Music

Beastie Boys Book Re-creates the Pleasures of the Group’s Best Albums

It’s freewheeling, collaborative, revelatory, and brimming with gags.

MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.
Adam Yauch (MCA), Mike Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) of the Beastie Boys at the B. Smith’s restaurant in New York City.
Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Beginning on the 431st page of the new Beastie Boys Book—still much more than a hundred pages away from the book’s end—there is a 16-page cookbook courtesy of renowned Los Angeles chef Roy Choi. It is an actual cookbook, vaguely inspired by lyrics from Paul’s Boutique, with recipes for chicken gizzard tacos, barbecue grilled cheese sandwiches, and clams and tartar sauce. Like all the best parts of Beastie Boys Book—like all the best parts of the Beastie Boys’ entire career, really—the cookbook comes out of nowhere. It’s not set up or even really introduced in any way, and it’s on a completely different glossy page material from the rest of the book, with different typefaces and bright color photos. I have not cooked any of the recipes yet, but I will, and I trust they will be delicious, because the Beastie Boys have never steered me toward anything less than that.

Beastie Boys Book is massive. On the kitchen scale upon which I’ll soon be piling chicken gizzards, it weighs in at nearly 3.5 pounds. There are probably people who will say that it is too long, but I hope to never meet any of them. It’s hilarious, revelatory, minimally coherent, and entirely intoxicating. The tome is structured as a series of back-and-forths between the group’s two surviving members, Adam Horovitz, aka the King Ad-Rock, and Michael Diamond, aka Mike D. In between are occasional interludes by friends of the band such as critic Luc Sante, the late DJ Anita Sarko, author Colson Whitehead, ex-Beastie Kate Schellenbach, comedian Amy Poehler, and fashion journalist André Leon Talley. One of the hallmarks of the Beastie Boys’ musical style was a give-and-take flow among the group’s three members that was really a holdover from an earlier period of hip-hop: The group usually eschewed the model of each member taking a prolonged verse in favor of trading smaller fragments, often of just a few bars a piece, finishing each other’s rhymes and piling onto accent words, the preferred style of early groups like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Treacherous Three, and, most famously, Run-DMC. The structure of Beastie Boys Book evokes this, with Horovitz and Diamond telling the group’s story by trading short chapters and occasionally even jumping into each other’s narratives with asides, interjections, and loads and loads of jokes.   

The cumulative effect of all of this is one of the most profoundly generous musical autobiographies I’ve ever read. Beastie Boys Book isn’t a mythmaking project or a myth-preserving one, and if this sounds improbable for a nearly 600-page book about a band written by two of the members of that band, consider the fact that Licensed to Ill doesn’t even come out until over 200 pages into things. The book’s first third is a love letter to New York’s early 1980s punk, hardcore, and hip-hop scenes, full of tributes, elegies, and reminiscences on people and places that many of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought Beastie Boys records have probably never heard of. The book is most poignant when Horovitz and Diamond are writing about folks other than themselves, which feels like most of the time. In a chapter on their friend Donna Lee Parsons, a crucial early influence on the band who, like many in these pages, died far too young, Diamond remembers a fleeting reunion with Parsons in 1987, at the height of Licensed to Ill fame, then laments being “total drunk fuck-ups in 1987 [who] didn’t really know how to communicate things like feelings and phone numbers.” It’s a quick turn of phrase for those relationships that, when you’re young and the world is small, seem like they’ll be there forever, until one day they aren’t.

Looming over everything, still and always, is the absence of the late Adam Yauch, aka MCA, who died from cancer in 2012. Yauch was the band’s heartbeat and its conscience, the spiritual center who forced his bandmates to grow up at the same time that he was keeping them young. It was Yauch who organized the massively successful Tibetan Freedom Concerts of the late 1990s, who came up with the bass line to “Sabotage,” who introduced the world to the pioneering work of Swiss New Wave filmmaker Nathanial Hörnblowér. “Too fucking sad to write about,” declares Horovitz near the book’s end, a statement made all the more powerful by all the times both men write beautifully about their friend over the course of this book, including the book’s introduction, an elegy to Yauch penned by Horovitz himself.

Rather than attempting anything like a comprehensive grand narrative, Diamond and Horovitz tend to work in vignettes, short and often hilarious stories from the band’s remarkable life. There’s the time they attended Dolly Parton’s birthday party around the time of Paul’s Boutique, for instance, or the whole chapter devoted to scenes from their friendship with Biz Markie. The book’s design also offers a wealth of terrific photographs, illustrations, and other visual treats. The publisher, Spiegel & Grau, also made Jay-Z’s exceptional memoir Decoded, and Beastie Boys Book does a generally superb job of balancing documentation with quirkier sorts of fan service, such as a handwritten dress code for the band’s 2007 tour behind their album of instrumentals, The Mix-Up. (“#5: MUST WEAR CLIP-ON TIE OR SOME TYPE OF SASH OR NECK SCARF.”)

The vast majority of Beastie Boys Book takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, which is fitting. It’s hard to think of many other acts who had such enormous and divergent influence on two separate decades. In 1986 the Beasties released Licensed to Ill, their chart-topping debut which put Def Jam Records on the national map and became the highest-selling rap album in history, inventing “frat rap” while disgusting parents, critics, and finally themselves in the process. They followed it up three years later with Paul’s Boutique, a masterpiece that saved their career by nearly ruining it. These two albums alone were one of the more bizarre and resounding one-two punches in all of popular music. Licensed to Ill made Def Jam rich with the beer-soaked misogyny and theatrical idiocy of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” and “Girls,” but the album’s real innovation lay in its production, from the backwards TR-808 of “Paul Revere” to the Zeppelin samples of “Rhymin & Stealin” and “She’s Crafty.” Paul’s Boutique, on the other hand, has long been renowned as a producer’s record and a high-water mark of sample-based music making. Chuck D once wryly remarked that the “dirty secret” of 1980s hip-hop was that the album with the best beats was made by a bunch of white guys. But Paul’s Boutique is also one of the funniest rap albums ever made, its lyrics light-years smarter than Licensed to Ill’s: “get over on Miss Crabtree like my main man Spanky,” “Vincent van Gogh, go and mail that ear,” every single line of “Car Thief.”

Paul’s Boutique was a commercial flop, although its failure has been overstated and mythologized in years since. As Beastie Boys Book recounts, Capitol Records mismanaged the promotion and distribution of the album, and even then, “Hey Ladies” hit the Top 40. But getting out from under the shadow of Licensed to Ill helped the Beasties become what they always should have been: a cult band. Sure, they were a cult band who continued to play arenas, release multiplatinum albums, and receive generous budgets to do whatever their hearts desired, but from Paul’s Boutique onward, it always felt like the Beastie Boys were making music for themselves, first and foremost. It would be up to the world to come to them.

This resulted in a 1990s that was probably even more consequential than their 1980s. The Beasties released three more great albums—Check Your Head, Ill Communication, and Hello Nasty—while also starting a record label, a magazine, and a massively successful series of benefit concerts. They made groundbreaking music videos that turned them into style icons for a new generation who couldn’t have cared less about “Fight for Your Right,” a song that they pointedly refused to play live. Somehow the guys who’d risen to fame playing shows in front of an enormous hydraulic penis turned themselves into a model of how to grow up gracefully.

Until now I’ve tried to dial back my own nostalgia in writing about this deeply, sweetly nostalgic book, but as someone who was 12 when Check Your Head came out, I can barely overstate the influence of the Beastie Boys on my life during these years. Here were three guys who loved basketball and skateboarding and rapped about Dr. Spock and Grady Tate and Rod Carew and appeared on the cover of Midnight Marauders. I learned about Lee “Scratch” Perry from issue No. 2 of Grand Royal magazine, and many years later I reflexively yelped “I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle!” at the screen the first time I saw the movie Whiplash. I discovered so much music just from every time someone cooler and smarter than me told me what one of the samples from Paul’s Boutique was. The Beastie Boys made music that made you want to become a more interesting person, which is such a crucial and underrated step toward becoming a better one. Beastie Boys Book is the book the Beastie Boys deserve, and it should surprise no one that they made it themselves.

Beastie Boys Book cover.

Beastie Boys Book

By Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz