Beastie Boys is the group I should have listened to as a teenager, but didn’t. I discovered them long after I discovered other musicians in the punk genre they started with, and long after I found their peers in ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop. I only got my copy of Licensed to Ill in a record store in Princeton, New Jersey in 2013, while visiting a friend from grad school. I bought this along with albums by Band of Horses, 311, and the Knux. It was a strange set of purchases, even to my eyes—I felt a tension between where my tastes were when I was young and where they’d ventured since.
On my way home from New Jersey, I popped Licensed to Ill into my busted-up Ford Focus station wagon. Listening to it at that point in my life was roughly the same feeling I got when I first read The Catcher in the Rye at age 25—I enjoyed it, and appreciated how sharply it captures the biases, fears, and motivations of a teenager, but a tinge of regret crept out anyway. I felt how Captain Picard must have when he finally played poker with his crew on the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, after Data had been schooling the others for seasons—I should have done this years ago.
The Beastie Boys started out in the hardcore punk scene, and couldn’t get traction. At some point, they recognized this, and decided to shift focus to hip-hop. They put out a 12” with a song called “Cookie Puss,” filled with prank calls they made to a Carvel cake shop asking to speak with the fictional character of the same name. If that doesn’t give you an idea of the maturity level to which the early Beastie Boys pivoted, know that they re-released these songs in 1994 for a compilation entitled Some Old Bullshit.
Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock managed to shift musical gears in a major way and still come off as authentic. They fostered a current of hip-hop flavored rebellion with a purpose beyond selling records, and separate from the revolutionary political bent of their contemporaries like Public Enemy. To me at least, they didn’t come across as cheesy or inauthentic in the same way that other ventures into the genre by white boys did (see Vanilla Ice). I listen to them and feel as if they’re giving us their true selves—irreverent, creative, vulgar, campy but with self-awareness. Their attitude, even if performed, is compelling.
The tracks I’ve heard from before their transition remind me of the DC hardcore band Bad Brains. I like their early punk music, but it doesn’t sound like the Beastie Boys—and once they made the leap to hip-hop, the Beastie Boys sound like no one else. Licensed to Ill, their full-length debut from 1986, still comes off as raw, unpolished, and unapologetically young—but it’s them. It’s not even my favorite album of theirs. These guys took risks, grew their palate, and gave rise to better albums like Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty, and Ill Communication. For me, Licensed to Ill is not the one, but it is the prototype.*
In 2012 the band lost Adam Yauch, aka MCA, to cancer. After a while, Mike D and Ad-Rock confirmed that the Beastie Boys would not be continuing without him. The vacuum they left on the touring circuit was filled by at least two cover bands I’ve found out about since. One of them, Brass Monkeys, is based near me in York, Pennsylvania. They had a concert in early June and I bought tickets, hoping that the show would be skillful and spirited enough to capture some of what I never got to see in person.
I’m getting far from adolescence now, and aside from a few of its lingering totems—a love of junk food, a video game hobby, and an awkwardness around people I think are pretty—I sometimes have a hard time recapturing it. The thirty-year mark approaches, and I’m currently writing this from a cafe during my first legitimate business trip, after debating whether to skip the whole cafe writing gambit and retire to my room at the Holiday Inn Express at 5:30 in the evening. At work, people keep introducing me as the “subject matter expert” for an initiative, as if the description makes me more legitimate. Back home, I’m dating a woman with her own business, great taste in music, and a two-year-old son she raises while also willingly watching Star Trek with me (I know—it’s awesome). I fight through my own anxiety to be honest and authentic with the pretty girl and her ‘tiny tyrant’ son, even when it means risking awkwardness or rejection.
When the night arrives, I take my date to dinner and a show. On the way, I tell her I discovered that the Brass Monkeys are one of at least two cover bands with the same name. The other appears based around Seattle, so I assume they can split the country fairly well and don’t have to start a beef over which group is the real Beastie Boys cover band. The concert’s in an art-deco style theater in the center of town. We get wristbands at the door as a sign of being legal to drink, and order a couple gin and tonics.
The Brass Monkeys comes out after some DJ work on the stage, walking down the aisles in hardhats and coveralls, high-fiving those of us in the crowd. They start with “Intergalactic,” and immediately I’m hooked. Several costume changes and a violin solo for “Eugene’s Lament” later, they’ve won us over. They finish up the set with “Sabotage”—a track that has strangely become recognizable as the only one Captain Kirk knows in the rebooted Star Trek movies.
During the encore, the group finally gives us a solid dose of Licensed to Ill. We are rewarded for our devotion by getting to shout along to “Fight for Your Right,” “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” and “Brass Monkey”. We remember hiding pornography in our rooms, feeling bummed at school, wanting to get weird—and for it to be okay when we feel like we’re the wrong sort of weird. For two hours, nostalgia does its work, and I recapture something. The band members go back to their real, full-time jobs somewhere in the same town, and I do the same with mine.
Not a week later, I sit in the hotel room waiting for the business trip’s final day. I surf the internet with the Beastie Boys on my mind and the song “Paul Revere”—where the boys tell tall tales of their origins—coming from my laptop speakers. I pause it when I stumble upon a video Adam Horowitz, or Ad-Rock, recorded for Rookie Mag. It’s from a series called “Ask a Grown Man” that has also featured Radiohead and Run the Jewels. Adam gives honest and reasonable advice to the teenage girls who submit questions to him on relationships, kissing, and awkwardness.
The counsel rings true, even if it’s simple: talk honestly to people you care about. Be true to yourself. Pursue your art. Know that everyone feels unlikeable, confused, or lost sometimes. When in doubt, blame your parents. None of this is particularly surprising. What gets me is that at the beginning of the video. Adam introduces himself, saying he has been “asked to be a grown-up.” Then he stops for a moment, inspects the gray in his beard through the camera, leans in, as if he’s noticed it for the first time.
“Man,” he says, “I look weird!”
*Apologies to Andre 3000.