By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
Michael Diamond runs the Beastie Boys' empire, a very small empire: a label, distributed through Capitol Records, with Luscious Jackson and DJ Hurricane and, of course, the Beasties; X-Large, a clothing store in New York specializing in very ugly clothes that the b-boys pay phat dollars for; and a 30,000-circulation magazine titled Grand Royal, so named for the empire over which Diamond (that is, Mike D) and the other two Beasties--Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (King Ad-Rock)--lord. That would make the Beastie Boys, once the perennial dopes in the World of Dope, the only band in the world to front its own magazine.
Like everything else the Boys touch, Grand Royal is a brilliant montage of so many forgotten reference points and half-completed thoughts. Grand Royal is Spy meets Sassy for the hip-hop/pop-culture crowd. The debut issue--the second is due to hit stands this week, though likely not a stand near you--was filled with references to Bruce Lee, powder-blue 50-50 tee shirts of Elvis at K mart, the Kiss army, ways to de-reek your clothes and hands after smoking weed, a comic strip titled "Jabbo the Blind Pimp," interviews with George Clinton and A Tribe Called Quest, a Joey Buttafuoco-inspired fashion spread featuring Horovitz, a piece on the Gap (The Gap is nothing less than a front for global conspiracy") and loads of Beastie Boy empirical news.
But, if anything, Grand Royal reveals the Beasties--and Diamond, in particular, who edits the publication--to be more than mere hip-hop wise guys. It reinforces their fascination with 70s culture, but backs it up with a musical awareness and appreciation; they have the smarts to go with the smart-ass, the chops and knowledge to prove their brand of rap isn't simply Upper West Side-educated, cut-and-paste showing off. In the magazine's album-review section, Diamond attacked Soul Asylum (This is why most white people suck"), praised Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (The most raw, basic expression of rhythm and melody imaginable") and deconstructed the free jazz of Archie Shepp (Archie brought the noise long before P.E. [Public Enemy]. Only thing: The motherfucker doesn't even stop a bar for lyrical accent").
It is perhaps difficult to reconcile the idea of Diamond and his cohorts as smart, thoughtful businessmen, responsible and grown-up, and the image they flaunted during their most visible period in the mid-'80s. To accept Diamond as a deep thinker, to hear him speak as a musician instead of a stereotype, is to forget that it wasn't long ago that these three were the schmucks who beckoned a generation to fight for its right to party and tried to nail Tabitha Soren in the video.
When it was released in 1986, Licensed to Ill was a cartoon world view revealed on wax--it told of a world in which "ladies of the 80s" were spread like butter for the bad boys, in which white kids from the burbs cruised in their Lincoln-Continentals while swigging from bottles of Thunderbird; the Boys were those caricatures come to (low)life. When they toured in 1987, they brought with them women in cages, a giant Budweiser can on which the deejay spun his records, and a 25-foot-tall hydraulic penis; during the dull moments, they chucked beer cans, some almost full, into the crowd. They were a near-novelty: upper-class, educated teenagers fighting for their right to be dickheads.
Though the Beasties were managed by a black guy (Russell Simmons), hung out with other black guys (Run-D.M.C., which even wrote two songs for Licensed to Ill, "Slow and Low" and "Paul Revere," and agreed to be photographed with the Boys) and brought in the sort of money that kept Def Jam alive during its start-up, the rap community got a wild hair up its ass about the Boys when Licensed was released.
Purists screamed that Yauch, Horovitz, Diamond and Def Jam honcho Rick Rubin were co-opting a strictly black form--whitifying, slickifying and suburbanizing rap for the cream-colored crowd that could handle Zeppelin and Sabbath references but was turned off by anything too street. But as Nelson George wrote in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, the Beasties were "a historic inevitability and at the same time a profound historic departure"--precisely because they were managed by a black guy, precisely because of their ties with Run-D.M.C. and, through label considerations, with Public Enemy and L.L. Cool J and Oran "Juice" Jones.
The Beasties were profoundly aware of their awkward position--which, at the time, was at the top of the pop charts; theirs was the first hip-hop album to accomplish the feat--and seemed to revel in the bizarreness of it all.
Which made Paul's Boutique in 1989 that much more improbable: Dense with the sound of 70s funk--long before Dr. Dre discovered Snoop Doggy Dogg discovered Shaft, on the record, anyway--and samples ranging from Johnny Cash to the Beatles to Public Enemy to the Jaws theme, the album was a mammoth cross-cultural pastiche. The Beasties not only proved there's no such thing as disposable pop culture, but they blurred the lines separating the music itself; by throwing snatches of country and bluegrass into the funky mix, the Boys found the similarities between the disparate and finished one large jigsaw puzzle using pieces from so many smaller ones.