As music fans, we may have many favorite bands during a lifetime. Many posters on our bedroom walls, many memorized verses. But when the smoke clears, there's usually one band you can look back on and think "these guys raised me, they remained the definition of cool throughout the years, I wanted to be like them and studied everything they did." For me, and for many others across generations, that was the Beastie Boys. With the heartbreaking passing of Adam Yauch, I can't help but reflect on the influence they had on me.
Until I was about 10 or 11, I grew up listening to rock: a salmagundi of '70s classics and a mild obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I can safely say that the Beastie Boys were my gateway into hip hop, a genre that changed my life. My older brother Dave played guitar in bands and I basically followed him and his friends into their musical forays. When "So What Cha Want" came out, that opened a portal and we haven't looked back since. Everything about that song and its video was coolness personified: the skater clothes, the distorted vocals, the scratching... So Dave borrowed the Check Your Head cassette from a friend, as well as their previous album Paul's Boutique, and he made dubs for us. Of course, the Beasties had already made a huge impact by then. As important as Licensed To Ill was, I only got into it later in my fandom. And frankly, that album's beer-guzzling party ethos spoke less to my young self. Not to take anything away from its importance -- the Beasties broke down racial barriers, topped Billboard charts, toured with Run DMC and Public Enemy and, as Rick Rubin famously said, "brought hip hop to the suburbs." But I was 4 years old when that album came out so I guess I missed the memo.
So here I was listening to Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head, completely engulfed in their sea of cultural references. Where did all these sound bytes come from? How did this patchwork sound so cohesive? I didn't really know about sampling and I was discovering it all at once. Dave and I studied the album art too. He wanted to buy a Kangol hat like they wore (and he did, from some Jamaicans whom he impressed by name-dropping Parliament-Funkadelic). We were just two white kids trying to piece together this rich and fascinating culture. The opening line from "So What Cha Want" said "plug me in just like I was Eddie Harris" -- who was Eddie Harris? An old jazz head? That's how we got into record digging. I remember when I finally understood that the "two sealed copies of Expansions" that Mike D rapped about was a Lonnie Liston Smith album! It's like their lyrics were full of code and we wanted to unlock it.
Before the Internet, we were getting our culture from them. Dave was getting into graffiti and the Beasties rapped about that too; the legendary Eric Haze even did the album art for Check Your Head. Of course, they weren't the first ones to dig up samples or wear baggy pants, but they brought it to the doorstep of our Jewish Canadian household and did so with charm and wit. These guys were the ultimate erudite pranksters. That's what we wanted to be, and they showed us how to do it respectfully without trying to act like something we're not, without being poseurs. I think that's why the rest of the rap world embraced them so much: they were just being themselves, vibrant New York youths with endless curiosity and a knack for catchy records.
By the time their fourth album Ill Communication came out, we were anticipating it the same way that a few years later we would anticipate Wu-Tang Forever... but we never would have gotten into Wu-Tang if we hadn't started with the Beastie Boys. At that point I was 12 years old and flirting with the idea of DJing, or at least learning how to scratch. My brother gave me the red vinyl 7inch for "Sure Shot" and there was a remix that started with an acappella dedication to MCA: "Like my man Yauch, will I use a fork? And never ever ever am I eating f*ckin' pork." That was the first sentence I ever scratched. Every day, coming home from school, on my father's turntable, until it became virtually inaudible. Ill Communication also featured "Bodhisattva Vow," Yauch's oath to Tibetan Buddhism.
These guys were maturing in unexpected ways. At the time, MCA's activism went way over our heads, but now I admire the path of a man who became so close to the Dalai Lama while mainstream America still mistook him for a college frat brat chugging Budweisers. That was part of the beauty of the Beastie Boys though: they didn't need to grow, but they did, and we're all better for it because curiosity is contagious.
Groups that mark a generation are ones that go beyond just releasing music, ones that are cultural vectors, with an actual iconography, with such good taste and vision as the Beastie Boys. They founded one of the coolest labels and magazines of the last 15 years, Grand Royal. Their interviews were hysterical. They also had the absolute best music videos of any band in history. Their level of irony was miles ahead of anyone else. The "Hey Ladies" video made fun of afros and platform shoes back in 1989! No one was doing that then. "Sabotage" mocked '70s cop flicks, again before anyone else. How many of us adopted the nickname Vic Colfari after that one? Many of their videos were directed by Yauch himself under the alias Nathaniel Hörnblowér, an avant-garde genius from the Swiss Alps.
I first met the Beasties in 1998, during the Hello Nasty tour. They hired my good friend and mentor Mixmaster Mike as their tour DJ and gave him full rein on the music of the show. I can't even explain what that meant to me, as a young DJ full of optimism, to see one of the biggest acts in the world put such trust in Mike. Their opener was long-time collaborator Money Mark, who also hired a friend of mine as his DJ: Kid Koala. So through those two connections, I tagged along for their Montreal and Toronto shows. What I recall from walking around backstage was their basketball nets set up by the dressing room, Biz Markie cracking jokes and Adrock wanting to go record shopping. I went to see another one of their shows in 2004. On this tour their opening acts were Talib Kweli and... a dog show. Yes, literally, dogs jumping through hoops and doing tricks in the middle of a stadium at a rap concert. More than 20 years into their career, these guys were still irreverent as ever.
In 2007 I got a call from Money Mark saying that the Beasties were listening to my brother's band Chromeo and wanted to have them be the opening act on their upcoming Canadian dates. That's when everything went full circle. I felt so proud and appreciative at that moment. It also showed something about the Beastie Boys: they were forever curious, forever personally invested in everything they did. We can only hope to carry on in their tradition.
"Because you can't, you won't, and you don' stop..."