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The Beastie Boys Origin Story: Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz on Their Roller-Coaster Career
Mike D. and Ad-Rock are just the same as when I first met them in the mid-80s. When I catch up with them at their Bowery hotel to discuss their fantastic new Beastie Boys Book — part oral history, part cookbook, part graphic novel, and so much more — they’re still loud, brash, funny and fully of life. But they’ve also logged a lot of miles in the intervening years, with epic highs and crushing lows, not least of which was the loss of the heart and soul of the Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch, to cancer in 2012.
All of it is covered, with the characteristic flair you’d expect from a couple of middle-class kids who turned the music world on its ear in the late 80s, and who helped usher hip-hop onto the charts and into the mainstream, in Beastie Boys Book, and the phenomenal all-star audiobook version, which includes guest turns by everyone from Elvis Costello to Snoop Dogg, and is sure to be a Grammy contender in the Spoken Word category come February.
Formed as a New York City hardcore band in 1981, Beastie Boys struck an unlikely path to global hip-hop superstardom. Beastie Boys Book is their story, told for the first time in their own words. From the revealing and hilarious accounts of their transition from teenage punks to budding rappers; their early collaborations with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin; the debut album that became the first hip hop record ever to hit #1 — Licensed to Ill — and that album’s messy fallout as the group broke with its label, Def Jam; the subsequent move to Los Angeles, and rebirth with the genre-defying masterpiece Paul’s Boutique; their evolution as musicians and social activists over the course of the now-classic Beastie Boys albums Check Your Head, Ill Communication and Hello Nasty and the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits conceived by Yauch.
For more than thirty years, this band has had an inescapable and indelible influence on popular culture. Beastie Boys Book lays out why, in all its colorful glory.
Rock Cellar sat down with Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, to talk about the group’s origins, and why writing their story, on their own terms, was so important.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot of information here, and it’s a great story. When I was writing out my questions, I realized I had several pages and I hadn’t even gotten to ‘84, ‘85 yet.
Michael Diamond: Well, that’s kind of how it was with the book, too, where I thought we had written all these stories and then realized we’d only gotten to the Madonna tour.
Rock Cellar: Right. Well, but that period, New York City in the early 80’s, in Luke Sante’s chapter at the beginning, and the formative stuff, is probably the most interesting part to lots of people anyway, and it’s probably most interesting to you, reflecting back on it. But it’s super evocative, too. For folks who don’t remember, he puts you there. Music was on the subway, it was coming out of the bodega, you walk down the street, you’ve got a boombox, with WBLS playing, and everywhere it’s the same song. Do you think people who weren’t there can relate to that? Because it instantly put me back there. But do you think people who weren’t there, who are trying to get a taste of where the Beastie Boys came from, will have a sense of what it was all about in those days?
Michael Diamond: I mean, I hope so. That’s the goal, right? I guess we just got to feel like the New York that we grew up in, and went out in — Adam and I were talking about this earlier — to meet up with each other in an age long pre-device … You didn’t know where people were going, you only knew where to go because we all knew where your friends might be, so you went to the places where you were likely to see your friends, and that place would pretty much always be a show or a club or whatever. But obviously that New York is long gone. But at the same time we could’ve only made what we made and become what we became as a band having been in the middle of that world. So that was one of the premises when we started on the book. We were like, “Well, the only way we can possibly explain ourselves is to explain that world.”
Rock Cellar: The Beastie Boys origin story.
Michael Diamond: Yeah. Because without that, the rest wouldn’t have made any sense. Let’s say, if you were 22 or whatever, I don’t know if our story would make a whole lot of sense …
Adam Horovitz: It’s not that long ago, like, it’s not —
Rock Cellar: But it’s such a different New York.
Adam Horovitz: Yeah, but it’s not like we’re talking about being in ancient Rome … or being there when they were building the pyramids.
Michael Diamond: Yeah, it’s not Pompeii.
Adam Horovitz: Or Paris in the ’20s. I’m just saying, you have to get it, that it was a little bit fucked up, and buildings were all empty and there was crime and all that.
Rock Cellar: So is the book for your average fan? Because this is a fairly big book, and an adventurous book, with a big publisher. A lot of people are not going to know a lot about your origin story. You clearly spent a lot of time getting that part of it across. What was the point in spending so much time on that scene again?
Adam Horovitz: It’s just important to us. You mean the early days, the early ’80s?
Michael Diamond: The hardcore specifically or all of the …
Rock Cellar: Both.
Adam Horovitz: It was an important time to us. I mean, everybody looking back on their teenage days thinks that their teenage days, their era, was the shit. At least I assume so. I don’t know — ravers in the ’90s must look back on that and think that’s where it was all happening.
Michael Diamond: Yeah. No, I’m sure they’re like, “Remember when we used to meet at Liquid Sky?”
Adam Horovitz: The next generation of like, dubstep or whatever the fuck, you know what I mean?
Rock Cellar: Skrillex …
Adam Horovitz: That’s what I’m saying. So some 17-year-old now, their places and their scene is just as important, and 30 years from now they’ll look back and talk about how important it was to them. So for us, obviously, it was very important to us. We feel like it was very important time creatively, culturally and all that stuff, because, in New York, there was just a lot of shit happening that blossomed into a thing that’s a big deal now. That’s still around. That’s still current. That you can look back on origins and the things that were boiling up back then.
Michael Diamond: It was our age and place, right, so it was more influential to us than anything because of what Adam said, but that echoes exponentially because of what New York was, too. A New York that was then very different. It’s an interesting thing, because in this day and age, all of that, in a way, you can access and read, you can listen to everything and see every painting and read every poem, that came out of there on your phone now.
But in terms of what we’re really trying to convey is that New York was the only city in the world at the time where all that was happening concurrently, and we were part of this thing that enabled that to happen. And we were the weirdos!
We were New York City kids — we were some of the few who actually grew up here — and it was our playground, but it was really a playground that was populated by the weirdos from whatever town they were from anywhere in the world, that migrated to New York.
Rock Cellar: Right. And found the other weirdos.
Michael Diamond: And found the other weirdos, exactly. So that’s the New York migration tale.
Rock Cellar: Books like this have become a way for artists looking back on their careers who want to reach fans, but who don’t maybe have a new album or don’t want to just do another reissue or whatever, to tell their story and reach those fans, and maybe change the narrative a little bit, or correct the narrative. What was the mission behind doing the Beastie Boys Book to you guys, and also who were you trying to reach?
Michael Diamond: You mean what demographic were we trying to capture? (Laughter.)
Rock Cellar: There are questions I have to ask you.
Adam Horovitz: And they’re all questions we have to answer honestly. There’s not one moment that has been during the production of this book where we thought, “This is going to reach these people.” There was no marketing moment, ever, in this entire process. The only time it might have been that would be when one of us said, “Oh, we’ve gotta put that in there, because real Beastie Boys heads are gonna think that shit is real. Maybe no one else is gonna like it, but the ten people that are real Beastie Boys fans are gonna like that shit because it’s stupid.”
Michael Diamond: Or how many things do we have in there where we sat in a room — because there’s always things we spent a lot of time working on — and we were like, “Wow. No one’s ever going to like this. No one’s ever going to notice this.” It’s just going to be the three of us in this room, and we’re obsessing over this detail and nobody else is ever gonna pick up this stuff.
Adam Horovitz: But that’s kind of what we’ve been doing for years.
Michael Diamond: Yeah, that’s kind of like what we’ve done, for a career!
Adam Horovitz: And we got lucky. People, I guess, like that about us. I don’t know. The reason we did this is because Yauch wanted to document the band. He wanted to make a movie or a book or both. He wanted to do that, so that’s what we did. For him. There are a lot of books about our band, just a lot of stuff about us, and so we thought we should make one ourselves, told from our perspective. Just ‘cause … I don’t know.
Michael Diamond: And also, just, you know from being around us, there’s so many other moments that just us and just us and a couple people or whatever care about, but are important.
Adam Horovitz: There wasn’t ever a time when we thought, “Oh, we need a product in the marketplace to keep relevant or be hot still,” or whatever.
Rock Cellar: I remember seeing Beastie Boys at probably one of the early Big Audio Dynamite shows here and then not seeing you again till maybe the Sound Factory Big Audio Dynamite show — so we’re talking the difference between ’84/’85 and ’91 or something. And if you told me, when we sort of were smoking weed with Joey Ramone in ’85, that all this would happen to you in that time, I wouldn’t have believed it, and you certainly wouldn’t have believed it. Reflect a little bit on that period, because that period between “Cookie Puss,” License to Kill, to Paul’s Boutique is just meteoric.
Adam Horovitz: It’s just crazy that we did all the things that we did, to me. But being able to meet Joey Ramone and Joey Ramone knowing who we were? That’s just as big of a deal.
Michael Diamond: That’s a good point.
Adam Horovitz: I used to cut school because I saw Johnny Ramone at an apartment over near here. Me and my best friend used to cut school and wait outside of his apartment for him. He used to give us guitar picks. And cut to Joey Ramone — Joey Ramone! — knowing who we were? That’s massive. And in the book we’re hanging out with the fucking Clash! I mean, it’s huge.
Michael Diamond: I remember we were at The World opening up for Big Audio Dynamite and then all of a sudden there was Suggs from Madness. We were just kids that grew up in this downtown New York thing, and all those people were our heroes, but we’re actually playing on bills with them in front people? And so, you know, even when we got to that sort of local celebrity point, right, which is that point at The World, or whatever, that was a huge deal for us. And then it almost became more surreal, because then it goes from that to Licensed to Ill coming out. And actually, there was a bunch of steps in between. We would go on tour with Madonna. Then we’re on tour with Run-DMC, who really were our idols, in the sense that “Sucker MCs” was as close to a blueprint, I think, as any single record was for what we and a lot of other people wanted to do with rap music, being just stripped down.
Rock Cellar: And here you’re friends with them, playing …
Michael Diamond: Think about going to see The Clash at Bonds. And then you’re at Mick Jones’ house. Shit is crazy.
Adam Horovitz: Being in a band, making records and playing shows, that made sense. Even though it was really crazy how all the other stuff happened. But being at Mick Jones’ house? How does that happen?
Rock Cellar: Right. Well there’s a point in the book, maybe in the middle, where you say there was the fallout with Rick (Rubin) and Russell (Simmons), where you say there wasn’t a plan to have a producer and a manager and a label and all the other stuff that was going on. There wasn’t some master plan. You were just hanging out, playing music, having fun, and it turned into this whole other thing. And yet you were able to break away, and make an artistic left turn, and do something completely different with Paul’s Boutique. And then do that several times again. There’s a fearlessness to that.
Michael Diamond: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a phrase I’m not even comfortable owning, because it just didn’t seem like there was any other option to us. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I think a lot of that came out of where we came from. I just knew of the world in New York that we came from, where you made what you wanted to make. It wasn’t a world of artistic compromises. It was your world, where you made what you wanted to make.
So I don’t know, I guess that that was the harder thing, where we’d come from that world and then Licensed to Ill had become a huge success, and then Russell, being a business person, was like, “Okay, go duplicate this right away.” And we were totally disinterested at that point in terms of what Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill era had become. Because we were done. We were ready to move on. He was saying, “No, no, no. Do this again.” And we’re like, “Fuck you, we’re out of here.” And so he couldn’t wrap his brain around that. Why wouldn’t you want to just do this job where you’re going to make money again? He couldn’t understand that. But we had no problem turning our backs on that. So then all of a sudden we’re in California, and we’re hearing other music that we really love — “Oh, well, this is interesting, this is happening — and there’s a whole other scene and then all of a sudden, actually, the weird thing that Paul’s Boutique gave us was that it was such a colossal failure, commercially. And we were left completely alone. We didn’t have to be on tour —
Rock Cellar: Well, that’s liberating.
Michael Diamond: Right. Well, yeah, because we had time. And then, all of a sudden, we had that kind of weird sobering thing. We’d spent all this money on fancy rental cars and fancy studios and every, every cliché. LA is a great city for relieving you of your cash quickly for immediate gratification, right? “Oh, you want to make a record? Here’s a studio. It costs $2,000 a day. You want a car to get you there? No problem, we got you.” And it was that sobering thing of, “Oh, shit, yeah, we’ve got to figure this out. We just want to make music and we don’t really need any of that stuff.” But then LA turned out to be a good city for that.
Adam Horovitz: You said fearless. You know, an ER nurse is fearless. Like just being dudes in a band that play different types of music isn’t fearless. It’s not that big of a fucking deal. Money wasn’t a problem.
Rock Cellar: Well, there are very few artists like that — Prince, Bowie — who don’t care about alienating fans or not selling a million records or not doing the next video that they have to do that their manager or label head tells them that they need to do. Most people would just go along with the next thing and make Licensed to Ill 2, essentially. So I was always impressed you didn’t do that.
Adam Horovitz: But that’s because of The Clash, that’s because of punk rock, that’s because of …
Rock Cellar: Let’s make Sandinista!, let’s make three albums and put it all out there.
Michael Diamond: The Clash gave us a blueprint of being expansive and just making music where you could go into whatever influence. Whatever was influencing you, just feed off of that and don’t feel like, “Oh, that’s too far out.”
Adam Horovitz: We were just listening to the Slits’ Cut album. Like what is this? You can do anything. If that’s what you like, you can play it. And you should.
Rock Cellar: Very few people take that attitude though.
Adam Horovitz: We’re also sitting on a big record contract. (Laughter.)
April 9, 2021
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