THE BEASTIE BOYS, UNFILTERED
An epic encounter with hip-hop's original misfits
In the years since losing their best friend and bandmate, Mike D and Ad-Rock have been mapping out their journey as the biggest-selling rap group in history. Now they’re finally ready to celebrate that legacy... while having as many laughs as possible.
In a private dining room at a decadent London hotel, the two surviving Beastie Boys have a look of mischief in their eyes. “I’m gonna steal some shit,” says Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz, slyly scanning the set-up. It’s the kind of place with leather chairs, crystal chandeliers and gold chalices on silver coasters. Adam gravitates straight towards the coffee machine, rifling through a load of Nespresso pods, pausing only to squint at their labels before stuffing them in his pockets. “I’m about to grab a good grip of these shits... but don’t tell anyone.”
“What are you taking, Adam? What are you gonna steal right now?” says Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond, his friend and collaborator since 1981, with an air of mock indignation. “I’m gonna announce whatever you take in this interview so that people know. Huck is read by a lot of crime sleuths. It’s very popular amongst that set.”
Mike slides a green parka jacket off his lanky frame, stifles a yawn and immediately hones in on something else. “What’s in this special little glass box?” he says, leaning in to lift its lid. “Ooh, look!” The 53-year-old pulls out a handful of chocolates, unwrapping a miniature Galaxy bar. “I’m havin’ this. I’m goin’ in. I don’t give a fuck right now, know what I’m sayin’?”
The pair have been in the room less than a minute and already it’s just what you’d want from the Beastie Boys: the shenanigans, the dry wit, the ability to riff off each other incessantly. They’ve spent much of the last five years trying to distil that dynamic into a book about the band. What they came up with is a 550-page meta memoir that splinters into mixtape playlists, recipes, photo archives, a comic strip, maps and diagrams, chapters by guest contributors as well as layers of annotations that capture their personalities.
But it also serves as a moving tribute to the Beastie Boy who’s no longer with us: Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, who died from salivary gland cancer in 2012. Yauch was the motivator, the autodidact, the tornado who turned ideas into tangible things. Yet as a unit, the trio managed to forge one of the most unpredictable, irreverent and successful trajectories in music.
Then Yauch’s death changed everything. The extent of that loss isn’t explored in the Beastie Boys Book – it’s still too difficult to talk about – but charting the band’s journey and adapting it into a stage show seems to have invigorated Adam and Mike. There’s talk of a documentary, maybe even some unreleased music when they feel ready to revisit the wealth of recordings left behind. For now, they’re just happy to be talking shit in each other’s company again.
Adam, with his upturned hair and salt’n’pepper stubble, is a master of deadpan – the sardonic foil to Mike’s excitable warmth. Maybe it’s because old childhood friends can’t help regressing in each other’s company, but it feels like they’ve barely changed from the upstarts who wreaked havoc on hip hop 30-something years ago.
Adam: So Mike tells me that he’s in the Huck book [Paddle Against the Flow, a collection of inspirational advice, published in 2015]...
Mike: Damn straight.
That’s true. His picture is in it.
Adam: Just a picture?
Mike: Text, too!
I should clarify that not everyone in it has a photograph.
Mike: People are actually into me not just ’cause of the nude pictures in Huck. There’s a lot of depth to what I bring.
Adam: Oh shit, now I’m going to have to send you some nude pictures.
So there has been a lot of focus on the cringeworthy parts of your early days and how you moved on from that. But your most embarrassing moments were still more successful than what most artists ever experience. How do you feel about that?
Mike: The thing is, those cringeworthy moments were part of us being a huge band. Without us having that success, we couldn’t have made all the stuff we are proud of.
Adam: We focus in the time-space continuum and we’re here now as though we were there then.
Mike: I don’t even know what that means.
Adam: I don’t know either... I’m just trying to make something up.
Can you remember a specific moment when you realised that you’d become the same boorish knuckleheads you’d been making fun of?
Mike: I always think of that time on tour where Yauch threw a plastic tub filled with ice on stage, going: “Boring! Boring! Boring!” [laughs] I thought, ‘Wow. This shit really is over now.’
Adam: That upset me, when he did that.
Mike: We’d reached a point where we should not have been playing those shows. There’s the cringeworthy stuff that we can certainly call ourselves out on – things we should be called out on. But there was also this situation where it was and wasn’t what we wanted. ‘Yeah, okay, we’re gonna play this role and make these hilarious videos.’ But then you end up trapped, in a sense, because you have to play shows as these guys throwing beer over each other night after night. We were so ready to move on from that and make what we wanted to make.
If the Beasties formed today through connections made online, taking New York completely out of the equation, how different would the band be?
Adam: Like on Grindr, you mean? I don’t think it would be that different. We could be ‘young people’ in the internet age. You’d still have common interests.
Mike: On the one hand, yes – you’ve got access to literally everything, all the time. [reaches for phone]
Adam: Don’t do it, Mike. Don’t do it. Don’t.
[Mike has a habit of taking out his phone to pull up a scene from Lost Angels, a 1989 film that Adam starred in, and this is likely what he’s threatening to do here.]
Mike: [laughs, reluctantly putting his phone away] But I wonder if we’d get exposed to so much different shit at the same time, like we did being from New York. Back then it felt like everything was happening at once, in real time. Not everyone had headphones so you’d hear things you weren’t planning on hearing. I just don’t know how much more random stuff can get your attention now.
Adam: I feel like it would be overwhelming to realise that in just one hour you can discover Eddie Bo, 6ix9ine, Bad Brains... All this shit can happen so quickly.
Paul’s Boutique, your second album, bombed commercially in 1989 but later became a fan favourite. At what point did you realise it was actually well-loved?
Mike: Ooh… It was definitely not when we went to the record company and said, “Hey, we really want to make a go of this.” And they’re like: “It’s gone. Go make another record.”
Adam: “You’re done with that record. Why are we still talking about this?”
Mike: [laughs] But I guess it wasn’t really until Check Your Head came out  and then we were on tour. Paul’s Boutique bricked so much that we just played a few shows and that was it. So on that tour people were like, “Yeah man, License to Ill was cool but Paul’s Boutique? That’s my shit.” And I’m like, “Well, why didn’t you buy it then?” [laughs] It was only then we realised it meant a lot to some people, I guess.
But [producers] the Dust brothers said that you guys didn’t want it to blow up, that Yauch even told them: “We won’t promote this at all. It’ll be a cool thing that people find out about” ...which is exactly what happened.
Adam: I don’t know if he ever said that but it’s cool to say that he did!
Mike: It makes it seem like we were so much smarter than we were.
Adam: Oh yeah, “We don’t want to make money off this.”
From reading the book, it seems like you guys think Paul’s Boutique is a little overrated within your output...
Adam: I mean, it’s a good record and it’s cool that we did something really different. But there are some duds on there that could’ve been left off.
Mike: I’m proud of the record. Looking at it in hindsight, of course you can see that there’s no ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ on there; there are no rap songs with guitars. How can you possibly think you would appeal to the same audience you had before? That totally makes sense.
But we invested so much effort that we really believed in it. I remember hearing De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising and thinking, ‘Fuck! We need to make something better because that’s a great record.’ Same with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions... So of course we were bummed to go into Tower Records and not find [Paul’s Boutique] anywhere. People would ask us if we were makin’ another record and we’d be like, “Um, yeah, we just put it out a month ago.”
The Beastie Boys have been sampled over a thousand times. But is there something you sampled yourselves that you can look back fondly on now?
Adam: Well, I remember going to a thrift store one day and finding this album that was all warped. The cover was fucked-up from water damage and it was a double LP with only one record inside. It was by Yusef Lateef and cost a quarter or whatever. I played it at home and there’s this song ‘Samba De Amor’ with a really good breakbeat in the middle. We used it on ‘Alright Hear This’ and something about that process of finding it makes it one of my favourites... We should check the clearance on those 1,000 samples, though.
Yauch at the Beasties' G-Son studio space.
Yauch at the Beasties' G-Son studio space.
If you could have anyone else’s job, what would it be?
Adam: I’m pretty content with my job. I would say that I want to be Allen Iverson, hitting a three-pointer to win the game. But then you gotta go to the gym every day, you gotta wake up early, do all this other stuff – it’s too much work.
Mike: Plus, you’re going up against guys who are 6’ 11”, their elbows coming down on you when you go for a layup.
Adam: I don’t want that.
Okay, imagine you join an injury-depleted team on a 10-day contract. A couple of other players foul out and you end up playing two minutes in crunch time. You do just enough and manage to hit the game-winning three. The contract isn’t extended but you become a folk hero.
Adam: Now you’re makin’ it sound like I’m Rudy. Have you seen that movie? [Rudy is a 1993 film about a walk-on hero for Notre Dame’s football team] …But sure, I’d like that. I could do 10 days.
Mike: In the league? At your age? I dunno…
Adam: It’s a Cinderella story!
Mike: [laughs] News flash: There’s no professional athlete aged 50-plus.
Adam: I’d be the exception. It’s 10 days!
Going back a bit, how long do you think it took – once you moved to LA – before you’d gained some respect within the hip-hop community that maybe wasn’t there before?
Adam: I don’t know if that ever really happened for us.
Mike: I do feel like we had that. Before putting out ‘Paul Revere’ , we were playing shows with Run-DMC, Schoolly D, LL Cool J – we were immersed in that world. Then Licensed to Ill got huge; we were on MTV and became the bad guys or whatever because these white dudes all of a sudden had this really successful rap record – and I get that. Then we go to LA, do Paul’s Boutique and no one really wanted to hear from us. But I feel like somewhere around us making Check Your Head, people like Q-Tip started coming by the studio: Afrika [Bambaataa], Jungle Brothers, Biz Markie. We kinda had a new community.
Adam: I’m just saying if you ask a random rapper now – Snoop, Offset, anybody – I do think people give us our due.
Mike: Offset is not gonna know who we are. [laughs] Quavo, maybe.
Adam: I think he would! Like, “Oh, Licensed to Ill.” They would know ‘Paul Revere.’ Maybe not Offset, but you know what I mean…
Mike: Metro Boomin would know.
Adam: Okay. I’m just saying… it’s nice to be appreciated. But I still believe a lot of people [within hip hop] think that Licensed to Ill happened and then that was sort of it.
What have been the best and worst things about living with each other over the years?
Mike: We moved into this house called the G-Spot in the Hollywood Hills, right by the Hollywood sign. I remember us looking at each other, feeling like we were on top of the world. You could look out over the valley and all across LA.
Adam: Like, “We’re killin’ it now.”
Mike: Crushin’ it. Of course… we were spending our own money to live in the house, so really we hadn’t crushed it. We were just paying rent.
Adam: ...which was a tonne of money.
Mike: But when you’re in a band, you feel like you’ve crushed it. Living all together meant we could just smoke a joint and go eat breakfast. When you’re 19 or 20, that’s way more fun than living with your parents.
Adam: But we really did live together for years and years anyway. We hung out all morning, afternoon and night. Then we’d just go home and start again the next morning, so it wasn’t that different.
Mike: Once we had our own studio, that became the centre of our universe. We treated it like that, too: putting in a basketball court and skate ramp. We’d be there all week long. You never had to leave, except to sleep.
So you never got on each other’s nerves? I heard that in the early days, the two Adams used to team up on Mike… pulling pranks in the middle of the night.
Adam: Mostly in the middle of the night, but he was asleep so he didn’t care.
Mike: I do remember waking up from such pranks. The potted plant incident...
Adam: I thought we did that to the Captain [Sean Carasov, road manager].
Mike: We were sharing a room.
Adam: Well, there you go. It was Mike and the Captain. It wasn’t focused on Mike.
Mike: I felt very victimised, Adam.
Adam: And you should have… we threw a tree on you!
On an everyday basis, what really grinds your gears?
Mike: I don’t like when you’re at a restaurant and the waiter sits down next to you – kinda like this. [gets awkwardly close] “Alright bud…”
Adam: “This is how our menu works.”
Mike: Yeah, first of all you shouldn’t have to explain the menu. And don’t get this close to me, like I am to you. Don’t call me ‘bud’, ‘boss’ or ‘chief’.
Adam: That’s Mike’s main pet peeve: when someone calls him ‘chief’.
Mike: I don’t like that. ‘Chief’ is fightin’ words.
Adam, what about you?
Adam: Poor design gets me crazy. You go to a door but there’s no knob; there’s some weird button and you have to do it a certain way. Why not have a door knob? It just irks me. I don’t want to have to go through any rigmarole.
Mike: How do you feel about the lever versus a regular door knob?
Adam: You can get caught on a lever. I don’t like it.
Mike: Sometimes I like the lever.
Adam: But I’m cool with everything else.
What makes you feel fulfilled at this point in your life?
Adam: Soup dumplings.
That’s such an American interpretation of the word fulfilled...
Adam: Have you ever had soup dumplings? The soup is in the dumpling. You take a bite of the dumpling and soup comes out.
That sounds messy...
Adam: Well, you plan on it. You gotta know ahead of time.
Mike: You dress accordingly. You’re not wearing your nicest shirt.
This is why you need a guy to explain the menu...
Adam: “Here’s what you do with the soup dumpling, chief.”
Mike: But, no... in a world where there are a lot of shitty jobs, we have great ones. I wouldn’t switch it up. We get to try shit we have no business trying, like writing a book. I can’t really find fault with that.
Money Mark at the band's G-Son studio.
Money Mark at the band's G-Son studio.
On a more serious note, there’s been a lot of emphasis on how you matured in your early 20s, going from being sexist and misogynistic in your music to speaking out about those things. What was it like talking to other male artists about these issues at the time?
Mike: That’s a good question. I remember having my eyes opened by other artists. Like on Ill Communication , I give a shout out to [English riot grrrl group] Huggy Bear. Then there’s shit I learned from Adam’s wife Kathleen, who was in the band Bikini Kill, that I just wasn’t aware of. But I don’t remember talking about it or having it go the other way with artists.
Adam: When we were at the  MTV Awards and said something from the stage about the shit that happened at Woodstock that year [Adam urged artists and promoters to do more to prevent sexual harassment and assault on women at concerts], nobody wanted to hear what we were saying. I’ve certainly talked with people I know, like other musicians, about these things. But I’ve never said to, like, the singer in Korn: “Hey man, let’s talk for a little bit.”
Well, I understand that you once called the Prodigy and asked them not to perform ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ at a festival. How did that go?
Adam: Ehhhh… not so good. Not so good.
Adam: They were like, “That’s our hit song. We’re playing it.” And we went, “Okay. We’re probably going to say something about it from the stage.” But maybe they’ve thought about it differently since then...
Who would you say you’ve looked up to most in your life?
Adam: [long pause] That’s a tough question… I’m trying to think of any grown-up who I’ve ever had a positive experience with. [laughs] I look up to my wife Kathleen. She’s pretty amazing, very smart. [pause] Maybe LeBron James? He’s a positive cat: good work ethic, strong family member and friend.
Mike: He’s okay with showing his vulnerabilities.
Adam: And he just opened a public school.
Mike: The complete package.
Adam: I’d like to look up to The Rock, physically, in a hug.
Mike: For me, I would say Yauch... but that’s an obvious one because we talk about it so much in the book. I would say my mom, too. Although I was a terrible teenager…
Adam: [interrupts] And your twenties and thirties were really bad.
Mike: Thirties? C’mon, I wasn’t that bad of a son.
Adam: Yeah, Hester [Mike’s mom] just told me that.
Mike: I felt like I had it more together then.
Adam: Nah, you mellowed out at around 47. [laughter] Hester’s pretty great.
Mike: But more in adulthood, I look up to her.
When you made a promise with Yauch not to make any more music without him, was that something that needed to be articulated?
Adam: Did we make a promise?
Mike: I don’t think we did. That sounds like something that would be good in a movie script. But in real life, I don’t think we’d ever talk about stuff that way. It wasn’t really until the very, very end where we were, I guess, forced to give up on Yauch fighting to continue living.
Since he passed, have you ever encountered anyone that reminds you of him in some way?
Mike: He was such an individual that I couldn’t even expect that, given just how varied and unique he was.
Adam: His kid is like him a lot…
What have been the biggest misconceptions of you guys over the years?
Mike: That we’re gonna be nice.
Adam: I don’t think anyone expects that.
Well, you’ve had such a broad cultural impact and touched so many people that when someone meets you for the first time, their expectations could be hard to live up to. What does that feel like on your end?
Mike: We definitely do not live up to expectations.
Adam: I do!
Mike: I take that back. Adam does. I don’t… except for my nude photos in Huck. But what do people usually expect with Adam? I guess kinda like a Woody Allen, schleppy New York type: short, pale...
Adam: 5’ 3”, unhealthy. That’s a pretty good write-up.
Mike: I can see you standing in front of Zabar’s [a NYC deli] eating a big ol’ cream cheese and salmon bagel, the salmon kind of on the side, smoking a cigarette at the same time, maybe even ashing it on the bagel.
Adam: And then you’re like, ‘I bet that guy’s an asshole.’
Mike: So let’s complete this. What were your expectations?
Well, you have a rich history of giving journalists a hard time.
I mean, c’mon! Just preparing for this felt intimidating... and maybe I expected Adam to be a bit surly.
Adam: [deadpan] I should point out that I’m really high right now. It’s been a long day.
Mike: People get so mad at us for going off on tangents, talking about whatever we want – which is actually the best stuff in interviews. But instead journalists have usually read some straight answer in another magazine and they want us to say the exact same thing for them.
Adam: What I’ve learned is that you can just say stuff and a lot of people will believe it.
Mike: There is a lot of stuff we made up through the years. As soon as it goes into print, it sort of becomes fact.
Adam: That’s kinda where that whole [reputation] started, actually. It was because someone would just show up with a piece of paper or something that the record company gave them and they’d ask you questions based on that. It would always be the same. What else were we supposed to do?
Mike: It’s not our fault, is what we’re saying.
Beastie Boys Book is published by Faber.
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