conversation with Mike “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of seminal hip-hop crew the Beastie Boys is a little like one of the group’s legendary verses, with odd phrasings, random name drops, bathroom humor, and non sequiturs aplenty. But there’s some purpose too: in this case, the 30-year history of the legendary trio, and all of their crazy, globe-trotting, prank-filled adventures.
The pair has stayed mostly quiet since 2012, when member Adam “MCA” Yauch died from salivary gland cancer at the age of 47. Since then, Horovitz has been acting, and Mike D has been scoring films. But for several years the duo have had their minds on returning to Beastie world and its history. Enter Beastie Boys Book, a unique (albeit plainly titled) series of stories from Mike D and Ad-Rock about the group’s rise to fame and all the shenanigans it entailed. The book also includes Beastie Boys-inspired recipes from Roy Choi, André Leon Talley mercilessly critiquing the group’s old outfits, and a long essay from former Beastie Kate Schellenbach (of Luscious Jackson), the group’s original drummer, on getting fired and (eventually) mending fences.
Ahead, Ad-Rock and Mike D detail the story behind Beastie Boys Book — that is when they’re not trying to take the conversation completely off the rails.
MIKE-D: [We’re] in a studio and have headphones on so it’s kind of like we’re calling into a radio station right now.
AD-ROCK: We’re calling into your radio station.
But I don’t have sound effects to play.
MIKE-D: Oh, I have that. [Mike triggers siren and fart noises]
Now I know what I’ll hear when you don’t like my questions. Anyway, congrats on the upcoming…uh, memoir? Actually I don’t know how to describe it since this book follows a non-typical format.
MIKE-D: I don’t know. I’m not comfortable with the term memoir.
AD-ROCK: Can you say it with a French accent?
MIKE-D: [In a French accent] Memoir…. I feel like memoir implies sexy stories, and we don’t really have many sexy stories.
AD-ROCK: You definitely don’t. [Laughs] I’m sorry, Mike. Come on, you threw it out there for me.
MIKE-D: That was just an easy put back for Horovitz. Bang. Like a Vince Carter dunk.
AD-ROCK: That was so long ago.
MIKE-D: I know, but a Vince Carter dunk…
AD-ROCK: That was like a generation ago.
So what’s the origin story of this book?
MIKE-D: [Raps] Well, it started way back…. No, seriously it did. Adam Yauch was still alive, and Yauch had this concept of wanting to do [one]. He even started to make motions to do a band documentary. Until somehow, we started talking about a book. We’ve read some things about us where we’re like, “That’s not our story. We should tell our story at some point.” Obviously, it got put aside; we were very sad when Yauch died. It wasn’t something we were willing to pick up for a [bit]. And then it took us a while to figure out what we were gonna do. There’s a lot of weird stuff that happens when you’re in a band. You have a very insular experience. Also, Adam and I, we don’t necessarily remember that much. So we realized short stories were our sweet spot. We just tell things as if the band is this series of all these different stories.
How did you divvy up each one?
AD-ROCK: We just made a big list of what might be an interesting story. And then we said, “Oh, I’ll pick that one, you do that one, I’ll do this one.”
MIKE-D: There are a couple of other big elements. One being that we really wanted to explain that we could only have done what we did coming from New York City when we grew up, with all this crazy random music. You didn’t know how you’d hear it, or why you’d hear it, but New York was the one place in the world at that time where you would hear all of this [music] at the same time. So, [we were] trying to get across this incredible creativity and randomness that was happening all around us. Because we couldn’t have been who we became or made what we made without that being a huge play.
The book touches on the group’s early lyric-writing process — that you were very self-conscious and eventually found a looser style. How did it come to you? Was it natural?
MIKE D: Adam’s clearly a natural.
AD-ROCK: Yes, but not at rapping. I don’t know. We just made a bunch of records, and the way you get better is by just doing. And so we made a few songs for Def Jam and the first couple were not the best.
MIKE D: Definitely not the best.
AD-ROCK: And we kind of just kept at it and figured out a way.
MIKE D: I think we started to find our own voice. When we first heard rap music, whether it was people playing cassettes when they were walking by, or when it started going to vinyl, it just seemed like that was the most exciting, revolutionary, important music. As kids we probably wouldn’t have said “important,” but it really was. That’s what we wanted to hear.
AD-ROCK: And of course if you’re gonna make a rap song, you’re gonna want to sound like Melle Mel. You know what I mean?
MIKE D: We would just memorize every word to every record and do that. And then we really wanted to be Run DMC — eventually we [realized], “Wait, we’re not.”
AD-ROCK: Definitely not.
MIKE D: Definitely not Run DMC. “Who are we?” And you start to figure that out.
You also dispel some common misconceptions about the band’s early days, specifically you make clear that you used a hydraulic penis as an onstage prop, not an inflatable one. And that the penis is still kept in storage in New Jersey.
AD-ROCK: Well, we don’t keep it. We just pay for it to be stored.
MIKE D: Sadly, yeah, we pay.
AD-ROCK: We actually were gonna get rid of it years ago. When George Bush Jr. first got elected, we were gonna ship it to D.C. as a thing. And then we didn’t and it’s still there.
MIKE D: Now we’ve accrued even more storage fees, sadly.
AD-ROCK: Do you wanna buy it? Because you could sell it.
MIKE D: You could make a great deal.
I don’t have the money, sorry. Another experience you guys write about is opening for Madonna early in your career, and how diametrically opposed you were to her fan base. Did you ever get confirmation from Madge on why she ended up keeping you on the road despite the fact that her fans didn’t like you?
AD-ROCK: Madonna doesn’t actually return our calls. So, I don’t know. We don’t know Madonna. It’d be cool if we knew Madonna, though, right?
MIKE D: Yeah, I don’t know what her take would be. Her manager at the time was a big-time Hollywood manager in his own right, and he was probably like, “Why are we having these guys who are going onstage insulting the audience every night and then just upsetting all of these children? We should probably not have them on tour.” And it just seemed like Madonna really could see, “No, no, this is gonna make them appreciate me even more. I’m saving them from these idiots.”
In 1985, you released “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” and it became a hit. But it also turned the group into a caricature of what you were initially trying to mock. When did you realize that song had become something you weren’t intending?
AD-ROCK: I don’t know. There were, I’m sure, several occasions where we realized that the ironic joke isn’t funny, or it’s falling flat.
MIKE D: It’s kind of a thing that has that trajectory too. I mean, you first [release the song] and you’re like, “Wow, this is hilarious, we’re actually doing this.” And you’re pulling it off, and we’re getting big. And then you look out and people aren’t laughing the same way you are. You’re like, “Whoa, wait a second. Let’s rewind the tape here a little bit.”
AD-ROCK: But then you’re getting a lot of attention, and you’re getting paid, so you’re like, “Oh, this is kind of awesome.”
MIKE D: Yeah…
You also write about your more problematic early lyrics, and how you reconciled with them later. Was there a come to Jesus moment for the group where you realized that some of that stuff didn’t reflect your views?
MIKE D: I think it makes a better story to say that there was this one moment, but I think the reality is you go from being sort of in this thing and laughing about it, and then you realize there are some people that aren’t laughing, and…maybe people were actually hurt by some of the things that you said. And then you actually start to have feelings for having hurt those people. It’s like a gradual thing that happens. We were lucky enough, or fortunate enough, that we got to keep making records through this trajectory. You know, a lot of people obviously don’t.
Do you remember getting the news that Licensed to Ill hit number one?
MIKE D: I remember being told. It was kind of this sequence of, “Oh, you have the biggest debut in the history of Columbia Records.” And we were like, “Huh? What?” Like, you know, Columbia Records is a huge label with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith, how could we be the biggest debut, or whatever? You know, this seems crazy, or kind of surreal because you’ve made this record and all of a sudden people are telling you statistics about it. You don’t feel so connected to it.
After Licensed to Ill, you moved to L.A. How did you deal with the lack of decent pizza and bagels?
AD-ROCK: It was definitely tough on us. Where did we used to go? Damiano’s for pizza. Pretty bad. Mr. Pizza was bad.
MIKE D: Actually, I feel like bagels only are good in…Well, see, this is the thing: bagels in New York — people are going to hate on me — f--- no. I’m not afraid.
AD-ROCK: Really? [New York] bagels suck?
MIKE D: They suck because every place, they make the bagels filled with air. Bagels aren’t supposed to be filled with air.
AD-ROCK: You don’t like Murray’s?
MIKE D: I like my bagel…No, Murray’s isn’t real bagels.
These are the bagel hot takes 2018 deserves, honestly.
MIKE D: I’m just putting bagels on blast right now.
AD-ROCK: Well, basically, Mike’s starting a bagel company, and it’s called Bagels on Blast.
In 1987, you left Def Jam and dropped Paul’s Boutique, which was critically acclaimed but didn’t initially find a footing with audiences. Did you feel discouraged about making music going forward right after the lack of commercial interest?
MIKE D: It was confusing. Looking back at it in hindsight, you can be like, “Well, there’s no ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ or ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ on Paul’s Boutique, so why would you think that it’s gonna connect with audiences the same?” But for us, in the moment, we spent all of this time and effort making Paul’s Boutique, and we were excited about it. Okay, this is gonna be great, we love the music we’re making with the Dust Brothers, it’s totally gone beyond what we’ve ever done. This is what we want to make. Then to all of a sudden have that come out, and it’s not this huge deal — the record company’s like, “You know what, guys? We kind of gotta focus on Donny Osmond right now” — it doesn’t feel great. But the interesting thing is that it gave us this space where we could do whatever the hell we wanted. Nobody wanted anything to do with us.
You started to experiment more in the studio, especially with your next record, Check Your Head. There’s that great story in the book about Yauch creating a cardboard tube to make the drums sound bigger.
MIKE D: Yeah, Yauch was a technical wiz. We gave him that name way back when and he lived up to it all the time. But that was one of the many, many Yauch stories. We wanted to get this big drum sound. He’s like, “Okay, here.” All of a sudden, he just sort of took charge. Like, “Put the drums in the middle of the room,” and then he starts making this cardboard tube around the kick drum. We’re like, “Huh?” And it worked.
Will this be the final Beastie Boys-related release? Do you have plans on doing any reissues, or do you have demos sitting in the vault?
MIKE D: There’s a lot of stuff, and there’s probably other stories to be told. But, I mean, it definitely was never like, “Okay, this is gonna be it.” That wasn’t the plan. At the same time, it wasn’t, “Okay, we’re gonna do this and then we’re gonna do 20 other things.” We’ve never been a band that’s been terribly good at planning things. This is the thing that felt right in the moment.
Beastie Boys Book is out Oct. 26