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How Three White Kids Became the Beastie Boys And Changed Hip Hop History


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Ask a hip hop fan about their favorite artists in the genre and you’re likely going to hear mentions of OutKast (for lots of excellent reasons), or Wu Tang (same), or NWA (ditto). And, there’s a good chance someone will mention the Beastie Boys. While others may interject and object to that mention, a fierce defense will likely follow. Why? Because the Beastie Boys hold a unique spot in the world of hip hop history, one that is not always comfortable to be in.


While hip hop culture had emerged and evolved in communities that birthed it, there’s no denying that its appeal is universal. People everywhere gravitate towards it and expand on what they learn. Given the proximity of the Beastie Boys to the epicenter of hip hop culture, it’s not surprising that they were among the first white artists to jump on the hip hop 6-4 (Chevrolet Impala SS). But they were also incredibly good at it.


Let’s start at the beginning.


The Beastie Boys were not hip hop artists when they first entered the music scene. As a matter of fact, for a good couple of years before switching genres, they were hardcore punk aficionados who joined forces in 1981. Their lineup was a bit different, too. The founding members consisted of Michael Diamond, John Berry, Kate Schellenbach and Adam Yauch. Berry didn’t last long and was soon replaced by Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz.


To be clear, these were not kids from the hood, who were looking to deal with their circumstances by channeling their frustrations with society into art. No. This was “a group of arty middle-class Jewish kids responding to Manhattan’s eclectic downtown music scene.” By 1983, however, the band abandoned its hardcore angle, bid farewell to Schellenbach, and embraced a new direction, all thanks to “a chance meeting with an older NYU student named Rick Rubin.”


Now, if the name Rick Rubin sounds familiar, that’s because he co-founded Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons in 1984. But Rubin met the Beastie Boys prior to that, when they hired him to DJ their live shows. "I met Mike first," recalled the producer. "I thought he was an arrogant asshole. Through spending time with the Beasties I grew to see that they had this great sense of humor. It wasn't that they were assholes, and even if it was, they were funny with it."


The Beastie Boys signed with Def Jam Records and recorded a 12-inch single called “Hard Rock” the year the label was founded. And in 1986, they went on a brief tour with Madonna, which finally brought them press attention, though not of the favorable kind, as they were “billed as boffo villainous frat boys — something they’d come to regret almost instantly.” But, under Rubin’s influence, the trio nevertheless shot to superstardom that year.


Good timing and a smart “blend of hard rock samples and parodic fraternity-boy posturing turned Licensed to Ill, with its hit single ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),’ into a smash debut album.” To some, it confirmed the emotional and stylistic affinities found between rap and hard rock. It also became the first rap LP to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 Chart. A highly successful tour with Run-D.M.C. further cemented their hip hop credibility.


But this was not just an important moment in time for the Beastie Boys, it was a pivotal moment for hip hop. Before the Beastie Boys, hip-hop was an underground secret, but the success and accessibility of Licensed to Ill introduced it to the world, much of which had no idea of the cultural movement building in New York’s northernmost borough, or how three Brooklyn slackers were about to change the course of the genre for the rest of music history.


The relationship between the Beastie Boys and Def Jam soured by 1989, so the band left their label to sign with Capitol Records. In their 1989 release, “Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys strategically appropriated retro-funk influences, adding an acoustic dimension to digital sound-collage techniques learned from Rick Rubin and Grandmaster Flash.” Initially failing to garner much acclaim, the album grew to be regarded as one of the best hip hop releases, ever.


Just three years later, the band launched their own label called Grand Royal and released Check Your Head (1992), which featured a collection of radio-friendly rhymes that layered pop culture references over distorted funk instrumentation. They diversified their sound with jazz, hip hop, and punk, on Ill Communication released in 1994. “Intergalactic” on the electronic-heavy Grammy-winning 1998 album Hello Nasty scored them another hit single.


Grand Royal folded by 2001 and the group returned to Capitol Records for their subsequent releases: To the 5 Boroughs in 2004, The Mix-up in 2007 (which won them another Grammy), and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two in 2011, which was virtually identical to Part 1. It's worth noting that Part 1 was never released due to the cancer diagnosis of Adam Yauch, who passed away from the disease in 2012. The Beastie Boys disbanded after his passing, but their legacy lives on.


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