Slouched in tatty and torn T-shirts and jeans in their downtown Manhattan recording studio, the Beastie Boys looked more like lazy students dragged from their beds than politicised hip hop icons when I interviewed them back in 2004.
The trio’s sixth album, To The 5 Boroughs, was about to be released. Part bittersweet ode to post-9/11 New York – with the fallen World Trade Center towers standing proudly on sleeve (‘Dear New York, a lot has changed, two towers down but you’re still in the game’) and part George Bush-bashing ‘partaaay’ political broadcast, the album was lyrically light years from the superficial subjects that had dominated Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz’s 20-year back catalogue.
Hip hop music tends to be repetitive, derivative and puerile. Its empty-headed lyrics glorify sex, drugs, greed and violence. By swapping cliches and self-importance for comedy and self-deprecation, the Beastie Boys suddenly launched the entire genre into another dimension.
They ‘changed the game’ with their goofy infectious lyrics and showed the likes of Eminem, Gorillaz, OutKast, House of Pain, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Streets, LMFAO and countless other acts that they didn’t have to take themselves so damn seriously. This, in a nutshell, was the beauty of the Beasties.
The group poked endless fun at everything from board games (‘I’m the king of Boggle, there is no higher, I get 11 points off the word quagmire’) to French Post-Impressionism (‘I’m up to my neck like Toulouse-Lautrec’). And they couldn’t resist referencing their kosher credentials at every opportunity, whether they were tackling racism (‘I’m a funky ass Jew against the KKK’), grandma’s lokshen pudding (‘the truth’s as brutal as your grandma’s kugel’) or Jewish dietary laws (‘Don’t be selfish, get on the mic, coz you know you eat shellfish’).
Press play on any of their eight studio albums, particularly Ill Communication, Hello Nasty and To The 5 Boroughs, and you’ll hear pop culture poetry in glorious motion.
The group released their trailblazing debut Licensed to Ill back in 1986, when the entire top 40 was at the syrupy mercy of Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
I remember running excitedly into my sister’s bedroom like I’d just split the atom, waving my yellow waterproof sports Walkman in her face and demanding she turn off her Wang Chung and turn on (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right To Party. For a shy 15-year-old schoolboy growing up in the Wembley suburbs, this bratty smart-arse anthem could hardly have sounded more exhilarating.
Despite being focused on froth and fun, the trio’s witty wordplay always hinted at the potential for greater depth. It took the horror of 9/11 to bring it furiously bubbling to the surface.
During that 2004 interview, Yauch reflected, with hindsight that now seems unbearably poignant: ‘Our early albums were about us as teenagers, drinking beer and acting silly. The new album is about having fun in troubled times and about how our city has responded since that day. Old tensions between police and civilians in New York seemed to vanish overnight after the attacks. Everyone was on the same side. There was a positive buzz and people started looking out for each another. These days we like to have our say on these big issues, but still find new ways to enjoy this amazing life we’ve been given.’
Just eight years later, the amazing life Adam had been given was cut down in its prime, aged 47.
He was diagnosed with cancer in a salivary gland in 2009 and passed away on 4 May, at a time when his career was at its most dynamic and diverse. Adam’s tireless work raising awareness and funds for Tibetan liberation had achieved global recognition and his film company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, was releasing some of cinema’s most exciting independent films such as Exit Through The Gift Shop and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
He may have been a renaissance man but Adam Yauch will be remembered most fondly as one third of the world’s greatest, goofiest pop group.
A prolific and creative lyricist, his bone dry wit and penchant for self-parody is perhaps summed up best in this single sparkling line from one of my favourite Beastie Boys tracks, 1994’s Sure Shot: ‘I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs. And that’s a lot, because I’ve got my share.’
• First published in the Jewish News