Feelin' free to talk trash and have musical fun
‘A friend was givin’ me a hard time about this the other day,” says Adam ‘Ad-Rock” Horovitz. ‘They said: ‘You’ve been doin’ this since high school—how have you only had eight albums? That makes no sense.’”
There seems to have been something that has always stopped the Beastie Boys from operating on the timescale to which most bands stick.
The brat-rap superstars of the late 1980s have grown into shrewd music-business mavens with record labels, magazines and film production companies vying for their creative attention. And when they have got around to making albums, those records have sketched out new possibilities, reminding anyone who cared to listen that the hip-hop genre they grew up with is about taking sounds, styles and inspirations from across the musical map and turning them into something new and definably your own.
But, as Ad-Rock’s friend pointed out, eight records in almost 30 years is a pretty poor return.
Two years ago, though, it looked as though Ad-Rock and band mates Michael ‘Mike D” Diamond and Adam ‘MCA” Yauch were going to break into what was for them a sudden gallop.
Barely two years after their previous album—admittedly, an all-instrumental affair called The Mix-Up rather than a ‘proper” album—they had finished a new one. Called Hot Sauce Committee Part One, it was to be released in the spring of 2009.
That June the trio undertook a promotional trip to Europe, giving interviews to media in which they explained that Hot Sauce Committee Part Two—‘the weird shit” they couldn’t fit on to the album—would arrive within a year or so, possibly as a series of seven-inch singles.
Then, on July 20, in a video posted on YouTube, Yauch broke the news that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the parotid gland and a lymph node on the left side of his neck. Surgery would be routine, but the album would be postponed.
In October 2009 Yauch told the Beasties’ email list he was ‘feeling healthy, strong and hopeful that I’ve beaten this thing”. A year later they announced first that Hot Sauce Committee Part One had been shelved but that Part Two would be coming out ‘on schedule” in the spring of 2011; then, as Yauch wrote: ‘Strange but true, the final sequence for Part Two works best with all its songs replaced by the 16 tracks we originally had lined up in pretty much the same order we had them in for Part One.”
The widespread conclusion—based on a confirmed release date and the back-to-normal goofiness of the announcements—was that Yauch had recovered. But this was not entirely the case. ‘Reports of my being totally cancer-free are exaggerated,” he said in a statement in January this year. ‘I’m continuing treatment, staying optimistic and hoping to be cancer-free in the near future.”
Speaking now, Yauch’s band mates confirm their friend’s medical problems are not yet over. ‘He’s doin’ OK,” Horovitz says. ‘He’s still in treatment, so it’s not 100%. But things are lookin’ good. We’re not touring, we’re just getting the record out, and we’re not making any plans until he is better. Which is definitely gonna happen.”
‘It’s a very strange thing,” says Diamond. ‘Unfortunately, we’ve had a high attrition rate of friends growing up in New York, but more from drug overdoses and crazy shit like that. This is actually the first time that a friend who is a contemporary—basically one of my best friends for life—called me up to say: ‘Hey, I’ve got some really bad news’ and having a really serious illness. And when you’re friends for a long time, and one of that group of friends gets a very serious, potentially terminal illness, it’s just kind of like — it’s a game-changer, if you will.”
Though they are a band who have built a career out of behaving like naughty schoolboys, the Beasties have not shied away from serious themes. Galvanised by Yauch’s travels to Tibet, they staged several huge concerts to support the cause of freeing that country from Chinese rule.
And between the one-liners and pop-culture references, their best songs are often peppered with sociopolitical seasoning. So if these eternal teenagers’ response to their close encounter with mortality is to laugh a little louder, party a little harder, that should come as no surprise.
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two revels in the kind of instinctive lyrical and musical fun the Beasties seem to have made their own. In 2009 they explained how its joie de vivre was in some ways a response to the times of its creation. The same thing had happened with their previous rap album, To the 5 Boroughs, a record that rang with the defiance of liberal New York natives responding both to the terrorist attacks on the city in 2001 and the way a right-wing government dealt with them.
‘During the course of making To the 5 Boroughs, the United States was going round invading different countries and we had a complete moron as president,” Yauch told the Guardian in 2009. ‘We’d be on our way to the studio and either walk past soldiers on the street in New York or see newspapers about us invading or threatening to invade some country, and I think a lot of that ended up feeding into the mood of the record. But with [Hot Sauce Committee], part of it was done much more with the thinking that Bush’s term was almost over, and the latter part was recorded knowing that Obama had been elected. And there’s probably a lot more sense on our part that we can be free to just talk trash because someone else is gonna be responsible for what goes on in the world. I definitely feel like, could it all be going this right?”
A quarter of a century since their emergence as gifted rappers and superlative satirists, the album is a perfect reminder of why so many people still care so much about the Beastie Boys. They may look as though they are making it all up on the spot, but those in-jokes and elaborate rhymes are crafted with the precision and care of masters of the art. This is the secret of their success: as seriously as the trio takes the job of getting the music, lyrics and accompanying visuals right, the results look and sound like ebullient, uncomplicated fun.
Personally and politically, the new album still gives an accurate reflection of the feeling in the Beastie camp today, even though it was made before the discovery of Yauch’s cancer. Although there are no plans beyond giving him time to get well, Diamond and Horovitz agree that, if their friend’s illness affects their music at all, it is likely to push them to ever more ludicrous extremes.
‘I have a feeling the next record is gonna be the most insane party record you ever heard,”
Horovitz says. ‘Because if you go through something like what Yauch is goin’ through ... I mean, shit. After that, you must feel pretty good.”
Diamond says: ‘I’m always careful to even guess, at any juncture, about things before we do them. But in an odd way I almost feel that it could more intensify the goofing-around aspect of what we make together. Because that’s the release, that’s what you really value it for. When we’re all together, are we gonna want to have fun together and remember that? Or are we gonna wanna kind of hang our heads low and mope around? No, we’re gonna wanna really enjoy it, and savour those moments.”—