LONDON -- "Hey, Buckingham Palace!" Michael "Mike D." Diamond says in a high, pinched New York accent as the Beastie Boys' minibus swings past the royal homestead. "Hence all the flags. And this is the Mall."
Actually, Brits say "mal," not "maul," but yes. And America's premier white rappers are playing a late afternoon showcase gig for a select few hundred fans and media right beside this historic ceremonial way.
The venue is the tony, though not quite snobbish, Institute for Contemporary Arts, mere yards from Queen Elizabeth's residence.
"Well, there's a nice juxtaposition," the amiable Diamond muses as the trio disembarks, unnoticed, at the stage door. "When we first came here in 1987, Parliament debated whether to ban us from entering the country."
Now in their late 30s, the Beastie Boys -- Diamond, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz and Adam "MCA" Yauch -- are respected senior citizens of hip-hop. Their new album, To the 5 Boroughs, is their first in six years, and it arrived this month garlanded with high hopes. Commercially, it's expected to be one of the summer's big hits. Artistically, it's a de facto test of whether the once-wild rappers can grow old gracefully.
Back in the '80s, when the mere mention of the name Beastie Boys gave grown-ups conniptions, the group reigned unchallenged, Brats of the Decade. They rapped rude words. They drank beer onstage with a woman (often topless) dancing in a cage. Their most popular song invited fans to "Fight for Your Right (to Party)."
That was just the regular stuff. Days before that original United Kingdom tour, a tabloid printed a story claiming that while at an all-star event in Switzerland, the Beasties told a group of disabled children seeking autographs, "Go away, you [expletive] cripples!" The band denied the report, but the mud had been slung, and Parliament members fulminated.
Success run amok
For the young Beastie Boys, it was another sign that their success had spiraled out of control.
Middle-class sons of an interior designer (Diamond, now 37), an architect (Yauch, 38) and a playwright (Horovitz, 36), they got together in the early '80s and grew into rebellious, satirical rappers. Their debut album, 1986's Licensed to Ill, so captured the spirit of noisy youth in the Reagan era that it sold 9 million copies in the United States. But, they acknowledge now, the well-brought-up boys had tried too hard to be bad, and they've taken a long road to find themselves as thoughtful, sophisticated souls.
At first, looking back, they squirm in "embarrassment" and even "humiliation" at temporarily becoming the boozy, macho bone-heads they'd intended to mock.
"On the Licensed to Ill tour we really honed in on being jackasses," says Yauch. "We were taking [a shot at] frat guys, and then suddenly, they were our whole audience, and they were going, 'Yaaaaaaaaah!' "
"When it first happened, it was really exciting," Diamond says. "Like being Led Zeppelin. Until we were saddled with being these characters from our own jokes."
"It's the become-what-you-hate theory," says Horovitz.
The latest manifestation of the band's transition from living out an essentially fictional brattiness is a rap called "An Open Letter to NYC" from the new album. It tackles their hometown's deep, dense, collective emotions in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001:
Writers, prizefighters and Wall Street traders
We come together on the subway cars.
Diversity unified, whoever you are.
On the L we're doing swell
On the No. 10 bus we fight and fuss.
In fact, the Beastie Boys' studio reunion was triggered by the New Yorkers Against Violence benefit they organized in October 2001.
"It was a time when you would sit down and talk and really evaluate what's important," Diamond says. "What a lot of the world missed was just how caring New York became post-9 / 11. So we had to be sensitive in what we wrote, pick our shots. But you don't want to sugarcoat it either. ...
"But it is this hopeful place, this incarnation of total diversity, always changing. In that sense, it's a source of endless inspiration."
However, back in the late 1980s, trapped by that uncomfortable brat identity they'd foisted on themselves and spurred by a bitter dispute over money with their label, Def Jam, they felt they had to leave New York to rediscover themselves.
It did the trick. They hit it off with the Dust Brothers, a then-unknown production team, and made a landmark album, Paul's Boutique. The transformation from rowdy party sounds into an unprecedented hybrid -- one critic dubbed the 1989 work "retro-funk-psychedelia" -- fell far short of the Licensed sales, yet it brought them a new reputation as hip-hop innovators.