The Beasties’ relentless tongue-in-cheek spirit is the very reason that the group — at least as the world knows it now — exists.
Though they launched in 1979 as a New York hard-core punk band, it was a joke rap record in 1983 — sparked by a prank call to a Carvel Ice Cream store — that put them on the hip-hop path. Eventually hooking up with future record moguls and Def Jam label co-founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the Beastie Boys would dramatically alter not only their own career but the history of rap as well.
The decision to leave hard-core music behind in favor of hip-hop had at least one basic motivation. “The thought of not having to carry drums and guitars around was pretty attractive,” Horovitz deadpans. “I don’t like to carry heavy [stuff], man. Not at all.”
More significantly, the Beasties were beginning to feel disaffected by the increasingly macho and humorless ’80s hard-core scene. “We definitely had a sense of humor, our subclique within hard-core,” Diamond says. “But the hard-core scene overall was very testosterone driven. We’d play to some crowds where we would be looking at each other like: What’s going on here? It was angry guys with muscles, like a sweaty all-male prayer meeting. It was weird.”
“Plus, the bands we really liked — the Clash, Bad Brains, the Slits — they influenced us to play different styles of music,” Horovitz says. “Do whatever it is you want to do. You don’t have to stick to this one thing. If you’re creating it, why not create whatever you want?”
Immersed in the era’s first wave of hip-hop — particularly the work of eventual mentors Run-DMC — the Beasties decided to take a chance. “At that point we loved listening to rap, we were memorizing rap lyrics,” Diamond says. “Then we did [the joke record] where we were literally messing around, just experimenting, doing stupid stuff, and it became a 12-inch [single], and that started to get played in clubs.”
Although it was intended mostly as a gag, the song was enough of a hit that it shifted the band’s fate. “We were psyched,” Diamond says. “We didn’t have any serious level of ambition. But we had a record that people were playing, and we were getting offered gigs, so we just kind of went with the [rap] thing.”
Soon they were splitting their live sets between hard-core and rap. Deciding they needed to add a bubble machine and a DJ to their act, they found both in Rick Rubin, a New York University student who’d launched the Def Jam Recordings label from his dorm room with Russell Simmons, brother of Run-DMC rapper Joseph “Run” Simmons.
Under Simmons’ and Rubin’s auspices, the Beasties’ first hip-hop gigs were fairly riotous and memorable affairs. “One of the biggest ones for us was at a place called the Encore in Queens, opening for Kurtis Blow,” Horovitz says. “That was a crazy scene — it was oversold, and kids were storming the doors. The place smelled like Kool cigarettes and angel dust. The three of us and Rick were the only white people in the club.”
Adds Diamond: “So we come up onstage wearing matching Puma tracksuits, and everyone’s calling us Menudo. They were there to hear Kurtis Blow play ‘Basketball’ or whatever. They didn’t give a damn about us.”
As they reminisce, stories about the early days begin flowing: Diamond recalls an aggrieved rapper named Mike D threatening to kill him for stealing his handle — “I had to explain that my name really was Mike D” — and both collapse laughing at the memory of sharing a bill with the Rappin’ Duke, an odd novelty act whose shtick was rhyming in the style of John Wayne.
By the time the band had come up with “Hold It Now, Hit It” — essentially their cover version of a Run-DMC outtake — a year or so later, the Beasties started being taken seriously by audiences. “All of a sudden we’d play that, and people would go crazy,” Horovitz recalls. “It didn’t matter who we were or what we looked like, it was a song that they loved.”
A series of singles — “She’s on It,” “The New Style,” “Paul Revere” — followed, and the Beasties were soon fast-tracked for the big time. By 1985, they were on the road opening dates for Madonna on the “Like a Virgin” tour.
“Those were shows where we would get booed,” Diamond says. “Furiously and passionately booed, every night, by a bunch of 11-year-old girls wearing lace gloves — and their parents, who were even more disapproving.”