When the Beastie Boys signed to Def Jam in 1985 they were white, Jewish, well-to-do former punks who had only recently moved into rap. They could have been a laughing stock. It’s a testament to the strength and idiosyncrasy of their music that they didn’t just make the biggest-selling rap album of the 80s (Licensed to Ill), but earned the respect of their tougher and more streetwise hip hop peers.
By not pretending to be something they weren’t, they carved out a niche which otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Eager to prove they weren’t a one-joke act, they junked the raucous punk-rap formula and kept experimenting, first with the radical sample collage of Paul’s Boutique and then various combinations of rock, jazz, electro and psychedelia, all of which proved that hip hop could be whatever you wanted it to be.
At the same time their lyrics were packed with daft rhymes, in-jokes and pop-culture references which spilled over into the videos (some of which Yauch directed under the alias Nathaniel Hornblower), record sleeves and magazines. It was this quirky, playful way of looking at the world which proved just as influential as their music.
Relatively speaking, Adam Yauch came across as the grown-up of the trio. A vegan Buddhist, he was taller, had a deeper voice, and spoke most eloquently about political causes – he organised the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996 and publicly disowned the crasser, more sexist lyrics the band recorded in their reckless youth.
But however politically outspoken or musically sophisticated the band could be, they never took themselves too seriously. Even into middle age they retained a goofy, gleeful, never-grow-old approach to what they did. Among successful bands of their generation they always seemed to have the most fun and the least angst, enjoying a cheerful longevity that nobody would have predicted in the days of Fight For Your Right (To Party).
They made it look as if nobody could ask for more than to make a living for 30 years by playing music and being funny with your best friends. In their Peter Pan-ish way they seemed indestructible.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Img via Terry Richardson