From gigs with spraying beer and an inflatable phallus to charity events for Tibet, the Beastie Boys are masterful at contradictions but that, Mark Edmundson reckons, is what makes them great
Take an objective look at the Beastie Boys’ musical output over the last 25 years and in all honesty it’s pretty patchy. Patchy but fun-filled. Rarely do we see a group so switched on – they’ve been rocking their whole implausible career for kicks. Who wouldn’t love them for that? Through sneering, shouty lyrics, experimental beats and goofy videos, Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA have suited themselves and ridden their luck from one album to the next.
A politically incorrect, wise-guy Jewish punk trio with a penchant for the then black-only hip hop scene was surely not top of many an A&R wish list in the early 80s, yet they scored rap’s first number one album, dragging the art form into the mainstream. They popularised multi-layered sampling, then brought in live instrumentation, ripped it up and started again. And they did it all by goofing off and taking the piss.
It’s a formula that clearly works. There should have been no coming back from novelty hits like ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ and ‘Fight for Your Right’ (a track inspired by Ad-Rock and Mike D being fingered by the fuzz for bumming about in beer helmets), but next thing you know they’ve hooked up with the Dust Brothers, turning out fans favourite Paul’s Boutique.
Furthermore, the album retrospectively applauded as hip hop’s Pet Sounds or Dark Side of the Moon (steady now Rolling Stone) was received poorly enough for the Boys to score a hiatus in LA where they could dig for samples and dick about on instruments, spawning a return to commercial glory with Check Your Head.
And if Mike D hadn’t got sauced and ploughed his car into the gate of their then studio/hang-out/basketball court, the ‘G Spot’, the world at large might never have been granted an audience with long-time collaborator and one-time carpenter, Money Mark.
Seemingly almost every hare-brained scheme the group has pursued has been for shits and giggles. A promised fan newsletter is proving too costly to put out? Launch a magazine, bring in Q-Tip for an interview, bang on about mullets and slap a flexi-disc of Biz Markie singing Elton John on the cover.
Tired of traipsing to the docks to pick up the industrial clothing you like? Start a clothing label, call it X-Large and punt it to skaters.
Feel like recording some Bluegrass? Do it, hand Country Mike’s Greatest Hits to pals as a Christmas present.
Peeved that Spike Jonze’s ‘Sabotage’ video didn’t get that MTV award? Send MCA’s Swiss director alter-ego Nathanial Hörnblower up on stage to protest during Michael Stipe’s acceptance speech. The Beastie Boys know how to have a ball, and this is important because that’s what we wanted a piece of as record buyers, and as much as their lyrics reference in-jokes and parlay from their wasted days on the court, on stage they bring the party to us. Be it scantily clad young ladies in cages 20-foot high beer cans and giant mechanised, inflatable phalli (a stunt that announced them to the world but won them few critical plaudits on their License to Ill tour) or their adoption of matching lab coats, revolving stages and TV banks, the Beasties were arguably the first to bring rock’s grandeur to a hip hop show.
They’ve come a long way from frightening the US teenyboppers on Madonna’s 1985 Virgin tour, one they had to politely ask a sporting Madge herself if they could stay. At the time they were genuinely despised, taken for the anarchic frat-boys they were sending up.
Today they are international treasures that throw black-tie gala events, and the transition has had little to do with the music, however critically acclaimed or publicly well received. The Beastie Boy image has been self-managed from subversive animals to harmless, kooky good-time guys. Long gone are the nights in British cells for volleying beer cans from the stage and press allegations of uncaring attitudes to the sick and needy. Now they are better known for Tibetan benefit concerts and mobile phone amnesties.
And as they’ve matured the Brothers Beastie have not forgotten the importance of bringing a sense of occasion to proceedings. Of hip hop’s elder statesmen there are few that have stayed the course and fewer now unwilling to rest on their morals. Some might claim that their latest album The Mix-Up – a collection of jammy funk instrumentals – was a disappointment, a directionless, apparently ham-fisted drawl of lounge funk (which in places, it was) but their live shows will always prove real value for money.
To argue that musically the Beastie Boys no longer matter is to miss the point. How much did they ever matter? Yes, they have championed experimentation and touted hip hop as everything from trash-punk to high art, but to what end? For every Edan they’ve inspired there’s a Limp Bizkit.
What the BBs offered hip hop and the music scene as a whole was personality, their inimitable joi de vivre, defined by their loony videos, outlandish get-up and on-stage antics; always larger than life -- on occasion, literally.
They have a sense of fun and adventure that has – and continues – to rub off on those around them, that is their product and that’s what they’re selling live. In this respect they have more in common with the likes of The Flaming Lips than either their hip hop or punk peers. You needn’t be an aficionado of the BBs to enjoy their performance.
You could have one cherished album, perhaps the mid-90s assured cool of Ill Communication, one song, say the supersonic psychedelia of ‘Intergalactic’, or you may have never really paid the Beastie Boys any mind, but Horovitz, Diamond and Yauch will still show you a good time. So let’s hear it for the Boys: daft and high-minded, childish and greying, but hey, when have they never been a riot.
Oyster Stage, Friday