When a group has been around as long as Beastie Boys—particularly a band that has made such an indelible impact on popular music—every person’s connection to them is likely to be very different, and very specific. I wasn’t a huge fan of Licensed To Ill (1986) as a kid and missed the Paul’s Boutique (1989) heyday by just a few years, so my first strong memory of them was navigating Check Your Head while my parents succumbed to Parental Advisory paranoia and confiscated the CD to “protect me” from the band's corrupting influence. But it was too late. By the time mom and dad started fretting over the trio’s infrequent, and innocuous, f-bombs, I had already become a diehard fan, infected (like so many others) by their uniquely intoxicating combination of rap, funk, and punk that wasn’t just fun and exciting to listen to but self-referential, self-reflective, and actively inspiring.
Of course, they also had bars and absolute bangers. (“Intergalactic” will always and forever leave a smoldering crater on any dance floor.) But after disbanding in 2012 following the untimely death of Adam "MCA" Yauch from parotid cancer, remaining members Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz and Michael "Mike D" Diamond have spent the past few years reflecting on their experiences as a group—first with the exceptional Beastie Boys Book, and then with the Spike Jonze-directed Beastie Boys Story, a kinda-sorta live recitation/performance of key moments from their career. Between those two projects, they offered some intimate and unprecedented insights into the journey the three of them went on to become one of the most important and influential hip-hop bands in the history of the genre.
1. Beastie Boys originally wasn’t just a name, it was an acronym.
Beastie Boys formed in New York City in 1981 as a hardcore punk band. The name stood for “Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Inner Excellence,” which made no sense with a second “Boys” tacked on at the end. (They subsequently admitted that the acronym was invented after coming up with the name.) It also was immediately inaccurate, since the founding members included Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond, John Berry, and their female drummer Kate Schellenbach.
2. Beastie Boys’s first hip-hop single was basically a prank call set to music.
Released in 1983, “Cooky Puss” marked the first appearance of Adam Horovitz on a Beastie Boys recording. The single became an underground hit in New York City clubs, earning them minor renown and establishing a path incorporating hip-hop into their sets.
3. A lawsuit earned Beastie Boys their first real money as musicians.
“Beastie Revolution” the B-side of "Cooky Puss," earned Beastie Boys their first real income as a group when British Airways sampled the song in a television ad without the band's permission. A lawyer successfully sued the airline for $40,000, which was enough for the band to rent an apartment together in Manhattan's Chinatown, which they used as both living and recording space.
4. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard "Rock Hard," Beastie Boys’s first single as a full-fledged rap group.
After hiring NYU student and future Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin as their DJ—based purely on his dorm room speaker set-up, which included a bubble machine—Beastie Boys began recording rap music in earnest, inspired by early genre luminaries like the Funky 4 + 1. In addition to dropping Schellenbach as their drummer—an insensitive decision the band later regretted—the guys yielded to Rubin’s expertise as a producer with just one other single (T La Rock’s “It’s Yours”) under his belt.
For “Rock Hard,” Rubin sampled AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” which was subsequently withdrawn because they hadn’t sought permission. Decades later, the Beasties appealed directly to Angus Young for the rights to sample the song to add to their 1999 compilation The Sounds Of Science, but Young again refused.
5. Beastie Boys got into trouble on more than one occasion with their music sampling.
“Rock Hard” marked the first—but certainly not the last—time Beastie Boys ran into trouble with sampling. (More on this later.) But during the same period, they recorded the song “I’m Down,” which featured a Beatles sample, but given Michael Jackson’s ownership of the Fab Four’s catalog, they were similarly rebuffed. (A single featuring “I’m Down” and “Drum Machine,” a track credited to “MCA & Burzootie,” was unofficially released in 2007.)
6. Beastie Boys opened for Madonna during 1985's "The Virgin Tour."
Beastie Boys became tour mates with the Queen of Pop after her manager contacted Def Jam Records looking for Run-D.M.C. to open for her Virgin Tour. Run-D.M.C. charged too much. After label chief Russell Simmons told Madonna’s management that their second choice, The Fat Boys, were unavailable (even though Simmons never managed the Fat Boys), he volunteered Beastie Boys for the sum of $500 per week. They spent most of that time antagonizing Madonna’s teenage fan base with raucous, sophomoric stage hijinks, while recording the final tracks on their debut album, Licensed to Ill.
7. Licensed to Ill became Beastie Boys's calling card—and, almost as quickly, an albatross around the band's neck.
With Licensed to Ill, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin wanted to capitalize on the novelty of a full-length rap album by one of the few (if only) white performers in the genre. To create it, Beastie Boys threw themselves into a misogynistic, lunk-headed frat boy perspective they initially targeted for ridicule, not celebration. But “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” became an anthem for exactly the kind of people they were trying to make fun of, and their subsequent 1987 tour was heavily populated by exactly those kinds of drunken louts. A stage set-up featuring a giant inflatable penis and go-go cages filled with girls also didn’t dissuade critics from thinking they endorsed the lifestyle chronicled on their record. By the time they realized how far they had strayed from their satirical intentions, Beastie Boys had become worldwide rock stars.
8. Beastie Boys broke up after Licensed to Ill—but they didn’t know it.
Disillusioned by their own success with a record they’d come to dislike, the band was slow to begin recording a follow-up for Def Jam—especially after they realized they allegedly hadn’t earned any money at all from it, despite selling what would add up to more than 9 million copies over the next three and a half decades. Simmons claimed they breached their contract to record new music even though he had encouraged them to keep touring, which in turn kept them from recording new material. After the end of their final Licensed to Ill-related tour dates, the Boys went their separate ways, thinking it was just a break. But after they reconnected at the beginning of the recording process for Paul’s Boutique, Yauch told Diamond and Horovitz that he’d actually quit the band temporarily without telling them.
9. Adam Horovitz attempted to launch an acting career.
During the time after Licensed to Ill, Horovitz moved to Los Angeles and attempted to embark on an acting career (not counting his performances as a member of Beastie Boys in Krush Groove and the Run-D.M.C. vehicle Tougher Than Leather). He co-starred opposite Donald Sutherland and Amy Locane in the now-lost Lost Angels. In 2015, Horovitz told GQ that he hadn't seen the film since it screened at Cannes in 1989—and had no interest in seeing it again. He hasn't given up on acting entirely; he has taken on small roles in the intervening years, including a part in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young (2014).
10. Beastie Boys expected Paul’s Boutique to be their comeback. It wasn’t.
One very positive thing did come out of the time Horovitz spent in Los Angeles: He invited Diamond and Yauch to visit, and the three of them met Mike Simpson and John King, hip-hop producers for the Delicious Vinyl record label who employed computers for pioneering sampling techniques. The trio immediately fell in love with their sound and hired them to create the musical backdrop for Paul's Boutique, their 1989 follow-up to Licensed to Ill.
Contrary to popular belief, clearing all 105 samples used on the album (including 24 on the final track “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”) was relatively easy. But even if they were thrilled by the dense sonic tapestry that accompanied their evolving lyrics, fans weren’t immediately taken by the record. Opinion has changed over time though; today, Paul's Boutique is considered a masterpiece—both as a musical endeavor and a technical marvel.
11. Check Your Head catapulted Beastie Boys back to the top of the charts—and inspired a new creative freedom.
Prior to Paul’s Boutique, Beastie Boys signed a multi-album contract with Capitol Records. So even when their comeback fizzled, Capitol was obligated to give them money for another record. They used their advance to create G-Son Studios in the then-sleepy Los Angeles neighborhood of Atwater Village, where they not only had equipment and record space but a basketball hoop and a skateboarding half pipe.
Though they played on their earliest recordings, they really learned—and in many cases, taught themselves—to play the instruments on Check Your Head. The various influences of their adolescence, from hip-hop to punk to funk, pushed them to experiment and combine these sounds into what became a watershed moment for rap and rock reaching tenuous harmony.
12. Beastie Boys's creative endeavors during their time in Los Angeles weren’t only musical.
Around the same time they were recording Check Your Head, Beastie Boys created Grand Royal, a record label that allowed them to release music by artists they liked—starting with Luscious Jackson, an all-female rock/rap band featuring their former drummer Kate Schellenbach.
Over the next decade, they created Grand Royal Magazine, where they evidently officially coined the term mullet; launched the clothing label X-Large (whose name makes it really difficult to find vintage articles on eBay); and founded the New York-based publicity firm Nasty Little Man. After the release of Ill Communication, Yauch mounted the two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert, the biggest benefit concert since 1985’s Live Aid.
13. Beastie Boys helped usher in the Internet era for their fans (or at least people who went to their shows).
In the early 1990s, a computer programmer named Ian Rogers created a website (on the pre-World Wide Web) to answer questions and explore trivia about Beastie Boys. Within a few years, his little FAQ site became the definitive resource for all things related to the band. After launching Grand Royal Magazine, the band decided to make the out-of-print first issue available for free online and reached out to Rogers to have him help them.
Rogers initially turned them (and the money their label offered) down. But the Beasties persisted, and soon enough, he had created an official site where the band could publish information and updates—you know, all the stuff that every band does now. During their tour in 1995, Beastie Boys handed out floppy disks to ticket buyers (a decision they came to regret because people would throw them on stage during their performances). But their forward-thinking efforts to preserve their own legacy would become the standard for anyone creating their identity on the net for decades to come.
14. Spike Jonze directed "Sabotage," which is regularly cited as one of the best music videos of all-time.
In 1994, Oscar-winning filmmaker—and frequent Beastie Boys collaborator—Spike Jonze directed the video for "Sabotage." The video, an anarchic parody of ‘70s cops shows that perfectly complemented the song’s energy, was shot around Los Angeles with no permits. “[W]e just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” Yauch told New York Magazine. Even today, more than 25 years after its original debut, "Sabotage" is regularly cited as one of the greatest music videos ever made.
15. Several Beastie Boys videos were directed by Nathanial Hörnblowér, Adam Yauch's alter ego.
“Sabotage” marked a transition point for the band as they regained the success they had during their Licensed to Ill days, except on their own terms. The music video cemented their superstardom and brought Yauch's alter ego, Nathanial Hörnblowér, into the spotlight. When "Sabotage" lost the award for Best Direction to R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards, Hörnblowér stormed the stage to express his outrage (as a very confused Michael Stipe looked on). The official story is that Hörnblowér is Yauch's uncle from Switzerland. The real story is that Hörnblowér is a pseudonym for Yauch which he first enlisted on Paul’s Boutique (he created the cover art).
16. According to the band, Hello Nasty is Beastie Boys's best album.
If Check Your Head and Ill Communication felt like two parts of the same creative workflow, 1998's Hello Nasty—which is named for how the phone was answered at Beastie Boys's New York-based PR firm—marked the full realization of the band's independence and imagination. Long, weird, and fearless, the album effortlessly shuffles from booming dance floor fillers to introspective instrumentals, feeling entirely unrestrained and free for the first time. "Hello Nasty is our best record," Ad-Rock wrote in Beastie Boys Book then included a list of all the reasons why, including the fact that: “It has the song 'Intergalactic,' and that song is the f***in’ jam, right?!”
17. According to the band, To The 5 Boroughs is not their best album.
To the 5 Boroughs, Beastie Boys's follow-up to the Grammy Award-winning Hello Nasty, arrived in 2004, and it arrived with both some counterproductive restrictions and some heavy personal baggage. A planned tour with Rage Against the Machine was canceled after Mike D broke his collarbone in a bike accident, and by the time he healed, Rage had broken up. A year or more ensued with the Boys just living life, growing up, engaging in more ordinary adult activities. 9/11 and the cultural fallout affected the recording of the album, right down to the title, but Yauch initiated the process of recording insisting that the album be all rap—meaning no instrumentals or digressions like they’d done in the past.
“A good path to creating something mediocre is having rigid rules for what you’re making,” Horovitz wrote in Beastie Boys Book. The combination of these “rules,” and an effort to make something more “serious” and politically-minded, might have hobbled what remains a record with some amazing moments but nothing fully coherent.
18. Hot Sauce Committee was originally named for Elvis Presley's driver.
Rebounding from To The 5 Boroughs, Beastie Boys decided to swing in the opposite direction for their next album and record an album of all instrumentals. The result was The Mix-Up, which they toured while wearing suits like an old-school funk band. Moving forward after that album, which netted them a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album, they started work on a follow-up, a two-part opus that would bring their eclectic style full circle one more time. Though it became known as Hot Sauce Committee, one prospective title was Tadlock’s Glasses, which referred to Tadlock, one of their tour bus drivers, who worked for Elvis Presley. Presley gifted Tadlock a pair of gold-framed glasses that became a prized possession.
19. It will be tough for crate diggers to find the original albums that went into Hot Sauce Committee.
Hot Sauce Committee was conceived as a collage of samples from records that didn’t exist, which meant they would play instrumentals in different styles, then cut them up in a computer and combine them to feel like samples—even though the original “sources” didn’t actually exist. (In Beastie Boys Book, you can see some of the fictional albums they sampled, as they created fictional artists and titles and even designed cover images.) Ultimately, only Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2 came out, because the band actually lost the recordings for Pt. 1 on a train. (If anyone finds it, let us know!)
20. There’s a reason you haven’t heard Beastie Boys’s music more since 2012—and it’s not (just) because they disbanded.
Following Adam Yauch's death on May 4, 2012, the band effectively disbanded. (There is evidently some music recorded in 2011 that may one day see the light of day, but nothing yet.) Yauch’s will expressly forbid the use of any Beastie Boys music in advertising of any kind, in perpetuity. What this means is that companies cannot use a Beastie Boys song in their commercials.
Ad-Rock and Mike D have continued to record and produce music in the years since Yauch's passing, but they honor his legacy and their longtime partnership by refusing to ever perform again as Beastie Boys without him.