The Beastie Boys on rap, friendship and taking a stand for their values
Judy Woodruff: The Beastie Boys. The rap trio sold millions of albums, and the two surviving members have now written a book about their experiences.
Jeffrey Brown spoke with them recently at this year's South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
It's part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: They're part of hip-hop history, an unlikely part, three white kids from Brooklyn, teenagers when they first met in high school, and combined rock, rap and humor in a way that would speak to millions.
Adam Horovitz: I don't know how to describe that feeling that you have towards that thing or what that thing is reaches inside of you. It spoke to us as kids. Just, it seemed, like, attainable.
Mike Diamond: All of us just felt like, wait, this is for us.
One of the reasons I loved rap music was because I knew that nobody else at school would possibly mess with it. There was no way other kids at school were going to love it, which is obviously so contrary to existence now.
Jeffrey Brown: Things certainly changed for rap as it moved from its origins in the South Bronx to an international phenomenon.
And the Beastie Boys, Adam "MCA" Yauch Mike "Mike D" Diamond, and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, helped make that happen.
Beginning in 1986, with "License to Ill," they made eight albums that sold more than 40 million records. The last came out in 2011, a year before Adam Yauch died of cancer at age 47.
Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz have now told the band's story in a book that takes us back to New York in the late '70s.
Mike Diamond: It was this place where I feel like, if you were the weirdo in whatever part of the world that you were from, you could move to New York without having a plan. You could just have this ambition that, OK, I'm going to write poetry, or I'm going to be a painter, I'm going to make some kind of weird noise, music that nobody's ever made or heard before.
Jeffrey Brown: Rap music was still in its early years, but the three teens liked what they heard, and started playing around, literally.
Adam Horovitz: When we started rapping, we were terrible, like really bad. We just loved the music and we're having fun doing this. Let's do it, never thinking that anything would come of it.
Jeffrey Brown: But they caught on. And, soon enough, they were recording and performing, and then had a new realization.
Mike Diamond: We were playing with all these other groups, UTFO, Kurtis Blow.
It wasn't until we all of a sudden got on stage in a room like this, like packed with an audience, and we were -- I was like, oh, wait. We're like -- we're kind of like the only white people here. We had no -- we didn't know that that was all sort of what that was leading up to.
Jeffrey Brown: Early on, they recorded with Def Jam, one of the most important labels in hip-hop, along with groups like Run-D.M.C., and they helped bring in white audiences as hip-hop continued to grow. They told me of the good and sometimes bad ways that race came up.
Adam Horovitz: It's happened a lot of times over the years, where a white person will come up, talking to us. A white person will be like, you know, I don't really like rap music, but I like you guys.
Jeffrey Brown: What does that mean?
Adam Horovitz: That means, like, you know, I don't really like those black people doing that thing, but you guys are white, so that's cool.
Mike Diamond: So, it's OK with me, yes.
Somehow, we're supposed to sign off on that racism.
Jeffrey Brown: And your reaction is?
Adam Horovitz: OK.
Mike Diamond: Yes, what are you going to say? What are you going to say at that point?
Jeffrey Brown: Another issue in their story, their own sexism, misogyny and homophobia.
It was all over their early work in words, on-stage antics and videos. The group, in fact, originally in included a young woman, Kate Schellenbach. She was kicked out as the so-called boys, by their own reckoning, acted out in ways they came to regret.
By the early 90s, they were rhyming verses about respecting women.
Adam Horovitz: We all hope that, as we get older, a little -- we grow a little and we learn, right? Learning from mistakes, learning from friends, all we want to do is just learn and grow as people, right? Isn't that what we're supposed to do?
Jeffrey Brown: Not only did you stop doing that, but you even made a message in another direction, right?
Mike Diamond: Well, I mean, it's obvious. Like, take the opportunity to actually be the example of change. That's the opportunity that exists there and be open to that in your actions.
Adam Horovitz: We played in this festival a while ago.
One of the bands on the bill was this band The Prodigy, right? And they had a song called "Smack My Bitch Up," which was like a big song. And we had contacted them earlier before the show and was like, hey, you guys, what would happen if you guys didn't play that song tonight? Because we feel like we might have to say something about that song, because we feel like that's a messed-up song, right, the message it sends out there, right?
And they were like, well, you guys are a bunch of hypocrites. Look what you said in the '80s. And we're like, OK, then we're hypocrites. But we're going to say something anyway.
So, maybe that reached a couple people.
Jeffrey Brown: They got involved in other causes, including independence for Tibet.
But they were always about fun and friendship, even as they and rap music continued to evolve into a lasting international culture.
Mike Diamond: And much as we saw it going away, we also didn't see it being the absolute dominant pop music that it is now.
Adam Horovitz: Rap is always going to be relevant going into the future, because it's always evolving and changing.
Jeffrey Brown: You guys have been friends, and still together, and you have lost Adam. How have you done that? I mean, it is an honest story of friendship?
Adam Horovitz: We did make a kind of decision, sort of.
We had the typical thing with a record label in the '80s, where everything fell apart when you get paid and suing and like all that sort of stuff that you hear about bands. That happened to us.
And so, instead of -- it could have gone this way, where we just never spoke to each other again. But we decided, actually, we started this thing as friends. We're going to end this thing as friends. So, the friendship is the most important thing.
Mike Diamond: Somehow, it was a very adult decision. And we weren't adults at the time. But we made that decision. But I think it served us well.
Jeffrey Brown: After the death of Adam Yauch, there will be no more Beastie Boys music, but Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz are telling their story in a series of public appearances this spring.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Austin, Texas.
Judy Woodruff: Fascinating to go back and talk to them.
Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.