The Beastie Boys
“High Plains Drifter” (5.8MB)
This morning, I’m driving to work and the stunted horns that open “Brass Monkey” begin to play over the radio. I’m singing along when it hits me that this year is the 20-year anniversary of Licensed to Ill. 20 years…
It was my 11th birthday party and I was having a huge, backyard sleepover/campout. I’d invited all my friends from Dunedin Highland Middle School: John Koch, Greg Oreste, Ben Brandt, Ryan Foster, Archie Higgins, Jason Bayman – and some others I can’t even remember. One kid in particular I had to invite because he was a friend of John Koch’s and, although he was a jerk to me, he felt left out and I’m a sucker for guilt so invited him at the last minute. His name was Kevin Kline or something similar and he was surprisingly nice that night.
To get the point, I had asked my parents for Licensed to Ill for my b-day and I got it! Outside, in my party’s mega-tent, we bumped that tape over and over for most of the night and my bond with The Beasties began to seal.
When I moved to Cali, my desire for new rap grew by leaps and bounds and I was discovering one rapper after another. I rarely broke out Licensed to Ill over the next couple of years – too busy listening to all those early West Coast rappers.
In late Spring of ’89, I was at Jared Westermeyer’s house, playing Strider, when he asked me if I’d heard the new Beastie Boys’ album.
“WHAT?” I was shocked. How did this news pass me by? Was it good? When did it come out? Jared smiled and pulled out a tape. One of his older brothers had loaned him a copy.I was oozing anticipation. Jared pops the tape in his boom box, pushes play and –
I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it at all. This wasn’t The Beastie Boys I had fallen in love with that sticky, summer night back in Florida. Not at all. The music and samples were so busy and all over the place and when the tape finished and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s too bad,” and wrote off the group. It would be 6 years before I again heard Paul’s Boutique (and that it would become my fave Beastie album). But I would revisit The Beastie Boys well before then.
Nurse was the guy in Willow who I first remember playing Licensed to Ill in high school. I still had my copy, but it was pretty much collecting dust. But one day, Jay came to pick me up playing ‘Slow and Low’.
“Listen to that shit hit,” Nurse said as I hopped up in the cab of his truck.
“Is this the Beastie Boys?” I asked, not really understanding…this was for 6th-graders.
“Yup. Dug out my old tape. Forgot how good it was.”
The music sounded brand new to me as it pounded my ears through a high-quality stereo. Plus, so many of the references finally clicked. Wow. This wasn’t an album for 11-year olds. This was music for teenagers looking to party.
“Wonder what happened to these guys?” Jay asked.
“I heard their second album and it was wack. Sounded nothing like this.”
So we rode on over dusty, gravel-strewn back road after back road, asking no more questions, listening to the reverse cymbal on “Paul Revere” and wondering what had possessed us to ever put the album away.
The story ain’t over. Not even close.
I moved to KC. Olathe, to be exact. Senior year of high school. My buddy Pat tells me he and his girlfriend just went to a House of Pain/Beastie Boy show at Memorial Hall.
Again – surprise on my part.
“They played Memorial?”
“Oh, man, their new album is awwwwwesome.”
So he plays it for me. Again, what they’re doing doesn’t click.
“Why are they playing funk and punk?”
“It’s great, eh? It’s like weird rap.”
“Umm…here dude, let me play you some weird rap.” So I put on The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Pat shrugs it off, makes me a copy of Check Your Head and I listen to it a few times then forget about it.
So I go to KU. And one of the guys I live with is a B-Boy nut. And Ill Communication comes out and he asks me to go with him to Streetside on the day it’s released. I go. He gets. We listen. He loves. I think…sounds like Check Your Head.
So I quit college and move back to Olathe to try to find something else to do. I start hanging out with some guys I’d met the summer before: Jeff and Damien. Now these guys are some B-Boy fiends. 24-7, all they listened to. And one day, we’re enjoying the bong (yep – that’s the something else I’d found to do), and Jeff puts on Paul’s Boutique…
And I’m sold. One listen through in my altered state and I realize in a flash the grave error of my earlier snap judgements. This was not music for teenagers looking for a party. This was music for people who are on a whole other level. This is important and groundbreaking music. After Paul’s, more bongs and Check Your Head then Ill Communication. Then Licensed to Ill, then Paul’s again. I had become part of a cult.
Those albums, along with many illicit substances, shaped me and trained and challenged my ears. As I grew more familiar with the songs, and how they were assembled, I began to listen to how the band evolved through their teens and into their late 20s. One night, while enjoying the bong, I proclaimed to those who could hear through the thick cloud of smoke, “The Beastie Boys are our generation’s Beatles.”
Some laughs, some coughs, some “whattaya talking ’bouts?”
“Look: the Beatles started as a bar band, drinking beers and playing simple rock and roll. Then they started smoking weed and dropping acid and their music and attitude toward their music shifted – became more multi-layered and experimental. The guys became interested in Eastern philosophy and advocates for peace. The Beastie Boys followed an almost identical trajectory. The Beasties are to rap what the Beatles were to rock. Both have changed things forever.” (I made this statement well before the second wave of alt-rap came about in the mid-late 90s.)
“Dude, you’re smoking too much.”
Maybe, but I cling to the comparison to this day, even if it doesn’t hold the water I once thought it did. Because more important to me than the paths the two bands followed is that I feel about The Beastie Boys the way I imagine Beatles fans feel: that there is an unbreakable bond between myself and the music and that the music and the group, goofy as they were at times, spoke for me and my peers and our love of skating and rap and punk and dressing up in costumes and being annoying at times and being concerned at times and doing it all with a sense of humor. I don’t really know that The Beasties have had the reach of The Beatles, our little self-contained B-Boy cult probably skewed my perception of their fanbase. From where I sit today, however, I feel OK saying that I think The Beastie Boys are the most important rappers that have existed to date.
For 20 years they’ve been with me, doing their thing while I do mine. And this is a love letter to them, a feeble attempt to thank them for making me laugh, making me think, making me happy, hypin’ me up when I needed it and coolin’ me out during those bad trips.
The funny thing is, our little B-Boy cult followed the same damned trajectory as The Beatles and the Beastie Boys and countless of other young people who’ve come of age in a counterculture, be they hippies, punks, b-boys, goths or ravers. Our B-Boy cult is now made up of 30-year-olds. Maybe that’s why I have trouble seeing any true countercultures around me. I listen to the music and observe the scene and see the goths and hippies and b-boys and ravers…and they’re all co-opted. They became co-opted the day Nirvana broke, though I didn’t know it then, and I imagine that any subcultures are now so far underground that it would take more than my tired eyes to notice them. And that’s OK by me. I have remodeling to attend to and a baby pirate on the way.
I just hope that those new alternative kids have mouthpieces as imaginative and sharp as The Beastie Boys. I hope they are somewhere, growing and learning about the world, expanding their minds and wearing thin their souls, united under an artistry that drops science like Galileo dropped an orange.
[This is dedicated to Jason Feagans, Pat Winstead, Doug Doty, Brian Frisbie, Damien Bailey, Jeff Thorson, Victor Prieto, Howard Lynch, Jen Vopat, Rob Schamberger and all other members of The B-Boy Cult.]
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