Many of us now in our 30s and 40s can't imagine growing up without the Beastie Boys. Whether our key formative years were in the mid-to-late 1980s or anytime in the 1990s, the trio of New York rappers was always there, defining everything wild, fun and possible in hip-hop and beyond, guiding us through adolescence with all the dubious authority and miscreant wisdom of an older cousin that our parents would prefer we’d avoid.
Whenever our lives required it, there was a Beasties album for us. It may have been the clownish rap-rock of "Licensed to Ill," the radical inventiveness of "Paul's Boutique" or the kaleidoscopic space-funk of "Hello Nasty." My B-Boys strike zone is the back-to-back triumphs of “Check Your Head” (1992) and “Ill Communication” (‘94), marvelously eclectic records that felt like dispatches from some distant, urbane planet that kids stranded in the Midwest could only dream about becoming cool enough to visit.
The Beasties have been silent since the 2012 death by cancer of Adam "MCA" Yauch, who was the group’s spiritual and intellectual torchbearer. But their substantial and complex legacy now has received a worthy tribute, and candid examination, in the form of “Beastie Boys Book,” a sprawling memoir released late last year by surviving members Adam Horowitz (aka Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D).
This is one of the best musical autobiographies ever published. Its 600-plus pages are structured mostly as a back-and-forth between Horowitz and Diamond, who take turns correcting each other’s memories. It’s stuffed with hilarious stories, poignant homages to the New York of their childhoods and enough time-capsule ‘90s arcana to make any lifelong fan “feel young and old at the same time.”
That observation comes from actor and comic Amy Poehler, who is among the dozens of guest contributors that, particularly in the audiobook format, make “Beastie Boys Book” an unmissable experience. (Others include John C. Reilly, Bette Midler, Maya Rudolph, Rosie Perez, Wanda Sykes, Ben Stiller, Snoop Dogg, Elvis Costello, Jon Stewart, Steve Buscemi, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Chloe Sevigny and many others.)
There’s also rapper Talib Kweli reading a chapter titled “Maybe Don’t Play Basketball While High on Mushrooms,” Will Ferrell reading a hilariously dismissive fake review of “Ill Communication” and filmmaker Spike Jonze narrating a slideshow of photos and deciding each of them is easily the best Beasties picture ever taken. There’s also a full cookbook for no clear reason.
Horowitz and Diamond come across as the loveable scamps we’d always imagined, unable to contain their excitement about art, their love for each other and their gratitude for the opportunities their work has afforded them.
It’s not just MCA’s death that deepens what’s otherwise a tremendously entertaining and endearing read. The asterisk by their place in the cultural pantheon mostly is thanks to how their initial burst of fame unfolded.
The Beasties were punk and hardcore kids who fell in love with rap as it first flourished in their backyard. They exchanged their guitars for turntables and samplers but kept their prankster sensibility. "Licensed to Ill," released in 1987, was a smart record whose dumbest songs made them stars and villains because a lot of misogynist content they’d intended as jokes got taken at face value.
Horowitz and Diamond spend significant passages reckoning with this part of their history and apologize profusely when necessary. The book includes feminist critiques of their work from women in their musical orbit, most notably Kate Schellenbach, the drummer from their early days who was crudely dismissed once the trio started becoming rap stars.
The Beasties themselves began this process decades ago. They stopped performing their early hits and infused their music with social activism. Their most memorable lyric — indeed, one of hip-hop’s all-time great lyrics — came from Yauch on “Sure Shot,” a hit single from “Ill Communication,” in which he decried rap’s gender blindness: “To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
We might not have realized at the time that the Beastie Boys were showing us how to become men.
Troy Reimink is a writer and musician.