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.
With the Dust Brothers behind the board, the band recorded the album in Los Angeles, where it set up shop after its acrimonious split with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons over issues of creative and financial control, and today, Paul's Boutique still stands as the Beastie Boys' masterpiece--or, at the very least, the dividing line between the Boys as one-off joke and the Boys as innovators.
Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz were still "out looking for a female companion," but they were kicking their little cuties in the booties for doing zootie, and their pickup lines and brags had evolved into freeform pop-poetry (I'm gonna die harder than my kid Bruce Willis Drummond"). Paul's even featured a track about a homeless man named Johnny Ryall, "a rockabilly star from the days of old."
Accordingly, like most artistic successes, Paul's Boutique was a commercial failure, selling a fraction of what Licensed did.
"After we had the big falling out with Russell, it was just, 'Let's just get away from New York, let's just get away from everything we know,'" Diamond says. "We hooked up with the Dust Brothers in L.A., and it was like, 'Okay, we can go completely wild and do whatever we want.' It was completely a new world.
"Making that record--as well as what happened to that record, in terms of how it sold commercially--was sort of necessary, in terms of where we are now. The only way we could be in the position we are now is by accepting everything up to this point . . . I just remember Russell Simmons called us up and said, 'You guys are really on some art shit now.'"
Check Your Head (1992) was the Beasties' attempt to merge their hard-core past with the funk of Paul's Boutique and this third, less-definable element--one that would forever define the Beasties as being apart from others content to exist in one musical world. Check Your Head erupted with whole songs and fragments of ideas and instrumentals that grooved to nowhere in a hurry and snatches of distorted voices and guitars, clearing the way for its successor.
Ill Communication is hardly a good album, no more than Maggot Brain or Phase Two by the Jimmy Castor Bunch are mere good albums; like those two works, Ill Communication serves to redefine the boundaries of the familiar (hip-hop, funk, jazz, even pop). Where Licensed to Ill set up the parameters--begin with Steve Miller Band and War, go to Zeppelin and Sabbath, but not past Barry White--and Paul's Boutique knocked them down with a big-ass pair of platform shoes, Ill Communication ups the funk by abolishing the standards.
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It's their showoff album, the one on which they throw in the violins and the flutes and the pretty mood instrumentals and the hard-core ode to Detroit Piston Bill Laimbeer and the outta-nowhere, Buddha-praising "Bodhisattva Vow." It's entrenched in the over-reverbed production techniques of Jamaican dub master Lee "Scratch" Perry (who appears on the cover of the new Grand Royal and garners a mention in "Sure Shot")--whose sound, Diamond explains, "as fucked up as it is, is just amazing."
And Ill Communication is the album on which these three Boys--men now (Diamond is married to director Tamra Davis, Horovitz is shacked up with actress Ione Skye and Yauch is heavily into Buddhism)--grow up: They blow reefer for spiritual enlightenment instead of using it to snag cooz, and they struggle with how to make the "serious" songs about takin' care of Mother "Fuckin'" Earth sound good next to the ones with titles like "B-Boy Makin' With the Freak Freak." On top of it all is the single of the summer, "Sabotage," with its Starsky and Hutch-inspired video directed by Davis.
"I think we're always doing something as part of our own evolution," Diamond says. "I think that's totally natural and realistic. But instead of it being a conscious decision towards evolution, it's kind of like this friendly anarchy that happens between a group of people that works out. There's the three of us--me, Adam and Adam--and it's kind of like, you've got these minds coming in and it's just chaos in terms of whatever idea happens first or whatever idea comes to life first. Yet it all works out, and in a totally supportive group way.
"But on this record, there was definitely a degree of comfort with being in the studio. For the first time, whether it's good or bad, we almost felt like we knew what we were doing. Sometimes." He pauses, then laughs. "Okay, occasionally.