Their songs are party starters, their rhymes are smarter, funnier and tighter than most and their contribution to the evolution of hip hop and rock music is immense.
There was a significant evolution in the career of the Beastie Boys, both in terms of their music and personality. The band's early misogynistic lyrics were hugely at odds with the socially conscious songs that came later. Likewise, their social and political activism belies the immature image the band had carved out in their early years.
But most importantly, much of their music is timeless. Their party anthems show a very healthy respect for great music of the past, while their style continually pushed the boundaries of modern hip hop, alternative and popular music.
Relive all their best tracks and some great archival interviews on the Beastie Boys J Files with Caz Tran, from 8pm Thursday 23 April.
The Young Aborigines were a four-piece hardcore punk band formed in 1981 by high school friends Mike Diamond (Mike D), Kate Schellenbach, John Berry and Adam Yauch (MCA). By 1982 and their first releases – first, as part of the New York Thrash compilation, then with their own EP Polly Wog Stew – the band had become the Beastie Boys.
The band took inspiration from the thriving hardcore scenes all across America.
"The first time I saw Black Flag was at the Peppermint Lounge in New York," Mike D told triple j's Richard Kingsmill in 1992. "Henry [Rollins] and Ian [MacKaye] from Fugazi – or Minor Threat at that time – all those guys from DC came up to watch the show. That was the first time we really saw an ill hardcore show like that. That was the start of the DC vs New York hardcore battle. A big thing back then."
Shortly after Polly Wog Stew's release, Berry left the band and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) took his place.
"I became less and less interested and started missing rehearsals," Berry told Spin in 1998. "A couple of times I showed up really fucked up on crystal meth."
Together, this new group made an experimental hip hop/dub single called 'Cooky Puss' that indicated the band were already beginning to look outside of hardcore. Once again, they had been inspired by their peers.
"Bad Brains are one of the best bands ever," Diamond said to Kingsmill in 1992. "I've seen more incredible Bad Brains shows than I have of any other band that I have ever seen play."
"I was talking about seeing Black Flag for the first time... We had seen the Bad Brains a bunch before that, there wasn't this crazy scene around it but we had seen them before that.
"They were just these four guys that got up there from Washington DC who played this whole new kind of music. What they were probably rooted in listening to as musicians was jazz fusion or whatever. But they got up there and they played this music that was louder and tighter and faster than anything and everything."
The same way I felt about punk rock I felt about rap.
- Mike D
New York in the 1980s was a melting pot of musical styles that was unlike anywhere else on the planet. So, when the Beastie Boys decided they were tired of the staid hardcore scene, they had plenty of inspiration to make different music.
Mike D says hip hop immediately connected with him and his band mate.
"I was a punk rock kid," he told triple j's Zan Rowe in 2014. "We all were. We also listened to a lot of post-punk like ESG and Liquid Liquid. As soon as I first heard rap, especially when rap records started to come out, that was immediately for me. It had this raw energy and it was completely different. The same way I felt about punk rock I felt about rap. 'That's for me, for sure.'
"I loved groups like Minor Threat and Black Flag and Flipper, but then things started to get a little bit more boring and we found ourselves spending all our time listening to rap records and memorising every word to every rap record. So that's where our energy went.
No one ever told us 'you guys can't make a hip hop record, you guys are a hardcore band'. Whatever. We just did it. We never thought for a second that we can't do this.
- Mike D
The band had a big break after British Airways used a sample of their song 'Beastie Revolution' in an advertisement without permission. The band received a sizeable amount of money (reportedly $USD 40,000), which allowed them to set up an apartment and studio space where they could live and work. It was at this location, 59 Chrystie Street in Chinatown, New York City, that the band refined their transition to hip hop.
One big inspiration and formidable figure in Beastie Boys history was Rick Rubin. The super-producer was an NYU student when he started DJing for the Beastie Boys as DJ Double R in 1984. Schellenbach blames him for her eventual departure from the band.
"Rick’s influence was really hard to deal with," she told Spin. "Everybody in our crew was very open and not sexist at all, and Rick was this piggish guy from Long Island, or wherever the hell he was from. He was really sexist and homophobic, and they were all getting into his persona because they thought he was cool. And they were also getting into what they thought a hip-hop group was supposed to act like, grabbing their dicks and talking about girls. It was very disappointing and alienating."
The Beastie Boys’ bratty behaviour in their early years caused a few upsets, not just with Schellenbach. The band reportedly wanted to title their debut album 'Don't Be a Faggot', a name rejected by their label, Columbia Records. Instead their 1986 debut was titled Licensed to Ill, the lyrics riddled with sexually aggressive, violent and occasionally homophobic content.
Their song 'Girls' has often been pointed out as one of the most sexist pieces of music ever released, though Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn't remember feeling that way upon its release. The common argument and justification for this kind of behaviour is that it was simply tongue in cheek, though in hindsight she realises her inherent privilege might have informed her judgement.
"I remember never finding the song 'Girls' anything but hilarious, though I recognise now that our amusement came from a place of unique privilege. There we girls were, living independently, getting educations, with nobody to tell us to ‘do the dishes, to clean up my room, to do the laundry.’ Hell, we barely did that stuff for ourselves — the very idea we’d ever seriously listen to any man’s commands to do it for him was laughable."
Comedy was an enormous influence on the Beastie Boys.
"I think we grew up on all these comedies we would watch all the time – with Chevy Chase and Bill Murray – that whole era," Diamond told ABC TV's 7.30 last year. "Like Caddyshack and Stripes and Meatballs, films like that. That was always a big influence for us. It felt like that's where we came from."
The Licensed To Ill tours featured women dancing in cages, giant inflatable penises and boorish attitudes from the three rappers on stage.
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has to got to be through
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect till the end
- MCA in 'Sure Shot', 1994.
In 1999 Adam Horovitz wrote a letter to Time Out New York magazine apologising for Licensed To Ill’s lyrical content.
"I would like to take this opportunity to formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record," he wrote. "There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. We have learned and sincerely changed since the ‘80s. We hope that you’ll accept this long-overdue apology."
The lyrics not only stopped being offensive, but called for change in the sexist and homophobic attitudes of others.
Now who in the world do you want to fight?
It's against the system, we should unite
Homophobics ain't alright
If you learn to love, then you might love life
- Ad-Rock in 'Alive', 1999
The band went so far as to petition their peers to cut any violent, misogynistic lyrics out of their sets, which resulted in a fairly public stoush with The Prodigy about their song 'Smack My Bitch Up' in 1998.
"That particular song is just promoting violence towards women," Horovitz told triple j that year. "The approach we were trying to take was to not bring it out and make it a public thing. We thought we'd just call them up, one band to another, and say we didn't feel comfortable with this. 'Could you not play this song?' There are all these young people out there listening to that who are gonna be influenced by it.
"We've put a lot of things out there in the past that have created a lot of misconceptions and perpetuated negative things towards women. We just wanna make a statement about this.
"They said 'the song doesn't mean what you think it means'. But the meaning is blatantly clear. Obviously the lyrics to that song do have a specific meaning to people. You can't just say 'oh it doesn't mean that'.
"They decided to play the song anyway and went ahead and said from the stage 'no one can tell us what to do. Beastie Boys can't tell us what to do. They told us not to play this song but we know what you want.'"
"The intention was not in any way to infringe on someone's freedom of expression," Diamond continued. "We felt it was necessary that we let them know how we feel. You can't affect change in the world by just sitting back and not speaking out. We let them know this is how we feel – if you play this song, it's gonna feel weird for us because we have a lot of problems with it. We have issues with it.
"We've been in that situation where we've put music out there that definitely doesn't represent how we feel now. We're in the process of changing ourselves. We tried to let them know that."
"Maybe ten years ago on the Licensed To Ill tour when someone says they didn't want us to play this and they felt uncomfortable about it, maybe we would have said 'so what?'," Yauch added. "That's what they said to us. So maybe it seems hypocritical."
"In a way I understand where they're coming from, because it's tempting to try and be rebellious and try and go against what society thinks," Diamond said. "So in a sense they're thinking 'we're gonna do this thing that's kinda rebellious'. But the fact is it makes a lot of young people think there might be something cool about violence and specifically about violence towards women. And there's nothing cool about that."
The band matured through the 1990s and a trip to Nepal changed Adam Yauch's life and attitude for good.
"The first time I was really exposed to Tibetan culture I was in Nepal," he said at a Sydney press conference in 1999. "I was trekking in the Himalayas and I met some Tibetan refugees who had just come over the mountains on their way to India to meet the Dalai Lama, they explained that they weren't going to go back to Tibet until Tibet was free."
Yauch began the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in San Francisco in 1996 in conjunction with the non profit Milarepa Fund and there have been 11 events in total since then.
"It's based on nonviolence," he said at the Sydney press conference. "Their struggle is based on having compassion for all beings. It can be a model for looking at ways to resolve conflicts through dialogue, discussion and without violence. It seems like it's more relevant in the world now than ever. Especially looking at situations like Kosovo and what recently happened in Colorado.
In a sense by focusing on Tibet we're not just working to benefit the Tibetans, but also we believe it will benefit all of humanity.
- Adam Yauch
"It can function as a model and other struggles can look to it in the future as having succeeded and we can all learn a great deal from it."
When discussing their change in music and attitude from the '80s through to the late '90s, Diamond said it was no big deal. People change over time, he says.
"It's very easy to look at us from 12 years ago and look at us now and say 'Oh look at what a big change there is'. But the reality of this world is that everyone's constantly changing and growing all the time," he told Kingsmill in 1999.
"We're all going through here in this world, you look at that span of 12 years and it makes sense and I think it's a lot less dramatic of a contrast than just looking at one end to the other. The progression."
The city of New York is such an important part of the Beastie Boys' music that it almost feels as if the city itself is a member of the group. While there were periods of time where the group were living and working in Los Angeles, the cultural diversity of New York and its street culture has always been right there in the band's music.
"I feel really, really fortunate to have grown up there," Diamond told Zan Rowe. "I don't think we could have become the group we became without having grown up [in New York]."
In a less globalised world and without the benefit of the internet, there were no places on earth that offered the musical diversity of a place like New York City.
"It was a unique time," Diamond said. "To have heard all of that music that I heard all at the same time, you could only do it in one place in the world at that time. Now you can access all that music from anywhere in the world at any time.
"I feel super lucky that I got to be in these places where bands would come through and play or DJs. See this hip hop group of this punk rock group or whatever."
The ultimate love letter to New York City came with the band's 2004 record To The Five Boroughs.
"We were real happy to be in New York and we just kept talking about how much we love New York," Horovitz said to Kingsmill in 2004. "So we thought, you know what, let's just dedicate the record to New York."
"It's a good place to be," he said. "Maybe it's because New York gets such a bad rap. Everybody says New Yorkers are violent and rude people."
The record was the first music Beastie Boys had released since the September 11 attacks, an incident which Horovitz said affected them greatly.
"It affected the outlook of everybody in the world, everybody saw that happen," he said. "We were standing out on the corner when it happened, saw the whole thing. It's hard to explain, it was a really sad thing to happen. It makes you think about life more and what's important and who's important and all of that stuff."
Throughout much of the Beastie Boys career, the three MCs were incredibly close friends. They also kept a close bond with the people who worked with and for them. Regularly, they would refer to their crew as family.
"There definitely is a strong family aspect," Diamond told Kingsmill in 1999. "We've been together for so long and our relationship with each other is probably analogous to being a family in terms of being supportive and listening to each other. And at the same time, recognising the fact that while everyone might not agree on everything at any given moment that you've got to figure things out that work for the good of the family. Sometimes it involves a bit of compromise and a bit of self-sacrifice, but it's all good in the end."
When a member of the family fell ill, it changed the band for good. Adam Yauch discovered he had throat cancer in 2009, which forced the cancellation of tours and the postponement of their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.
The treatment was unsuccessful and Yauch passed away on May 4, 2012. When a member of the family was no longer there, it was clear that the band was over for good.
"We're done," Horovitz told GQ earlier this year. "Adam Yauch started the band. It's not like a thing where we could continue without him."
Beastie Boys never made music for anyone but themselves and their friends, the group maintained throughout their time together.
"We're just so focused on coming up with stuff that all three of us together all like and appreciate," Diamond told Kingsmill in 1999.
"Maybe beyond the three of us our producer Mario Caldato Jr and some other people around us who get to hear it. It's almost created for this small world. The fact that this thing that we create for this little world then translates to this much bigger world is kind of just miraculous to us, really."
"The only people that we made Licensed To Ill for were the people who they hung out with," Def Jam's Russell Simmons told Spin."Those guys didn’t make records like 'Fight for Your Right (to Party)' because they thought they’d make any money. It was a fucking joke."
When it came to constructing music, the band always preferred to do it together.
"With computers and samplers and stuff we all write music and stuff at our own houses for some of the songs that are on the record," Horovitz told Richard Kingsmill in 2004. "But usually we just show up – all three of us, we do everything together – we show up, order food, hang out, eat, talk about music, make music, gossip, fight or whatever we feel like doing that day," he said.
Creating when the three are apart doesn't usually end well, Horovitz said.
"It just lends to more fistfights and that's not a good thing," he jokes. "The two of them are awful people, awful people. That's what I'm saying, and I've got broken bones to prove it too."
"It's weird that we sit around in this room and make music that I think is funny and my brother thinks is funny. It's weird to think other people out there are into it. Hey, it's fine with me."