When outside of the North Bay, being a Bohemian writer means constantly illuminating others with comparisons to the SF Weekly or other familiar alternative weeklies. So when I received an e-mail from the Beastie Boys’ management inviting me to participate in their latest promotional roundtable interview, I was skeptical but also intrigued. A new Beastie Boys album is an event, but this time they’re promoting The Mix-Up, their first album devoid of samples and consisting entirely of instrumentals, funky interludes previously only served up in small doses alongside more pleasing hip-hop tracks on their past discs.
I naturally started researching for what would surely be a White House&–style press conference. The three Jewish kids from New York who’ve been part of virtually every important musical movement in my lifetime, from early ’80s hardcore and rap music’s commercial ascension to the socially conscious, genre-bending, pseudo-DIY aesthetic of the “alternative” ’90s. The guys who went from hedonistic, frat-boy pranksters to the ultra-hip, China-boycotting Bob Geldofs of my generation. The group that persist as the best head-bobbing reminder of punk and rap’s closely knit origins–I mean, these guys made Paul’s Boutique, for God’s sake!
And so, armed with over a dozen well-constructed questions, I strolled into a hotel off Market Street ready. I felt confident–until I walked in the room.
Instead of a mob of journalists, just a few were seated at a tiny boardroom table. For all my self-assurance, I had planned on at least a little anonymity. After some pleasant chitchat with the others, in walked the Beastie Boys. Other than assorted crow’s feet, smile lines and gray hair, they still look quite youthful. I tried hard to bury my starstruck feelings as Mike D poured himself a glass from the same I pitcher I had just used!
As the interview got underway, it seemed more like a comedy routine than a press conference, with Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz and Adam “MCA” Yauch giving smart-alecky, bullshit answers to questions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other artists sampling their music. They were relaxed and talkative with the journalists and each other, joshing as if they were sitting on a brownstone stoop back east. Then it was my turn.
It seemed with the Tibetan Freedom Concerts and your work with Milarepa in the late ’90s that there was a momentum in this country in regards to human rights issues, especially in China. How do you feel that the state of it is today, a decade later?
(The longest pause in history. Crickets chirping.)
Ad-Rock (sullen): I don’t know. That’s an honest answer.
Mike D (hesitant): I’m going to try it. Definitely it seems like . . . um . . . it’d be nice if human rights were focused on, especially in the consumer process that we all go through.
So have you guys gotten involved in things like fair trade?
Mike D: I don’t know if we’re more involved . . . although I do support it. (Long pause)
Ad-Rock: Dude, you killed the mood with that whole thing.With this comment, laughter returned to the room for a moment before MCA, the group’s resident Buddhist and creative force behind their Tibetan causes, expressed some disillusionment with his benefit work.
“The first year or two that we did the concerts, you’d call up the artists and ask them to play, and they were really enthusiastic about it,” he said. “Come the fifth year, they’d be like, ‘Oh no, here comes that call again.’ And in terms of the media, too, it started to get redundant. I think our culture so much just wants something new.”
Then it was right back to the tomfoolery, with the Beasties riffing whether or not eBay patronage is technically thrift store shopping, hassling a friend of their publicist who just wanted to sit in (“What exactly are your credentials?”) before embarking on a five-minute discussion on the Knicks’ chances this year. When talking of dream collaborations, they mentioned magician Criss “Mindfreak” Angel before feigning admiration for another popular artist. “I enjoy artists like Sting,” MCA deadpanned. “I mean, I don’t know his music, but his fashion sense . . .”
The activism question had been a chore for them, so I thought I’d ask about The Mix-Up, which hadn’t yet been discussed. This one couldn’t miss.
Some people affectionately refer to the new album as ‘porno music.’ What do you guys think of that?
MCA (immediately): Are you the Debbie Downer of this . . . (Laughter throughout the room.)
Ad-Rock: So, you go from human rights to porno?
Mike D: I think that we’re a very sexy group, and I’m glad that people want to celebrate us that way.
Are you guys trying to prove anything as musicians with this album?
Ad-Rock: Are we still on the pornography thing?
MCA: It just seemed like a good idea at the time, you know.
Ad-Rock: Yeah, I don’t think we’re good enough to try to prove anything like that.
MCA: We were just trying to make some shit that sounds cool to us and see if anyone else is feeling it.
Ad-Rock: But I like pornography.
MCA (to Ad-Rock): You’re a huge fan of the whole genre?
Ad-Rock: Yeah, it’s wide open, you know.
I guess I bummed the Beastie Boys out and insulted their musical talent. As a journalist, I felt wonderful. As a fan, not so great.
Later that night at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, their triangular chemistry translated to the more familiar call-and-response in classics like “Shake Your Rump” and the party anthem “Brass Monkey,” a highlight for the mostly college-aged crowd. Like the Beastie’s best albums, their show was a seamless blend of hip-hop, punk and instrumental lounge-funk. Although The Mix-Up is a bold new step for the group, it was hard to ignore the mad rush for the restrooms and beer stands every time the men broke out their instruments. It’s no wonder they saw the need for the “gala” instrumental show at the much-smaller Warfield Theatre the night before.
As I sipped my first Beastie beer ever purchased with a real ID, wondering why anyone would invite journalists from all over the Bay Area just to dodge their questions for kicks, the closing number seemed to offer a clue. A familiar refrain was building and building until audience and band screamed at full volume, “Listen, all y’all, it’s a sabotage!” I guess the Beastie Boys never have stopped pulling pranks on people. And what an enjoyable prank it was.