The Birth of The Beastie Boys—An Oral History On The 25th Anniversary of Licensed to Ill.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, out May 3, is, according to the Beastie Boys, a return to their fundamental smartassery after 2004’s uncharacteristically serious To the 5 Boroughs, which was, in part, an attempted palliative for post-9/11 New York City. Explains Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, one third of the group alongside Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “MCA” Yauch: “Most of the shit we do is go down to the studio and try to make each other laugh.” That’s been the M.O. since the band first formed, in the early eighties, as high-school kids playing hardcore music—the rawer, faster subset of punk rock that was just developing. It would be another new genre, of course, that would make them legendary: By mid-decade, with the release of Licensed to Ill, their 1986 debut on Def Jam Records, and its massive success, the Beasties were unlikely hip-hop superstars.
Hot Sauce follows the release of “Fight for Your Right Revisited,”a surreal, 30-minute sequel to the original “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” music video for the band’s first hit single off Licensed to Ill, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. To mark that occasion, a look back at the birth of the Beastie Boys sound, as told by the people who lived it.
The Beastie Boys’ initial lineup was Diamond on vocals, Yauch on bass, John Berry on guitar, and Kate Schellenbach—later of Luscious Jackson—on drums, a core that had grown out of a previous group, the Young Aborigines. Horovitz was fronting his own punk band, the Young and the Useless, which would often split bills with the Beasties.
Michael Diamond: I went to Walden, this hippie school on the Upper West Side, and there was a student lounge with a record player, so between classes or if you were cutting class, you played records. There was a kid I was friends with who brought in Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin.” I was a little punk-rock kid, and I also liked dub and reggae. And then the second I heard hip-hop, I was like, “Oh, now I’ve got another one. I’m gonna love this.”
Dante Ross, friend and, later, Def Jam A&R exec: Hip-hop was black punk rock. It was dangerous, it was rebel music, and it just seemed like a natural evolution.
Diamond: We’d buy every [rap] twelve-inch when they came out and be really excited about them, and the next thing you do is you listen to them over and over and memorize every rhyme.
Kate Schellenbach: We’d sit around with my little RadioShack tape recorder, where you have to push down the two buttons at the same time to record, and Yauch would rap over [the Sugarhill Gang’s] “Apache.” He had the deepest voice, so he was the most believable. At one of these sessions, me, Yauch, and our friend Sarah Cox started a rap group called the Triple Sly Crew. At least it was a group because Adam made us buttons. We never performed or anything, but we had the buttons. Beastie Boys was a button first, too. John [Berry] and Yauch were making Super 8 films and badges and buttons. That’s when they came up with “Beastie Boys.” For a button.
Darryl Jenifer, bassist for hardcore pioneers the Bad Brains: We all used to hang out around the Ratcage Records store on Avenue A. It was almost like we were in college, like Ratcage was the quad. [The Ratcage label would later release the Beasties’ first EPs and singles.] We were up there eating pistachios, drinking soy milk, and we’d be selling a little ganja on the strip—selling our nickel bags to get our music going. And we would yell, “Beast! Beast!” when the cops would come. Mike and Adam and Adam used to be on the stoops, yelling it back to us. That’s where I believe “Beastie Boys” came from.
Tim Sommer: I had a radio show at WNYU called “Noise the Show,” and the whole hardcore scene had coalesced around it. In the early fall of 1981, I started getting phone calls from these screechy voices: “Play the Beastie Boys, play the Beastie Boys.” I’d never heard of the Beastie Boys. At one point I got whoever was calling, either Diamond or Yauch, to admit that there was no such thing as the Beastie Boys. It was an idea that they fooled around with, but they hadn’t done anything yet.
Eric Hoffert: My band the Speedies were extremely popular in New York until about 1981, and the Beasties came to all of our shows. Then when I went to NYU, me and my cousin David took our four-track up to [John’s loft on] 100th Street to record [the Beasties’ hardcore EP Polly Wog Stew]. I remember them as thoughtful, reflective, intelligent, intense kids. They were respectful, and they asked us to record them. What they became later, that was very different.