Saturday, May 5, 2012

R.I.P. Nathaniel Hornblower
Beastie Boys : Generation X's Musical, Cultural Bellwether

Following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, Rolling Stone's David Fricke famously--some say infamously--suggested the late Nirvana front man was the modern-day equivalent of Beatles co-impresario John Lennon, saying in part "...(like Lennon, Cobain) was writing very much from the heart, very directly, and he didn't play according to the rules."

Music purists lined up to chastise Fricke, dismissing the notion that a three-piece, three chord, post-punk grunge band could even approximate the level of musical and cultural impact enjoyed by the sainted lad(s) from Liverpool.
Yauch : Earth's Baddest Buddhist

If Cobain can even loosely be compared to Lennon, then the death this week of Adam "MCA" Yauch--co-founder of seminal hip-hop band Beastie Boys--will have many 50-and-under observers likening the imprint left by the Brooklyn-bred trio to that of a certain British foursome.

Consider, for starters, the music. Originally formed as a hardcore punk band in 1979, the Beasties attained some moderate local success in support of groups like Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedy's before releasing their first hip-hop track, "Cooky Puss", in 1983. This led to further incorporation of rap into their live shows, their eventual collaboration with Ruck Rubin via his upstart Def Jam Records, and finally, in 1986, the release of Licensed to Ill. The album became the first rap LP to reach #1 on the Billboard album chart, and the best-selling rap album of the decade. It skyrocketed the group to international stardom and launched them on a world tour. Along the way, tracks like "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" became bonafide party/rap classics.

The Licensed to Ill tour also earned the group a well-honed party boy reputation ; the stage show featured caged female dancers and a giant inflatable penis. Several European crowds were whipped into riotous frenzies, with the Beasties accused of inciting/provoking crowds with their profane, beer-can-smashing antics.

With this as a backdrop, most observers predicted more meat head-friendly fare. But their next two projects--1988's Paul's Boutique, and Check Your Head, released in 1992--marked experimental departures for the group, and are held up as examples of their trailblazing musical style. On Boutique (ranked #156 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time), the Beasties pioneered the use of multi-layering amidst a staggering amount of musical sampling, cementing it as one of the great hip-hop recordings in history (despite less than stellar critical response at the time). Examples of this sampling approach can be heard on tracks like "Car Thief" :

Beastie Boys - Car Thief by Bro Hug

On Check Your Head, released on the group's own Grand Royal record label, the Beasties picked up their instruments once again, and embarked on perhaps their most groundbreaking recording to date. A sizzling, simmering mix of hip-hop, instrumental R&B, Latin, funk, and hardcore punk, the album achieved double-platinum status in the U.S., and ushered in the format for what would become their live/touring package; the use of turntable and sample-based beats, interspersed with 'live' or instrumental performances. Their awesome musical hybrid can be seen in this live performance of "Something's Got To Give" from the documentary "Awesome: I F**kin' Shot That!" (directed by the late Yauch himself):

Live instrumentation--with Yauch on bass, Michael "Mike D." Diamond on drums, and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz on guitar (Horovitz was also the primary beatmaker/studio producer)--remained a staple for the group.  Beginning with Check Your Head, the Beasties also collaborated with the likes of studio engineer Mario Caldato, Jr., keyboardist Mark "Money Mark" Nishita, DJ Hurricane, and frenetic turntablist/contributing musician Mixmaster Mike. This expanded musical approach was most famously realized on tracks like  "Sabrosa" (from 1994's Ill Communication), and, most recently, "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament," from 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part Two:

Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament by Beastie Boys

The band broke plenty of non-musical ground as well. Their videos--most notably their collaborations with acclaimed director Spike Jonze--often became instant spawning grounds for fashion trends, just by virtue of an item's appearance on one off the band members. In 1992's "So What'cha Want," it was flannel shirts, vintage tees, and wool hats. For Jonze's "Sabotage," the group made the un-coolest of bad 70's cop fashion cool again ; this time it was mustaches and aviator sunglasses. Later years saw them turn to Carhartt-style work wear in videos like "Intergalactic" (from 1997's Hello Nasty). Even back in the formative days of Licensed to Ill, Mike D. single handedly (if unintentionally) inspired a worldwide rash of automobile emblem theft by adorning himself with a large Volkswagen insignia attached to a chain-link necklace.

But perhaps the most telling representation of the Beasties' cross-generational influence and appeal lies in their most recent work, the video for "Make Some Noise,"  the lead single off what proved to be their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Directed--fittingly--by Yauch alter-ego Nathaniel Hornblower, the clip is a who's who of comedy, film, and pop culture stars both past and present, with Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen playing a slightly swollen version of the Beasties circa 1986. John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell, and Jack Black supply the fast-forwarded version of the group, and cameos throughout the 29-minute short film range from Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, and Ted Danson, to Zach Galifanakis, Steve Buscemi, and Maya Rudolph, none of whom seem the least bit inhibited by appearing in a production that includes willful property destruction, drug use, and an alarming amount of mutual group urination. "Its hard to find anyone in popular culture who's not a fan of the Beastie Boys," said MTV Music Group president Van Toffler, "...and any comedian would jump at the chance to be in a Beastie Boys video because they were so loud and unforgettable."

"Make Some Noise" not only re-illustrates the Beasties' singular influence in the realm of music videos (many consider their impact on MTV to be on par with that of Michael Jackson), but perhaps their most important contribution to rap music in general ; the acceptance of the genre by mainstream white America. While inducting the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, L.L. Cool J. praised the trio's proselytization of hip-hop , saying in part, "Run D.M.C. brought rap to the edge of Suburbia, the Beasties drove it right to the center of town."

If the Beatles reflected the West's turbulent transition from conservative 50's morays to the liberated, free-loving 60's, and finally the psychedelic 1970's, certainly Beastie Boys can be considered a more modern, American-bred standard-bearer. The former went from tailored, mop-topped songs about holding hands and the pitfalls of puppy love, to long hair and beards, experimenting with musical boundaries and world religions (not to mention LSD), and becoming a cultural reference point for what registered as important to millions of people not represented by The Establishment.

The Beastie Boys certainly didn't have Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement to contend with, but they also never shied away from social/political causes. They used the platform of an awards acceptance speech to rail against anti-Muslim stereotyping following the bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Yauch--who himself converted to Buddhism following a visit to Nepal in the 1990's--became heavily involved in the Tibetan independence movement, co-founding the Milarepa Fund and Tibetan Freedom Concerts, dedicated to raising money and awareness for the cause. And following the debacle of the Woodstock 1999 Music Festival--which was ended prematurely due to violence, arson, and scores of reported sexual assaults--Horovitz excoriated the music industry to campaign for safer conditions for females at concerts.

Their evolution from shallow, beer-bonging agitators into the respected, elder statesman of the craft certainly mirrors the maturation of rap music from a strictly urban-based fringe movement, enjoyed primarily by inner-city youths, to an art form embraced worldwide on pop radio, in commercial endorsements, across fashion runways, and beyond. Along the way they changed the perception of what a true 'rap' act can be, not only in terms of racial makeup, but perhaps just as important, musical content. They began as teenagers in the analog era of mix tapes and turntable scratching, and stayed relevant through the digital MP3 revolution and into their late forties, somehow always remaining arbiters of youthful, rebellious cool. Along the way, they created three decades of timeless hits, a veritable life soundtrack for people age 50-and-under. And that, in this era of American Idol, disposable Internet fame, and fly-by-night musical tastes, is testament enough to their importance.