Prior to interviewing Mike D for this piece, my friend and one-time employer set forth some “terms and conditions,” namely, that I correct a few errors I've made in writing about him in the past, such as:
1) AdRock did not play the beat on “Pass the Mic,” as their producer and my former landlord Mario C once, I thought, told me in a discussion about how Mike is more Lars Ulrich than Steve Gadd behind the drum kit;
2) AdRock did not do the whole song “Sabotage” in, like, an hour at the end of the session, as I was quoted as saying in the current Spin.
My Spin quote on “Sabotage” was juxtaposed with Q-Tip's, saying that Adam composed the music for “Get It Together.”
Mike: “And who did the music to 'Get It Together,' Bob? You know that.”
That was your shit, wasn't it? The Dick Hyman shit?
“See? And I get slighted again! [Classic Mike mock indignation] That whole thing they made, the oversimplification, that I'm the businessman, Adam's the musician and Yauch's the spiritualist – I mean, these people may as well be playing video games!”
The fifth full-length Beastie Boys album, Hello Nasty, takes its title from the way the super-duper group's publicity firm answers the phone. The firm, Nasty Little Man, is named for its hot-headed but warm-hearted head honcho, Steve Martin – not the gray-haired comedian, but the former hardcore guitarist (Agnostic Front) and critic (Thrasher, Spin) turned flak. (Go ahead, try it – call Nasty Little Man's offices and hear them answer “Hello, Nasty!”)
And that in a nutsack is how 34-year-old bassist/Buddhist/ball-buster Adam “MCA” Yauch, 32-year-old drummer/dreamer/diplomat Michael “Mike D” Diamond and 31-year-old guitarist/goof-off/goldsmith Adam “King AdRock” Horovitz, a.k.a. Beastie Boys (not The Beastie Boys, and don't call 'em Beasties), for the better part of two decades have done more for the White Negro than Norman Mailer ever dreamed. Kids across America wake up every day to find out that overnight they've become black, just like Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man – the only difference being they don't try to remedy the situation by bathing in milk.
Yet Hello Nasty is at first, even second glance not exactly a conceptual title like, say, Tales From Topographic Oceans, though it should be noted that on Beastie Boys' current tour of America's arenas (including September 11 and 12 at the Forum – SOLD OUT) the band (augmented per usual by keyboardist “Money” Mark Nishita, their new DJ “Mixmaster” Mike, percussionist Alfred Ortiz and punk drummer Amery “AWOL” Smith) will perform “in the round,” on a rotating circular stage that doesn't rotate totally like the one Yes used to yada yada yada on, but! . . .
“Bob, you know, pretty soon I'm gonna have to hit our Rush-like stage.”
No, it's like Yes. You're “in the round,” right, Mike?
“Yes. And yes. With a small y and capital Y.”
Do you actually rotate at times?
“There are some rotations. Did Yes rotate?”
Not as much as you, I hope.
“How often did Yes rotate?”
So despite the seat-of-the-pants way they no doubt came up with the top-selling album's title, despite the scandalously cheapo cover art of the new LP, despite the whole anticlimactic kit and caboodle that is Grand Royal, their boutique-label-cum-pop-culture-empire, despite the erratic concerts and absurd interview responses that seldom confirm their reputation for being the best and brightest band in the land, and, of course, not despite but because of their deliberately low-fi music and hopelessly highbrow lyrics, Beastie Boys have gotten not just by but over via sheer shock-the-bourgeoisie Situationism.
Thus, after mulling over what to call the album for who knows how long, one of them must have called the publicist one day and (“Hello, Nasty!”) DING! the bell goes off and a light goes on and a bright idea for an appropriately vague title that will enter the lexicon of lamebrains forevermore is finally arrived at. What does it mean? What doesn't it mean? Hello, Nasty!
One thing Hello Nasty has meant is Goodbye L.A. It's the first Beastie Boys album to be recorded in their native NYC since the flaky-fluke debut Licensed To Ill. It's also their best-selling album since that 1986 Def Jam disc sold in excess of 4 million copies Stateside alone. Jealous or dismissive as any Angeleno worth his or her salt should feel about the fact that Nasty was recorded in New York and not here, the album does, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how disturbed you are by the way they came, saw, conquered and caught the first train, plane or automobile out of L.A.), contain several of the best cuts the trio has ever done.
But like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Beastie Boys made a mess and flitted off, leaving others behind to clean up after them. Grand Royal headquarters coasts along, Rufus the dog waits at the gate for Mike to come home, the house that Adam Horovitz and Ione Skye bought only a year or so before they split is rented out. As for the network of friends the band had and still has, who knows how they feel? It's safe to say they miss Beastie Boys; the band, on the other hand . . .
Mike, do you miss L.A. at all?
“Uhhhm, not really – like when we were in New York, I really didn't miss it and was actually kind of scared to go back. When I finally did get back out for a visit to L.A., it was really nice. I missed, you know, seeing some friends, and especially spending some quality time with The R[ufus].”
After the tour, are you going to re-settle in New York?
“I'm not sure. I figure I'll be geographically confused for a while. It probably depends on what Tamra's gonna do, and then . . . just figure it out.”
Is she traveling with you guys now?
“She was, and she just went back. Then she's meeting us in New York.”
So, uh, how are things with you and Tamra, in that sense?
“She was in New York for pretty much the whole winter and the spring.”
What I was afraid to ask Mike was, well, what I'm afraid to write here. Let's just say there were rumors – as Mike himself says on the new LP, he's a Scorpio, “so you know I'm very sexual.” But Mike and his wife, Tamra Davis, have a strong relationship. She's a tough cookie. I'd still be crapping my drawers in Mike's guest house if she hadn't taken charge of the situation in the immediate aftermath of the big quake in January '94 (“Put your shoes on! Don't light a match!” – Mike, she says, jumped out of bed and started running). Then again, they were both working in different cities for quite a while and . . . Anyway, what's Mike's favorite band? Enuf Z' Nuf.
I was even more afraid of bringing up what might be the real reason Beastie Boys loaded up the truck and moved away from Beverly: Adam and Ione. I have never seen such a happy couple. And yet. Apparently he's been spotted in Olympia with Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill. That was a while ago, to be sure, but since that time I don't think he and Ione (“She's the cheese and I'm the macaroni”) have patched things up. I just assumed that Adam had to get the hell out of here and go back home for a while. Certainly his best new songs (not raps but virtual blues) – “And Me” (“Once again I'm all wrapped up in me/My best friend's my own worst enemy”), “Instant Death” (wherein he returns home after the split to find his mom and best friend still dead and unable to help mend his broken heart), and even “Song for the Man” (“What makes you feel/That you have got the right/To look her up and down?/What makes this world/So sick and evil?”) – are the saddest ones on Nasty.
Of course, Adam's publicist (Hello, Nasty!) said, “He won't talk about that,” and in fact somehow it couldn't be arranged for him to talk to me at all. Not that over the phone I could have done much. My attempt to bring it up with Mike was . . .
Maybe you could help me on this, Mike, about Adam Horovitz moving back there, you know, and not being with Ione. I'm not sure how all that worked out, but . . .
[Spoken as Russell Simmons-style exaggerated septuagenarian Negro a la Fred Sanford or his friend Grady] “I'm not gonna address that! [turning to publicist Shelby Meade] You know what Bob just asked me about? [feigned indignation] Bob Mack, this interview is over! I'm putting my publicist on the phone.”
[Pleading] No, I'm just trying to, it seems like –
[Confidentially] “You're not gonna go into, like, a whole thing on that, I hope . . .”
[Unconvincingly] Noooooo . . .
[Speaking to someone on his side of the line about his latest project, “a guide, only for people I know, it's gonna be – check it out – city-by-city, in this order: yoga centers, vegan or vegetarian food, record stores and maybe pawn shops/used equipment stores.”] “That was Cey” [Adams, art director on both the debut and latest album].
Yeah, I noticed his name in the credits.
“It was actually really fun working with him after . . . [trails off]. Aw look, why did we end up moving back to New York? Yauch kind of like had the lead. He missed New York and took the initiative of being back there. Then, when it came to recording the record, it was like, okay, well, it would be fun for all of us. So we all three of us looked forward to being in New York for a little while to record. Then it was very much in the same way when we first came out to L.A., when we had no real plan on moving there but just ended up staying to make Paul's Boutique. It was much more analogous to that.”
How much more fun was it to work in New York again?
“It's hard to say more fun, because there were a lot of things that were fun about being in L.A. and being in G-Son [Studio] with the basketball court in it, and our circle of friends. There was a lot of fun to that. But it was sort of nice to get back to, you know, a lot of friends that we maybe hadn't been around as much in a while. As well as our families. And, uh, just, you know, walking around together. Whether it's riding bikes or walking.”
The actual feel of New York – walking, not driving, plus all the kids there and being in such close proximity to more hip-hop and whatnot – must have had a big impact.
“I think it does in some way, but I think it's kind of oversimplified, or overrated. I've noticed that writers comment on that, saying like, 'There's a lot of hip-hop on this album, so certainly that must've been influenced by the fact that you were in New York.' And I think, yeah, though we very well may have gone back to playing a lot of hip-hop on this record if we'd been in L.A. I think wherever you are influences what you do, but . . .”
It's not as simple as that?
“Yeah. That's what I'm trying to say.”
What Mike is saying is that Hello Nasty is selling like hot cakes (681,000 copies the first week, a couple hundred thou per since then) to every Tom, Dick and Harriet not just because it was made in New York. And certainly not because, as the street buzz had it before the record came out, Nasty is a radical departure from the direction of the last two records (Check Your Head and Ill Communication) and a return to the Sargasso Sea of sarcasm and B-Boy bouillabaisse of silly similes and familiar samples found on Paul's Boutique.
In fact, Nasty follows the format of a few funky instrumentals, a smattering of semi-rock semi-songs and a handful of historicist hip-hop that seemed so stupid fresh on Check Your Head and increasingly just stupid on Ill Communication. The only real departure is, thank goodness, from the trio's impulse to play hardcore, which I didn't mind but which many bitched about for its lack of authenticity.
And while there's no obvious standout rocker, no “Sabotage,” the slap-in-the-face conspiracy rant from the last record, and no “So Whatcha Want,” the bitchen bullying bad boy from Check Your Head, there are several forays into uncharted territory where even no Beastie has gone before. In addition to their not-half-bad Latin jazz jam (“Song for Junior”) and the more-Lancelot Link Secret Chimp-than-Super Ape Lee Perry lark (“Dr. Lee, Ph.D.”), these new stylings include a Yauch bossa nova (“I Don't Know”) that really is kind of boss, Mike's out-of-character Neil Peart complaint about encroaching electronicization (“Remote Control”), a lilting Lilith Fair/Curved Air a kind of cut with watery-Doorsy organ sung by their fellow NYC musician Brooke Williams (Picture This”), and Horovitz's trio of vital mellow-outs – the Al Kooper-era Dylanesque jug jam (“Song for the Man”), an electro-infantile Kraftwerk-meets-Beach Boys beaut (“And Me”) and the creepy-not-weepy bittersweet Ouija board plea for his late best friend, Dave, and late mom, Doris, to help him get over the bummer presumably brought on by his marred marriage and subsequent exodus from Los Angeles (“Instant Death”).
These tunes are basically bourgeois ballads, rather adult. So the Big Question is not so much “Where do they go from here?” (after all, how long can this 30-something gang growl and prowl onstage for provincial pubescents?) but more like “Isn't this where they should go from here?”
Probably not, because the thought of Beastie Boys without rap is as heretical as the thought of rap without Beastie Boys. For 14 years now, since 1984's “Rock Hard” sampled AC-DC to even greater effect than Run-DMC revitalized Steven Tyler (and thanks a lot for that, Run), they have made the grade (“Got an A from Moe Dee for sticking to themes”) by, first, earning the respect of black audiences, and secondly by continuing to cut the mustard by refusing to rehash the Rick Rubin-formulated secrets of their early success. Because urban radio – the eternal rotation of “Brass Monkey” on Power 105 notwithstanding – isn't on their jock, and because audiences at their concerts are a sweaty sea of reddened necks and dirty white faces, the ignorant assume that they are irrelevant to and not above and beyond day-to-day hip-hop. But playlists of black music can be just as unyielding as Jim Ladd's wack classic-rock programming, and the fact that not many white faces are seen at hip-hop shows never led any pundit to opine that teen crackers no longer want to kick Cross Colours like Corky Nemec.
At any rate, of the 22 tracks on Hello Nasty, about 14 are raps – “about” because Mike's “Remote Control” is fetchingly “rockist,” as his friend Robert Christgau might lament, while Mike's other solo vocal, the delightfully dippy “Dedication” (“To all the people in the Dead Sea/To all the people in Newcastle, where Venom come from”) and the Lee Perry guest doctoral dissertation are just that: dedications and dis-sertations, full-clout shout-out filler that may be less filling but still tastes great.
Of Nasty's 11 “formal” raps, at least four – “Putting Shame in Your Game,” “Three MC's and One DJ,” “Electrify” and the obligatory-though-less-hectoring-than-usual Yauch solo sermon “Flowin' Prose” – are not exactly the coolest cubes in the ice tray. Yet a fair amount of the raps are killer, not murder. “Intergalactic,” with its Vocoder chorus and cosmic (un)Kool Keithisms, starts making sense in addition to dollars after a few listens. And the album's opener, a deliberately interminable battle-type tape of calisthenic rhyming called “Super Disco Breakin',” vastly improves upon “B-Boys Makin' With the Freak Freak,” the old-school fiasco of similar intent from the last LP. Meanwhile, the buoyant second single, “Body Movin',” and the remarkably fun (not just funny), warm (not just cool) and human (not just superhuman) “Unite” both achieve sweet-and-sour vocal colorization that complements unusually pastel-y rhythm tracks.
But it's the frighteningly sarcastic “Just a Test,” with its relentless almost-rock chord changes, that's worth the price of submission, as it reassures would-bes, coulda-beens and contenders not to worry, even if they're “Like a broken clock that can't tell time/Like a thick-ass book filled with wack rhymes.” No matter, these three stooges grin, this is just a test . . .
Actually, this is not just a test, it's an emergency the likes of which Randolph Mantooth never sank his teeth into – and whatever else you can say about them sunny beaches, Beastie Boys always emerge unscathed from whatever emergency they fall into. As much popularity as they've cultivated, as much of pop culture as they've molded with their bare hands like God Himself made man from clay, there will always be something vulnerable about Beastie Boys. They're always on the hot seat, never entirely accepted by not so much the know-nothing Neanderthals of the mosh pit but their classic-rocker older brothers and the like.
Because in the end, you're either on the bus or off, Beastie Boys being not just a band but a way of life. Neither rap nor rock, mod or rocker, old-school or new-, East Coast or West, AM or FM, MTV or VH1: Beastie Boys are all these and more, none of these and less. Which is to say, they are pure perfect pop – not in the Paul Westerberg way, but in an Andy Warhol sense of the term.
It's words, rhymes, acrobatic verbiage that Beastie Boys paint with. Now, you may feel too mature to allow yourself to love a line like “I got the spice/You bring the sauce/You can kiss my ass/You funky boss!” But ludicrous as their lyrics may seem, they slyly admit, “A slight distraction can get you paid/And at that type a shit I paved the way.”
And however flaky Beastie Boys can afford to be, don't be fooled. They're not just dreamers, they're doers: “There's no time like the present to work shit out/That's what I'm going on and on and on about.” You, too, could be as cool as them; all you need is the willpower: “There's no difference between you and me/But I rock the mic so viciously.” How many kids will take that challenge? Too many, all of whom will find out, the hard way, that this is not just a test. It's a pop quiz, and you'd better be prepared.
Ironically, both my peers (mid-30s) and the swifter early-20s young-'uns I know agree that what they like about Hello Nasty is the music, that the words are beside the point. After all, they believe, how can someone their age relate to kids half as old, and how can someone their age tell a young adult anything but what they already know?
Perhaps only something personal, such as the disturbing references AdRock makes to wanting to join his friend Dave “Shadi Rock” Skilken in the hereafter, and his wish to die an instant death: “All I wanna know is when is check-out time/So I can be in heaven with the rhythm rock rhyme/And when I'm with my man Shadi Rock at the gates/We'll be rockin' rhythms over disco breaks.”
Until then, these poets who know it (all too well) will have to endure their fair share of doubters. But before you pick up the mic and try to bust your own rhymes, let me tell you a little story.
When I worked for Mike as the editor of the first two issues of the now defun(k)t Grand Royal magazine – a conflict of interest you should take into account now that you've finished this article – I complained to our mutual friend Eli that Mike was a bad speller, as opposed to Thurston Moore.
Eli replied that, nevertheless, Mike D is probably a better speller than I am a rapper.
A couple of days after that, I came across a Jewish proverb that seemed to make a similar point. “All cantors are fools,” it said, “but not all fools can sing.”