Beastie Boys Biography

Former hardcore trio who initially found international fame as the first crossover white rap act of the 80s, and later earned critical plaudits for their eclectic approach in a musical genre not known for its experimental nature.

After forming at New York University, original guitarist John Berry departed after the release of the hardcore Polly Wog Stew EP, leaving MCA (Adam Nathaniel Yauch, 15 August 1964, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA), Mike D (b. Michael Diamond, 20 November 1965, New York City, New York, USA), drummer Kate Schellenbach (b. 5 January 1966, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA) and guitarist Adrock (b. Adam Keefe Horovitz, 31 October 1966, South Orange, New Jersey, USA), recently recruited from The Young And The Useless (one single, ‘Real Men Don’t Use Floss’), to hold the banner. Horovitz, it transpired, was the son of dramatist Israel Horovitz, indicating that far from being the spawn of inner-city dystopia, the Beasties all came from privileged middle-class backgrounds.

In 1983, the new line-up released the Cooky Puss EP, which offered the first evidence of them picking up on the underground rap phenomenon and the use of samples. ‘Beastie Revolution’ was later sampled for a British Airways commercial, earning them $40, 000 in royalties. Schellenbach soon departed reducing the crew to the core trio of Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz, now going by the hip-hop monikers of MCA, Mike D and King Adrock respectively. Friend and sometime member Rick Rubin quickly signed them to his fledgling Def Jam Records. They did not prove hard to market. Their debut album revealed a collision of bad attitudes, spearheaded by the raucous single ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’, and samples of everything from Led Zeppelin to the theme to Mister Ed. There was nothing self-conscious or sophisticated about the lyrics, Diamond and Yauch reeling off complaints about their parents confiscating their pornography or telling them to turn down the stereo. Somehow, however, it became an anthem for pseudo-rebellious youth everywhere, reaching US number 7 in December 1986, and UK number 11 in February 1987. Licensed To Ill became the first rap album to top the US pop charts at the end of November 1986, and reached number 7 in the UK charts the following January.

By the time follow-up singles ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ (number 14, May 1987) and ‘She’s On It’ (number 10, July 1987) charted in the UK, the Beastie Boys had become a media cause célèbre. Their stage shows regularly featured caged, half-naked females, while their Volkswagen pendants resulted in a crime wave, with fans stealing said items from vehicles throughout the UK. A reflective Horovitz recalled that this never happened in the USA, where they merely stole the car itself. More disturbing, it was alleged that the trio derided terminally ill children on a foreign jaunt. This false accusation was roundly denied, but other stories of excess leaked out of the Beastie Boys camp with grim regularity. There was also friction between the trio and Def Jam, the former accusing the latter of withholding royalties, the latter accusing the former of withholding a follow-up album.

The trio went their separate ways after finishing a fraught tour, with Yauch and Diamond working on solo projects and Horovitz appearing in Hugh Hudson’s movie Lost Angels. By the time they reassembled on Capitol Records in 1989, the public, for the most part, had forgotten about them. Rap’s ante had been significantly raised by the arrival of Public Enemy and N.W.A. , yet Paul’s Boutique remains one of the genre’s most overlooked pieces, a complex reflection on pop culture that is infinitely subtler than their debut. Leaving their adolescent fixations behind, the rhymes plundered cult fiction (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) through to the Old Testament. It was co-produced by the Dust Brothers, who subsequently became a hot production item, but stalled at number 14 in the US album chart, and number 44 in the UK. Moving to California and setting up their own G-Son studio, Check Your Head saw them returning, partially, to their thrash roots, reverting to a guitar, bass and drums format, aided by the keyboard playing of Mark Nishita (Money Mark). The album proved popular, reaching US number 10 in May 1992. In the meantime, the Beasties had invested wisely, setting up their own magazine and label, Grand Royal, whose first release was the In Search Of Manny EP by Luscious Jackson (featuring the Beastie Boys’ original drummer Schellenbach). Other signings included The Young And The Useless, DFL (Horovitz’s hardcore punk project), DJ Hurricane (also of the Afros), Noise Addict and Moistboyz.

In 1993 Horovitz pleaded guilty to a charge of battery on a television cameraman during a memorial service for River Phoenix. He was put on two years’ probation, ordered to undertake 200 hours’ community service and pay restitution costs. His connections with the Phoenix family came through his actress wife Ione Sky. He himself had undertaken roles in underground movies The Santa Anna Project and Roadside Prophets, and also appeared in a television cameo for The Equalizer. By this time, both he and Diamond had become Californian citizens, while Yauch had become a Buddhist, speaking out in the press against US trade links with China because of the latter’s annexation of Tibet. In 1994, Yauch set up the Milarepa Fund to raise funds and public awareness of the situation in Tibet, and organized the hugely successful Tibetan Freedom Concerts from 1996 to 1998.

The Beastie Boys’ 1994 album Ill Communication was another successful voyage into inspired Beastie thuggism, featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, and a second appearance from rapper Biz Markie, following his debut on Check Your Head. An eclectic mix of hardcore, hip-hop and funk, the album debuted at number 1 on the US album chart. The trio then released the hardcore Aglio E Olio EP, which contained eight songs blasted out in only 11 minutes, followed by The In Sound From Way Out!, a space-filler of b-sides and instrumental cuts from their previous two albums. The long-awaited Hello Nasty (a title inspired by their agent’s telephone greeting), their first full studio album in four years, was a return to a more sparse, hip-hop-dominated sound after the funky feel of Ill Communication. The album debuted at US number 1 in August 1998, staying at the top for three weeks. It also became their first UK chart-topper.

After eight years of sustained growth, the Grand Royal label was forced to close down in September 2001. Diamond cited ‘mounting debts, decreasing assets, and increasingly harsh industry conditions’ among the reasons for the closure. The Beastie Boys returned after a six-year recording sabbatical with 2004’s To The 5 Boroughs. The album demonstrated the trio’s enduring critical and commercial standing, receiving good reviews and debuting at the top of the US charts at the end of June.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.