Beastie Boys earn due after 25 years in hip-hop

Latest album returns trio to spotlight and to stage

Music: in concert, CDs

October 07, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

None of the guys is 40 yet, but some critics call the Beastie Boys "elder statesmen" of hip-hop, three aging rappers who have played the game by their own rules for the past 25 years.

"Oh, yeah, 'elder statesmen,'" Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz says dryly. "It's wonderful. We get discounts on prune juice and Geritol. Cane and walker companies sponsor our shows now. Yeah, it's really nice."

He's calling from Manhattan, his home these days. (His New York-based partners -- Mike "Mike D" Diamond, 37, and Adam "MCA" Yauch, 39 -- are unavailable.) The Beastie Boys, who will play the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., tomorrow night, have shot back into the spotlight with To the 5 Boroughs, the trio's first album in six years. Released in June, the CD made its debut at No. 1, selling 360,000 copies its first week. Pretty impressive for a veteran hip-hop group whose style hasn't changed much since 1986.

"The thing about sounding old-school, we're a rap group," says Horovitz, who's 36. "There aren't that many rap groups out there now. We sound old-school in a way because that's where we came from, that trading lines with each other. You don't hear that much."

What you hear throughout To the 5 Boroughs is a mature unit -- a group no longer at the forefront of the genre but whose sound remains undeniably charismatic. The B Boys still bring the raucous, get-up-with-it energy. But the sonic adventurism of Hello Nasty, the trio's last album from 1998, is streamlined a bit on 5 Boroughs. Overall, the sound is still dense, thick with layered beats and samples. Lyrically, the guys are explicitly political this time. Sample "Right Right Now Now": I'm getting tired of the situation / The U.S. attacking other nations, and narration, on every station / False elation's got me losing my patience ...

Horovitz says, "We feel like anything we can do to get George Bush out, we need to do what we can because he's [messing] everything up. I don't see a positive argument for George Bush. We figured this record should have some part about what's happening in the world now and another part where we can party in spite of it."

The energy never lets up on the record. And the guys easily take it to the stage.

"It's not the same as when you're 18 and up there on stage," Horovitz says. "But you still just wanna make people happy. It's the same in that its always fun."

The Beastie Boys started as a punk band in 1981. (At the time, John Berry was the group's guitarist; Horovitz replaced him two years later.) By '84, the three friends from well-to-do Jewish families ditched punk for hip-hop, a relatively new style at the time nurtured by disenfranchised blacks and Latinos in New York. The B Boys were among the first acts signed to the Def Jam label, releasing two well-received singles: "Rock Hard" in 1984 and "She's On It" in 1985. That year, the group opened Madonna's North American "Virgin Tour" as urban radio embraced "Hold Now, Hit It."

In the fall of '86, the Beastie Boys put out their full-length debut, Licensed to Ill, which became the first rap album to reach No. 1 on the pop charts, fueled by the hits "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" and "No Sleep Til Brooklyn." By the end of the decade, the set had sold more than 5 million copies, an amazing feat at the time for a rap record. But the achievement didn't come without backlash from the hip-hop community as some called the Beastie Boys "cultural pirates." And the group's hedonistic lyrics generated criticism from the right, who protested their wild shows.

After a bitter 1988 lawsuit with Def Jam and their producer Rick Rubin, the B Boys relocated to California and signed with Capitol Records. The acclaimed Paul's Boutique album appeared in '89 and introduced a revamped sound and image for the group. The guys grew up: Obnoxious antics and bratty music gave way to calmer appearances and thoughtful, ambitious projects. Not as immediate as Licensed to Ill, the 1989 album mixed funk and psychedelia overlaid with complex rhymes.

Subsequent albums -- 1992's Check Your Head, 1994's Ill Communication and 1998's Hello Nasty -- revealed more musical experimentation. In the mid-'90s, the Beastie Boys established their own label and a magazine, both called Grand Royal. As they took off, the guys concentrated on the business ventures, leaving music behind for a while.

"We just took time off," Horovitz says. "We weren't in a rush. We're in a very fortunate position to work when we want to and when we feel like it."

Observing the current hip-hop scene and the nation's state of affairs, the guys felt inspired to make a record rooted in the familiar B Boys sound but still fresh and progressive, something that captured the essence of the group's beloved New York City.

"In terms of the glossy lyrical part of [today's] rap, I can't relate to it too much," Horovitz says. "I'm not spending $200 on a bottle of Cristal to get drunk, OK? But I love the music. I'm more into producers and the more political rappers like Dead Prez and Talib Kweli."

How long will it take to follow up To the 5 Boroughs?

"I don't know," Horovitz says. "Whatever comes next is gonna be something that we're feeling. Definitely. When you're trying to follow what others are doing, you're gonna get lost. We have always sorta had our own style, for better or worse. And we never tried to do what everybody else was doing."

The Beastie Boys play the Patriot Center, 4400 University Drive in Fairfax, Va., tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $42 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or by visiting www.ticket master.com.

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