by Daniel B. Levine
Hip-hop heroes the Beastie Boys trash their turntables and grab their guitars on Ill Communication, an innovative fusion of rock and rap.
Now that rap is the best-selling musical genre on the planet, you'd think the Beastie Boys' Adam "Adroc" Horovitz and Adam "MCA" Yauch would be content to live high on the hip-hop hog, passing the mic and composing frat-party anthems like "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Fight For Your Right." So why do many of the tracks on the Beastie Boys' latest release, Ill Communication, feature funk, hardcore punk and spacey, Santana-like jams? Have these rap pioneers laid aside their turntables and samplers and learned to play the guitar and bass?
Actually, Horovitz has always played guitar and Yauch is quite an accomplished bass player. Though the Beastie Boys are best known for breaking rap music into the mainstream ("The white-boy-stream!" in Horovitz's words) with their 1983 debut, License To Ill, the band began its existence playing hardcore punk - the ultra-heavy, ultra-fast music best exemplified by groups like Minor Threat and Black Flag. They only started rapping to break the monotony of playing mosh song after mosh song. When the rap part of their act started to become popular, Horovitz and Yauch put their instruments in the closet and set off on tour with Madonna.
Now that the Beastie Boys are a headlining act, guitar, bass and drums (played by third-Beastie Mike D.) are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the show - and so are their first musical loves: hardcore and funk.
"It's really a New York thing," says Yauch. "When we were growing up, clubs wouldn't only play rap or punk or funk - you'd go to hear a hardcore band and they'd play James Brown on the P.A. between the sets." So, unlike many new bands that are suddenly "discovering" the punk/funk/rap connection, the Beastie Boys can draw upon their early New York roots for eclectic inspiration. They'll follow a hardcore song with a hip-hop track and then jam on the funk, making Ill Communication as fresh and timeless as your favorite mix tape.
"When you think about it, hardcore and hip-hop aren't really that different," says Horovitz. "The attitude is the same. It's a New York attitude."
GUITAR WORLD: Many fans will be surprised to learn that your first instruments weren't turntables or mics, but guitars and basses.
MCA: Yeah. I always wanted a bass when I was a kid, though I didn't get one at first. My parents were too tired of buying me things that would just end up in the closet. I knew this girl who had a bass, and I'd go over to her house to play. My parents eventually rented one for me on the condition that if I played it, I could have it.
ADROC: For my twelfth birthday my mom and all her friends got me a guitar and a little practice amp. I talked about playing guitar all the time - I was listening to a lot of Kiss, and I wanted to be Ace. I thought "Shock Me" - the song where Ace sings - was the shit! "Making Love," too. So my mom and her friends bought me a Hondo II Professional.
MCA: And it's the same guitar he plays today. [laughs] He plays it on the new album.
ADROC: Well, I still play Hondo II Professionals, but last year I took my original guitar, the only guitar I ever owned - the one my mom gave me - and smashed it.
ADROC: It was that perfect moment. The last show of our Check Your Head tour was in Italy, and we were told that it would be a big outdoor festival with 40,000 kids. But when we showed up, it was just a bunch of old people - it turned out to be a Communist festival! [laughs]
MCA: The audience was made up of maybe 100 kids, and a bunch of old women and children.
ADROC: But the show was dope. It was the best and worst gig we ever played. Now I have a collection of Hondos.
GW: [to Horovitz] Few people are aware that you weren't in the original Beastie Boy line-up, back in the band's hardcore days.
MCA: No, he wasn't. He was in a band called "The Young And The Useless," which would open for us all the time. When our guitar player split, Adroc joined.
GW: What happened to The Young And The Useless?
ADROC: We fell apart really bad. The drummer went to military school in New Jersey.
GW: What music were you guys listening to at the time?
ADROC: Black Flag, Minor Threat...
MCA: ...and a lot of Bad Brains. Darryl Jenifer [Bad Brain's bassist] is my favorite. He's the musician who most influenced my playing. Though the stuff I play now is in a different vein, if you listen to our hardcore tracks, I think you can hear his influence. On the knowledge tip, definitely go and see the Bad Brains every time they play. I've seen them like 50 times. I climb up on something where I can get a good view of Jenifer's hands, and just jones. He's an unbelievable bassist.
GW: How did the Beastie Boys make the jump from playing hardcore to rapping?
MCA: When we were around 14 or 15 - Adroc was around 12 or 13 - we'd hang out at clubs and see punk bands like Stimulator and Bad Brains. But the clubs didn't only play hardcore records - they also played James Brown and hip-hop. We were really into that stuff, so we started rhyming and messing around.
ADROC: It was also around then that a lot of rap acts were coming downtown to play. We got into rap the same way we got into hardcore: we listened to a lot of punk rock, and then we started playing it. Then we started listening to rap, so we played hip-hop, too.
GW: What were your gigs like?
ADROC: When we'd play a shoow, the first 15 minutes would be hardcore, and then Rick Rubin [the original Beastie dee-jay, founder of Def Jam records and famous producer] would come up and we'd start to rap. Eventually we switched over to doing only rap. But it was a mellow transition for us. Half our act was rap, anyway.
GW: What rappers were influencing you at the time?
ADROC: Funky Four Plus One, Jimmy Spitzer, Grandmaster Flash, Crash Crew...
GW: Was it difficult for you to give up hardcore, since that was what first attracted you to playing in a band?
MCA: Hardcore is really the most important shit to me because it's pure expression. It's not at all about chops - it's a pure, basic level that anyone can do. I mean, if you screw around with a guitar for a couple of weeks, you can get together enough chops to express yourself with hardcore.
ADROC: The same thing goes for hip-hop: Get a basic beat, go for it...
MCA: ...and your individuality is going to come out. Hip-hop and hardcore aren't complex like classical music, which you have to study your entire life just to be able to hang out. You can study classical your whole life and still not be able to hang out! [laughs] That shit's crazy. It's not music to me, though I recognize it is music to some people.
ADROC: When you think about it, hardcore and hip-hop aren't really that different. In hardcore, you've got your verse and your chorus. In a rap song, it's kind of the same thing. And the attitude is the same - it's a city attitude. It comes from New York. In New York there's punk and there's rap.
MCA: It's the same attitude, the same power.
GW: Though it seems that the rap scene is the one that really took off.
MCA: Nah... You go to some places and hardcore is all the kids listen to. I got to house parties all the time where hardcore bands play. I'm like, "Damn, I was doing this 12 years ago. I can't believe it's still going on."
GW: Is the band directly involved with the Grand Royal record label?
ADROC: Very involved. There's only three acts on the label, and I'm in two of them! Mike's president, I work A&R and MCA is treasurer.
MCA: Actually, I'm in charge of collateral. It's similar to treasurer, but more meaningless.
ADROC: We always thought it would be cool to have our own record label. So we were our first band, then some friends gave us a tape, and that's Luscious Jackson. Then we put out a 45 of a band I was in called DFL. Hurricane, our deejay, has a record coming out, and that's all we have right now! [laughs] We really need to find more groups, so send your demo tapes to the address listed in our CD. Oh, we're also putting out a compilation of our hardcore recordings called Some Old Bullshit.
GW: How do you think fans will react to an album composed entirely of Beastie Boy hardcore songs?
ADROC: Well, they're going to think it's pretty well named! [laughs]
GW: What did you bring to rap from your hardcore experience?
MCA: Well, I think we were the first hip-hop group to put a mosh part into a rap song. A mosh part is when the tempo slows down radically - at least one out of every four hardcore songs has one.
GW: Was it a big deal for you to give up your instruments to start rapping?
ADROC: No, not particularly. It wasn't like, "I'm putting this down, and now I'm doing something else." I was just into rap and writing lyrics at the time.
MCA: And later on we went back to playing oour instruments.
ADROC: Well, Yauch more than me! [laughs] I think you can tell that from the album.
GW: Did you ever take lessons?
ADROC: I took a lesson once from [art rocker] Laurie Anderson's sister. You know that song, "Oh, Superman"? I took a lesson from her sister.
MCA: I took two lessons. I don't know where I hooked up with this dude - he was a studio musician or something. He taught me some basic exercises and made me listen to some records. Then I realized, "I can do this on my own. I can make up my own exercises and listen to records by myself."
GW: What kind of bass do you play?
MCA: A Fender Jazz. My pedal of choice is the Superfuzz. It goes way back to Licensed to Ill.
GW: Do you practice often?
MCA: We don't really practice. We just go into the studio. In fact, we didn't play together all winter. [laughs] We went into the studio May 1, plugged in and jammed.
GW: So all the new songs were written in the studio?
ADROC: Everything is done in our studio. We all start to play, and when it gels into something that sounds cool, someone yells, "Remember what you're playing!" Then we start the tape and jam for a while.
GW: Who else is in the studio with you?
MCA: Mark, our keyboard player, Bobo, who plays percussion on this album, and Hurricane, our deejay. Mario, our producer, is usually also there.
GW: The Beastie Boys are known for introducing new and interesting sounds on their albums. How long does it take to choose sounds for recording?
MCA: Everything's got to sound dope, so we just stay on top of it until it sounds right. It's one of the most important things. We'll sit and mess around with the drums for a long time, moving the mics around, trying different eq settings...
ADROC: This all comes out of the hip-hop end of what we do. Rock has set sounds, but hip-hop gets a little wilder. For my guitar I have an amp I really like that's called an SG, though it has nothing to do with Gibson. It has a built-in distortion and a built-in phaser.
MCA: And it looks like a washing machine.
ADROC: It sounds like a washing machine! [laughs] It's hardcore hip-hop! We like a lot of low-tech sounds. Everything is so high-tech these days; the sounds are so clean that they're uninteresting.
GW: You've even added distortion to your vocals...
ADROC: That's not distortion! We went out and bought some bullshit plastic mics! You see, we're not an instrument-oriented band - we're more into getting sounds.
GW: Do you all get involved with the programming?
MCA: We all do. Mario knows a lot about sampling, so we bring him records and we'll sit in front of the SP1200 [a sampler made by E-mu] for hours. Adroc has been into it since they came out with home drum machines.
ADROC: Yeah, math was the only subject in school I'd stick around for. But we don't sequence shit - we just loop samples from records. We'll find a bar of drum beat, then find a bar of bass, make them the same size, amd lay them on top of each other. All the scratching is live.
MCA: When you're rhyming, it's kind of nice to have the rhythm tracks really consistent and repeating in an exact way. Every rim-shot and every bass note needs to sound the same, so when we make a hip-hop song, we'll first record SMPTE on a tape and then lay down loops that are at one specific tempo. But as for the instrumentals on the album, we just kick on the tape and play.
GW: MCA, is that you playing acoustic bass on the album?
MCA: Yeah, I've been playing a lot of acoustic bass lately. It's like a different instrument.
GW: Yes, I understand it's difficult for someone who has learned on bass guitar to switch to upright.
MCA: Nah... You just keep on playing until you can play something. [laughs] I pride myself on being a complete hack. I've been playing for a couple of years, but if any jazz musician saw me, he'd say I don't have any technique.
GW: Adroc, there's a huge stylistic difference between hardcore guitar and the funky stuff you play on Check Your Head and Ill Communication.
MCA: [Transcriber's note: This actually seems to be Adrock, not MCA.] Well, I don't play that much on the hip-hop songs. [pauses] I'm trying to think of the hip-hop songs I really played on... Just "Root Down," and that's it.
I listen to a lot of [Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist] Eddie Hazel and Jimi Hendrix. I don't know why, but I just like that Funkadelic guitar; I like to rock out on it. Actually, I have to rephrase that: I like to rock out, but in a different way. I like to play rhythms and let MCA take the lead. Guitar players usually take up too much room. I like beats and bass-lines, with just a little guitar on the accents.
GW: Funk guitar seems to be having a rebirth in popular music.
ADROC: Well, I think the word "funk" is very misused. I've always thought of funk as being very spare. In James Brown's music, all the musicians give each other room to breathe - they give the groove room to breathe. That's what makes funk. A lot of what people call funk these days is just everyone in the band playing as many notes as they can. Guitar players just won't shut up. They play all these notes, and they forget the song. A little is a lot more than what those people play. That's what I appreciate about funk.
MCA: That's why we try to keep everything stripped down.
GW: The songs on Check Your Head and Ill Communication swing from rap to hardcore to rock to funk, to even a violin piece. Were you going for that "mix tape" effect?
ADROC: Yes. It's something that's fun to do, and the reason for it is the reason we started playing rap in the first place. It's fun to play hardcore - really fun - but after a few songs, it all sounds the same. We had to do something different.
MCA: We've always loved different kinds of music and we're always making mix tapes, so when we play, we like to change what we do a lot.
ADROC: It's as if we'd rather be deejays than musicians.
GW: The Beastie Boys also cram a lot of music on their albums. Both Check Your Head and Ill Communication contain 20 songs apiece.
MCA: [laughs] We just keep recording until it's done. ADROC: There are ten songs we didn't use for the album, and four songs we actually recorded but dropped from the final mix.
GW: When will fans will be able to hear that material?
MCA: Oh, they'll wind up as B-sides.
ADROC: To me, B-sides are just as important as albums. We're really into singles because you can just go off more. For example, we couldn't put a song like "Your Sister's Def" on the album. You'd feel cheated and want a $1.50 back from the price of the album for having to listen to it. [laughs] But people are happy to have it on a B-side.
GW: What five tapes do you take along when you go on tour?
ADROC: Five tapes? More like five hundred! I take all my mix tapes.
GW: What's on them?
ADROC: Well, I don't listen to country western, opera or classical - not that I have anything against that music. If it's on, I won't turn it off... Well, some country western really bugs me. [laughs]
GW: So what's on the tapes?
ADROC: Quest, Back Door, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Yusef Latif, Miles Davis, Brazil 66...and James Brown. You're required to have James Brown on every mix tape you make - Bob Marley, too. Then there's Stone Alliance, The Clash...
MCA: ...Abba! [laughs]
GW: Do you ever cover any songs by these artists?
ADROC: We don't rock out on covers. It's too hard to learn how to play well enough to play other people's shit. [laughs] It's just easier to make stuff up.
MCA: And cut out the middle man!
GW: Do you wish you'd continued with your music studies?
MCA: Well, we just play the sounds that feel good to us. Chops are cool as a tool to get out what's in your head, but if it goes beyond that, you're trapped. And you don't need a lot of fancy equipment. All you need are the basics.
ADROC: We're living proof that you don't have to be good to get over.
GW: Is that the key to success?
MCA: Well, if you're goal is to get really famous by making a demo tape and shopping it to labels...that's a big jump to make. But if you want to just entertain your friends, that's a whole other thing. And that's where we're coming from.
If you just write a couple of songs to play at some parties, you'll be much more in touch with what people like. Let your band expand if it wants to, but it has to happen on its own. A lot of kids practice at home a whole bunch, get good chops, and then come out and expect to get a record deal. But who are they writing songs for?
ADROC: You don't know it now, but you'll be very upset if you miss those house party gigs.
MCA: Yeah. Where else can you pee in the ice-cube tray?
GW: Besides setting trends with your music, the Beastie Boys are also fashion tastemakers. Didn't I see you guys on MTV's "House Of Style?"
MCA: [laughs] I've just been wearing the same bummy shit for years. I pride myself on my bumminess.
ADROC: I get all my clothes for free, from Mike's store, "Extra Large." My fashion is called "free fashion." Wear whatever you can get for free.