It’s impossible for thousands of people the world over to look at a Volkswagen and think of the car rather than the Beastie Boys. Fans remember the symbol fondly as a memento of a group they love; car owners will sigh and think of the cost of replacing their badge after it was stolen for the third time.
The Beastie Boys are loud, controversial and utterly unique. Bursting on to the US music scene in 1981, the New York City group started life as a four-piece; Michael Diamond on vocals, Adam Yauch on bass, John Berry on guitar and Kate Schellenback on drums. Their music was hardcore punk; loud and frantic. In 1983 two incidents set the band on the path they would ultimately follow; John Berry left and was replaced by Adam Horowitz, a vocalist in the group The Young and The Useless (who had opened for the Beastie Boys at a local gig the previous year) and they experimented with a new sound. The hip hop track Cooky Puss was released as a 12-inch single and was well-received – so well in fact that in 1984 they took on that style permanently. Schellenback left shortly after this and ‘Mike D’, ‘MCA’ and ‘Ad-Rock’ became the Beastie Boys trio that is known and loved today. They signed to Def Jam Recordings; a new label that was set up by Rick Rubin, who had been their live show DJ before moving into producing.
1985 proved a big year for the group; after a run of successful 12-inch releases they accompanied Madonna on her Virgin Tour, opened for John Lydon and Public Image Ltd, and went on the Raising Hell tour, alongside Run DMC and LL Cool J. The exposure ensured a Billboard chart hit for their track ‘Hold it Now, Hit it’.
In 1986 their album Licensed to Ill propelled them into the national consciousness after Rolling Stone magazine gave it the thumbs up (their headline was the brilliant ‘Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece’) and after becoming the first rap album to hit the top spot on the Billboard Chart it sold over five million copies and became the biggest selling rap album of the 1980s. Fight for Your Right to Party and No Sleep Till Brooklyn hit the airwaves as well as MTV. This was also the time Mike D started to wear the car badge round his neck and VW drivers started cursing him...
In 1987 the Licensed to Ill tour brought a lot of negative attention to the band, following the crowd’s behaviour at the gigs; the Beastie Boys weren’t blameless here and many people accused them of inciting the trouble. After one particularly notorious show at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, where a riot stopped the music after just ten minutes, Adam Yauch was arrested and charged with assault.
Paul’s Boutique, released in 1987, didn’t reach the same commercial audience as Licensed to Ill although it is widely considered their best album due to its innovative use of multi-layered sounds and huge range of samples used. Rolling Stone put it at 156 in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In 1992 Check Your Head was the first album to be recorded in the Beastie Boys’ own studio in California and released on their Grand Royal record label, which later signed Sean Lennon as one of its artists. It went double platinum in the States, and was noted for its eclectic use of jazz and funk styles, and a hardcore cover of the Sly and the Family Stone track Time for Livin’. A video directed by Spike Jonze helped the single Sabotage become one of their most well-known songs, and the album it came from, Ill Communication, reached number one on the Billboard 200 chart when it came out in 1994.
An indication of the Beastie Boys’ growing appeal was apparent in 1995 when tickets for their US arena tour sold out in a couple of minutes. They followed this up with Hello Nasty - a 1997 album that hit number one in six countries (including the UK), and the top ten in nine others. After another arena tour in 1998 the MTV Video Music Awards rewarded their creativity with the Video Vanguard Award for Contribution to Music Videos, and in 1999 with the award for Best Hip Hop video for Intergalactic. They used both these occasions to make lengthy political acceptance speeches. The same album and song won them two Grammy Awards in the same year.
1999 continued to be a busy year for the band, with an anthology, The Sounds of Science, coming out and their official website becoming one of the most popular recording artist sites in the world. They also continued their political activity in 1999 and throughout the next decade, including taking part in Tibetan Freedom Concerts and releasing the free download track In a World Gone Mad protesting about the Iraq War in 2003.
In 2004 the Beastie Boys released their first self-produced album To the Five Boroughs which again reached number one on the Billboard chart. The 2007 album The Mix Up was yet another change of direction; it was completely instrumental. It was well received and won another Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album in 2008.
Five albums were planned for release in 2009; the re-mastered re-releases of Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, Ill Communication and Hello Nasty went ahead, but Hot Sauce Committee Part 1 had to be delayed after MCA was diagnosed with cancer. A lot of confusing messages were relayed between the group and their fans, but eventually Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 was put out at the end of April 2011, although it actually contained most of the tracks originally planned for Part 1. Yes, confusing.
In April 2012 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only the third rap group to be given that honour, after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in 2007, and Run DMC in 2009. Unfortunately Yauch was too sick by then to take part, and he died on 4th May 2012. He was only 47.
There has been speculation since then by Ad-Rock and Mike D as to whether the group will continue without him – but whether they do or not, the Beastie Boys have already entertained and inspired millions of people.
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