Licensed to Spill

Beastie Boys Book BY Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz. Spiegel & Grau. Hardcover, 590 pages. $50.

The cover of Beastie Boys Book

Few acts in pop-music history have a reputation quite as lenticular as that of the Beastie Boys. As such, their new memoir Beastie Boys Book (Spiegel & Grau, $50) seems to pinball from one reputational-perspective tug-of-war to the next. Are Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA innovators or carpetbaggers? Serious musicians or stumblers onto greatness? Agents of positive cross-racial understanding or flimsy bridges between cultures? Curious creative-class kids or schmucks?

All of the above, according to the stories told, and some merely hinted at, in this enjoyable but carefully circumscribed book, which is astute enough to render the group both as they imagined themselves and as they know they were seen.

On one hand, there are the Beastie Boys of distant memory: white rappers trying on costumes of masculine raunch, ironists too young and inept to avoid slipping into becoming the thing they were—ostensibly—trying to parody. And on the other, the Beastie Boys of later, and also now: still a little naughty, but also reluctant. Ambivalent about the chicanery that turned them into global superstars, and which they spent decades distancing themselves from. Hoping they’ll be forgiven.

The Beastie Boys, Tokyo, 1998.
The Beastie Boys, Tokyo, 1998.

Beastie Boys Book—the first substantive work from the group since the death of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012, from cancer—is a memoir in words and pictures, and also an attempt at reckoning by the two surviving Beasties, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The book is a holiday basket to look at—a colorful brick of 590 pages, overflowing with period photos that telegraph exuberance: in the studio with Run-DMC, squirting water guns at Madonna, even dating back to the group’s pre-fame days.

But the narrative it maps out—feverish when describing the group’s origin story as a teenage would-be hardcore band, then largely shrugging its way through several multiplatinum albums—is less cheerful. There are a few apologies, more than a couple it-was-funny-at-the-times. Diamond and Horovitz, each in his own way, wrestle with how much to celebrate the success of their group when the foundation it was built upon is wobbly and, in places, rotten. They’re willing to own up to the fact that the hydraulic penis they had onstage on the Licensed to Ill tour was a dim idea, but they also confess to hanging on to it, as if there might be some last dreg of mischief to wring from the bit.

A microhistory: The Beastie Boys were bohemian-parent, punk-aspirant teenagers in the cauldron of early-’80s downtown Manhattan, lionizing Bad Brains and Black Flag. They approached making music with an arched eyebrow, but diligently. After a brief stint playing hardcore, they became obsessed with rap music—they were especially fond of the Treacherous Three—and, eventually, became rappers themselves. After seeing a handful of hip-hop performances downtown, Diamond recalls, “Rap, in all its far-reaching ambition, was now It. Our hardcore punk world simply couldn’t compete anymore.”

Their debut album, the ecstatically juvenile and deeply entertaining Licensed to Ill, has been certified diamond, and by accelerating hip-hop’s race to the suburbs, became one of the most socially influential pop albums ever. It sped the genre’s infiltration into the American pop mainstream, and at the same time, it was credible within the genre. For a year or so, at least, the Beastie Boys had it both ways.

But it wouldn’t last. They disentangled themselves from Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the producer and executive who shaped their rise, and for more than a decade afterward, attempted to dismantle their fame and rebuild it on sturdier footing, whether by poetic sampling (Paul’s Boutique) or remaking themselves as a slacker funk band (Ill Communication). They also went out of their way to repudiate their younger selves—especially Yauch, who discovered Buddhism and devoted significant energy to social causes, including the movement for Tibetan independence.

As they once traded off lines in songs, Horovitz and Diamond trade off sections in this book: For the most part, Horovitz handles the feelings, while Diamond sticks closer to the facts. By their telling, the most joyful time in the Beasties’ career was when they were still puzzling together what sort of band they were going to be; Beastie Boys Book spends as much if not more space on those years than on Licensed to Ill. (There was also a fourth Beastie then, Kate Schellenbach, who did not survive their full pivot to hip-hop.)

“When Beastie Boys began, the majority of our group of friends were girls. Like, the coolest girls. It’s really embarrassing to think that we let them down,” Horovitz writes, adding, “We’d committed to the notion that we were now rappers.” That is, of course, a fraught perpective: It suggests that becoming “rappers” required—afforded?—some abnegation of their essential (white) selves, or perhaps that it liberated them from old notions of appropriate (white) behavior. Much of the early narrative about the Beastie Boys is about comfort with black colleagues—opening for Bad Brains, working with Simmons and Run-DMC. But one of the most jarring episodes in this book comes when Diamond recalls egging a black punk-scene acquaintance who’d become a bouncer but wouldn’t let them into the club he was working.

Still, rappers they became, and Diamond recalls chafing: “God, people really expect us to be these idiot caricatures of ourselves night after night. This kind of sucks.” They view this era of peak corrosion warily. Sometimes their shame is expressed literally, but more often it manifests in ambivalence about the trappings of celebrity. Horovitz writes excitably of a lost afternoon searching for old records in Kansas City and befriending a fellow digger. Several pages late in the book are given over to the group’s commitment to wearing costumes, whether onstage or in videos or out at parties or just while traveling. If their initial run in the spotlight was, in essence, an act, they come off as driven to continue to visually remake themselves, so as to distance themselves even further from their past.

Where their joy is untrammeled, though, is in the hundreds of images gathered here: flyers for hardcore shows in evanescent haunts; scribbled-down lyric sheets full of words that work better off the page; a note from the general manager of the Mondrian Hotel gently chiding Yauch for throwing things out of his window. They even include the British tabloid covers that excoriated them in 1987 during the Licensed to Ill tour (“POP IDOLS SNEER AT DYING KIDS”). If Diamond and Horovitz won’t celebrate their excesses in words, they’ll let pictures do the work for them, especially because they can be read two ways—as faithful historical documents, or as judgments.

Horovitz, when left to meander—his sections, especially, sound spoken more than written—captures the group’s wild and unlikely charm, as well as the ridiculousness of their surroundings, whether discussing their hippie weed dealer or the A&R man who never listened to their album. Occasionally, Diamond does too, as when recalling Q-Tip and Afrika Baby Bam playing basketball in the Beasties’ Los Angeles studio, wearing Timberlands and on mushrooms.

But you sense that this retrospective, while two-thirds of the group’s story, is in actuality much less than that. Maybe one one-thousandth of the really intriguing stuff is here—those missing events too raw for documentation, too 1980s for the 2010s. And Yauch, the group’s moral conscience, remains a shadow presence, pieced together via select anecdotes—impulsively abandoning the group to go snowboarding with new friends, pulling a fifteen-year prank on Horovitz, quietly arranging payment for the gender reassignment surgery of the person who released the first Beastie Boys EP, buying fifty cameras for a fan-shot concert film, and then returning them the next day. Yauch was “the friend that makes it happen,” Horovitz writes, and without his ballast, the Beasties are adrift.

Yauch was forty-seven when he died. And many others who stood alongside Diamond (now fifty-three) and Horovitz (fifty-two), or gave them a boost in their early years, have passed away. As this book makes clear, their scene was fragile. Haoui Montaug, Tom Cushman, Dave Scilken, Matt Dike, Peter Dougherty, Dave Parsons, Sean Carasov—all gone.

Several friends who remain were asked to contribute to this book, making for what is effectively a whole second volume woven through the memoir—a collection of writing inspired by and responding to the group, a kind of free-form Festschrift. Luc Sante writes about downtown New York in 1981 with Joseph Mitchell élan. The Lethem brothers, novelist Jonathan and graffiti icon Blake, recall the stakes of white boys participating in black culture. There are nightlife remembrances from Anita Sarko, who recalls how sweet the teen Beasties were, candid photos by Spike Jonze, and André Leon Talley dragging the Beasties’ outfit choices through the years.

And then there are the head-scratchers and the pranks—a fake highfalutin magazine review of Ill Communication, and a section on Nathanial Hörnblowér, Yauch’s director alter ego. From Colson Whitehead, there is a groovy fictional oral history of Cookie Puss, reimagining the Carvel icon as a tragi-romantic downtown scenester. But why is there a cookbook of recipes inspired by Beastie Boys lyrics by Roy Choi shoehorned near the end of the book? (Though in turn, that begs the question: Why wouldn’t there be?)

When Schellenbach arrives to have a say late in the book, it’s a relief. By this point, Horovitz and Diamond have self-flagellated quite a bit, but leaving her voice out had begun to feel purposeful. She is plainspoken in her heartbreak about what the group turned into under the guidance of Rubin: “When they were around him, they’d put on this hip hop swagger, make sexist jokes, and act like knuckleheads.” But she is forgiving—they reconciled years ago—and it’s clear that her perspective is really a proxy for theirs. The group’s “meathead mind-set,” she says, “was the exact thing we’d made fun of and been disgusted by as young punks navigating NYC.”

Everyone agrees about that now—the Beasties have come full circle, absorbing the wisdom of others and making it their own. Giving so much of their memoir over to other people might appear as disjointed. But it is probably the logical choice for a group that, over time, across many bumps in the road, has accepted that what others have had to say about them—good, bad, right, wrong, indifferent, absurd—is as key to their story as anything they’ve ever said themselves, and maybe more so.

Jon Caramanica writes about music and style at the New York Times.