Beastie Boys meet world


October 29, 2004



As the Beastie Boys approach the age of 40, they're beginning to go gray and they're starting to show some wrinkles around the edges of those familiar sardonic grins. But they remain one of the most inspired, ambitious and raucous presences on the pop scene.

Touring in support of "To the 5 Boroughs," their first album in six years, Mike Diamond (aka Mike D), Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (Adrock) continue to offer a musically inventive, lyrically gripping mix of hip-hop and alternative rock, trading fluid rhymes that vacillate from silly pop-culture in-jokes to poignant political commentary with more lustful energy and youthful enthusiasm than most 18-year-olds can muster.

The group will be in Chicago for a show at the United Center on Thursday night. I spoke with Mike D, always the most loquacious Beastie, by phone in the midst of the current tour.

Q. I've been reading reviews of the tour as it crosses the country, and people seem to be having a great time with the dog act that opens the show. You've said that you wanted to make these gigs "pageants" and not just concerts. What did you mean?



  • 7:30 p.m. Thursday
  • United Center, 1901 W. Madison
  • Tickets, $30.50-$41
  • (312) 559-1212

  • A. We just wanted to kick it up a notch. We've done tours with other bands and so forth, and we just wanted to take it to the next level and have it be a pageant. And I think a good way of setting the tone of pageantry is by having the whole show start out with Bob Moore's Amazing Mongrels. I think part of what we do every time is to try to give people something a little different, and I would think this is probably pretty unique for us or any other band, to have the first act on be a canine act.

    Q. The United Center has more than 20,000 seats. Does the dog act work in such a big place?

    A. It varies a lot from city to city. I can't quite figure out when it's going to be a very receptive and good Amazing Mongrels crowd and when it's going to be a more dead one. I guess it just depends on the amount of potential dog lovers in the audience at any given time.

    Q. Have the dogs left any "presents" onstage before you guys come out?

    A. There was a supposed incident of a dog peeing on the DJ riser, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.

    Q. It seems like an appropriate segue to note that many reviewers are contending that the Beastie Boys have finally "matured," but that seems to be primarily due to the fact that some of you fellas are going gray.

    A. First you get a little annoyed about that sort of thing, and then you laugh about it. It's been a pretty long span of time, obviously, between our first records and now, so naturally you go through life and you change. That's what happens. In certain ways, your relationships with each other are innately affected by the state of fame as much as anything else, and then you just change naturally as well. I'm kind of stating the obvious here.

    Q. Well, it would be absurd for a band with a 23-year history to stay in exactly the same place for all those years.

    A. Or if you do -- the people who say, "I'm going to write 'You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party' for 20 years because that's what people like" -- they're not really putting their hearts into their music. You have to try something new.

    Q. Parts of "To the 5 Boroughs" are intensely outspoken about politics; I'm thinking of lines like, "George W.'s got nothing on we/We got to take the power from he." Many of the musicians who performed on the Vote for Change tour experienced a negative reaction from fans. I know that the e-mail I got from 9 out of 10 readers ran along the lines of, "I wish these musicians would just shut up and play their guitars."

    A. I'm shocked, because I would think it would be running 9 out of 10 in the opposite way. Because we've been on tour, I didn't get to see any of the Vote for Change concerts. In our show, it's a pageant, if you will, but we take all of one minute out to encourage people to vote and to let everybody know where we stand and what we feel. We encourage people to vote and ask them to vote against George W. Bush and for John Kerry, but that's actually one minute out of 90 or 100. To me, it would almost be dishonest not to take that minute out. It's such a crucial time, and this is such an incredibly important election for our country. It's the most important in my adult life.

    I feel the same way with our album. Of course, a lot of the album is just us having fun and writing lyrics in the studio, trying to make each other laugh -- having silly rhymes about what we've eaten for lunch that day or whatever. But at the same time, we made that record in downtown New York, where our studio is, and we all live close to Ground Zero. In the post-9/11 world, I think it would have been almost forced not to somehow comment on the situation at all.

    Q. It's been six years between albums, but you guys seem to be dodging the question of why it took so long.

    A. You'd think we would have come up with a good excuse by now. At this point, no one believes the old, "Having families and kids and taking time out to do that," or the other excuse of, "We were on tour with 'Hello Nasty' for a year and we needed some time off after that." I think when you get down to it, we're lucky. We feel really fortunate that we're in the economic position to really only make records when that's what we want to be doing together. We wait until we all want to sit down in a room with each other and make music -- when we want to do that more than anything else that we could possibly be doing in life -- and that's a great feeling. We're really lucky to only have to make a record at those times. In the current crazy situation of bands and record labels and everything in the industry, it's unfortunate that a lot of people are making records when they don't have that feeling.

    Q. What spurred the Beastie Boys to come together in the studio again for "To the 5 Burroughs"?

    A. Part of it was what was going on in the world. We all felt compelled, like, "Gosh, of course we have something to say now, and we want to get together and work through that." The other reason was that we're not yet at an age where we can escape our love for music and what a huge part that is of our lives. It's our shared life together: Our main means of communication is listening to music and making music, like, "Here, check out this record!" That's our common ground.

    Q. Was there ever a point during the break when someone said, "Maybe it's time to retire the Beastie Boys?"

    A. I think a lot of people outside of the group said that! [Laughs] But it honestly never occurred to us; we were never like, "We have to put the band on hold." We did the "Hello Nasty" tour, and then we decided to focus on some other things, but meanwhile we still had band things going on, like the "Anthology" CD and DVD, that we had to come together for. Then, finally, it was that time again where we were all with each other and we decided we all really wanted to do a record.

    Q. Tell me about making the album. What was special about this one?

    A. It's really kind of a mundane thing: We all just meet every day in downtown Manhattan, where we have our own studio, and we bring in ideas that each of us started on our own, on our computers in our home studios. We bring some of that stuff in and sift through it all together and say, "OK, that's my favorite thing" or "This I really like," and we come to a consensus on, "Let's start working on these six things." We also collaborate, saying, "I have something that would work really good with that" or "I have this really cool break for that part." There's a good amount of that.

    We always start with the music first. Probably the biggest difference between this record and other records we've done is that with technology being where it is, we could really do a lot of it unassisted. We could come in, just the three of us, and have a song and fire up Pro Tools, add a couple of things to it, listen and take out our notebooks, then grab the mikes and just try to impress each other. We'd kind of react off of each other, hear what the other guy was saying, and go, "That's kind of cool; let's do that." It builds from there, and hooks and choruses emerge out of that.

    Q. You were talking about trying to make each other laugh. Do you have any perspective after working with these guys for so long on what's so special about the chemistry between you three?

    A. Honestly, I would say that at the heart of this group is the exchange of our ideas and the way that our voices react to one another. But what that really is, I think I'm as much in the dark as anyone else. I can't articulate it.

    Q. Let's go back to 1989 and "Paul's Boutique," which remains the group's masterpiece and a high point in hip-hop history. As a critic and a fan, I've been disappointed by how few artists have tried to forward the music in that genre-hopping, psychedelic direction, picking up where the Beasties or De La Soul left off in the late '80s.

    A. I think you have some of that with Talib Kweli [who will follow the Amazing Mongrels as an opening act at Thursday's show], and Mos Def and Common. I would even say that Kanye West is the most commercially successful example of that. Like Common, he's a Chicago native.

    Q. We're proud to claim him! But while Kanye is going platinum, Common is still struggling to go gold. Sad to say, the most musically adventurous hip-hop is still much less successful than cliched gangsta rap like 50 Cent.

    A. But you never know. To me, Common is an artist who's one song away -- his next record, which he's doing with Kanye, could be the one that finally connects with a lot of people. Common is an artist who has a career, who's clearly very talented, and who's just one song away from having that song that changes his life and his career.

    As for "Paul's Boutique," I kind of feel like it's more your job than mine to talk about its importance or whatever; I don't really have the perspective. I will tell you one anecdote that sort of plays into your hypothesis, though. I remember when we were making "Paul's Boutique," we were in the studio and we got an advance copy of De La Soul's "3 Feet High and Rising." When we listened to that, there was a combination of all of us being really excited that it was such a great album but also feeling completely deflated and destroyed, like there was no way we were going to be able to do anything as good as that.

    Q. That brings to mind the Beatles talking about how they felt circa "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" when they first heard the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds."

    A. Well, I can't at all put us in huge shoes like that! [Laughs] But it was like we were huge fans but also competitors. It definitely compelled us to say, "We really have to work on our craft here." To some degree, you don't see that as a mass movement in hip-hop today, but there are always records that come out that inspire you. Kanye's album is a big commercial record that also holds up as an album. And I think that's great.