How Bad Brains, Madonna and Run-DMC were a fundamental part of the story
In their manager’s office in downtown LA, it’s weird to think that Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond are both guys in their early 50s. Talking over each other as they attempt to be the first to crack a joke or get their version of a story across, my conversation with them feels more like talking to two excitable teenagers than a couple of middle-aged men. The pair’s ability to derail any serious music conversation into one about iPhones and lukewarm hotel shrimp is certainly impressive, but it’s also really funny to listen to these two massive stars bickering like real friends do.
It’s kind of fitting that it feels unlikely that these two guys were two-thirds of one of the most iconic acts of the last forty years, because the Beastie Boys have always been one of the unlikeliest success stories in modern music. In between forming in Manhattan in 1981 to founding member Adam Yauch’s untimely death in 2012, the group metamorphosed from a group of obnoxious bratty punks into a real force for musical and social progression. More than just shaping the zeitgeist, for a generation of kids they defined what music could be. From bringing hip-hop to the suburbs to inspiring acts like Fugazi, Rage Against the Machine and N.E.R.D., and the theft of millions of VW radiator medallions, if you got your musical education in the nineties, then it was hard not to think that the Beasties were the coolest band on the planet. What’s more, they were also one of those groups who got you into other bands. Not only did their records turn you on to acts like Zulu Nation, Minor Threat and Lee Scratch Perry, they were also a gateway into a world of different musical styles. It was the Beastie Boys who introduced a lot of us to jazz, bossa nova, thrash punk and electronica.
More than that, as time went by the trio also grew to become the heart for the whole hip-hop DIY movement; and were one of the first bands to show how music could be a political and progressive force in society.
One of the coolest things about the Beastie Boys was that they always seemed to lead from the front, be it organising massive, festival-sized benefit concerts for the Tibetan Freedom Movement or addressing subjects like toxic masculinity and feminism. Looking back now, for example, a song like ‘Sure Shot’, where Yauch recognises his band’s earlier misogynistic behaviour and calls for the respect of women, is the kind of song a few male artists could do with these days.
Despite all these glittering achievements, perhaps their most impressive accomplishment was coming up with the band in the first place. Because, even though the stories of the hotel room trashing, cage dancing and subsequent redemption has been retold by a whole host of books, TV scripts and Internet chat rooms over the years, the story of how a bunch of spotty teenage kids hanging around the punk clubs of Manhattan rose to be one of the most beloved bands in the world is no less compelling.
Fortunately, Horwitz and Diamond have teamed up with a few people from the early days to tell the definitive story in a new memoir that came out in October, published by Faber Social. Inspired by the band’s cult magazine, ‘Grand Royale’ (which, sadly, we didn’t manage to get into), it covers the entire history of the band, from their early days in the New York hardcore scene right up to the Beastie’s final show at Bonnaroo festival in June 2009. It really does cover a lot of ground. However, with only a small amount of time to talk to the pair, our conversation fell on their relationships with three acts that seemed to define the early years of the bands.
‘Pay to Cum’: why there wouldn’t be the Beastie Boys without the Bad Brains
Michael Diamond: “I’m not sure how I can bring any excitement or flair to it, but the story behind us and the Bad Brains starts because, as a kid, I wouldn’t buy lunch. I’d get some lunch money from my parents, but instead of spending it on actual lunch I would just buy a cinnamon toasted bagel with butter and save the rest of the money so I could buy records on the weekend. I can’t remember who turned me on to it, but one of the first things I bought was the ‘Pay 2 Cum’ 7 inch by the Bad Brains.
Adam Horovitz: “I definitely remember you and those cinnamon bagels…”
Mike: “Anyway, I get this record home, put it on and I was like, ‘OK, I’ve gotta see this band.’ Literally about a week later, I’m hanging out at this record store and saw an ad saying that they were playing. I thought they must be like this huge band like the Clash or whatever, but instead they were playing this little bar in Chelsea and there was maybe like twelve people there.”
Adam: “That was the cool thing about New York at the time – you had to go out. You couldn’t just stay home if you wanted to hear new things, you had to head into the city and find it. I remember having to walk around and actually ask people what they were listening to. Things really didn’t come to you.”
Mike: “Yeah, you would go to things and things would just happen. I mean, I was so lucky to go to that show because a.) they were incredible; the Bad Brains were one of the best live bands ever when they were at their peak, and b.) that was also the show where me and John met Yauch, so there wouldn’t even be a band without it.”
Adam: I think they inspired everyone to form a band. Everyone listened to punk music and had friends who were into the same kind of shit, so we all started bands. I mean, I assume that’s still the thing to do. Back then, it felt like all of a sudden everyone you met was in a band, even though whether they played shows or not was another matter. I mean, Mike was in a band called Young Aborigines that played one show and didn’t record anything, and I had a band called New Wave, Old Hat that lasted for one day in 1982 and recorded a few songs onto a cassette. I still don’t know who has that tape.
Mike: “It’s weird, but New York really was radically different back then. I mean, it’s always changing – that’s the thing with New York, the only constant is change, but the NYC that I grew up with had all these different types of music happening all at the same time. You’d find something and meet someone there and they would be, ‘if you’re into this, you should come to this thing tomorrow night.’ I had this process of just doing random things that would, in turn, switch me on to all these other things.”
Adam: “I feel like you don’t really have that kind of randomness anymore. One of the great things about the Bad Brains is that they were just there, all the time. When they moved up from DC they would often come in and hang out at this record store that we used to hang out in. That was really incredible to me, as they were like real rock stars. It was like Mick Jagger hanging around who you could just ask questions to.
“It’s a thing that people of our generation says all the time, but these days things are a lot more figure-out-able. You don’t have to sit at home trying to figure out how to play that Ramones song or ask someone how to play it – you can just YouTube and have it right there. It’s the same with discovering new stuff; you can do so much shit on your phone now and you have so much more access to information. It’s like, if you hear something, you can just Google that crap.”
Mike: “Yeah, but you’ve got to get with the times though, right? I mean, you can do all sorts of shit through your phone these days.”
Adam – “Yeah, tell me about it…”
Like a Virgin: Touring with Madonna
Adam: “We’ve never really known Madonna. We didn’t know her then and I still don’t know her. I mean, when she took us on tour back in ’85 we weren’t actually with her that long. It was like just a couple of months, really. It feels like it was this big major thing, but in actuality it was only a summer. We only really hung out a couple of times, but even then she was a big, big deal doing big things.”
Mike: “Yeah, even now that whole tour seems crazy to me. At the time she was like the biggest thing on the planet and we were like these three bums from New York who got to go on stage and piss everyone off. I think we got booed off every night.”
Adam: “Even so, it was significant because it was the first actual tour we ever did. It, like, set the gold standard for touring. We got to watch Madonna every night and be on this big stage with a massive superstar without even a real record out. It was like, this is school, right there.”
Mike: “It was like we got to see what a real professional musician looked like. We never really got to that point, we never got to write anything as good as ‘La Isla Bonita’. It could still happen, but I sort of doubt it at this point.”
Adam: “‘La Isla Bonita’?”
Mike: “Don’t front, Adam, that is a good fucking song. Have you ever heard it come on at a wedding, people go crazy.”
Adam: “I’ve always been more partial to ‘Lucky Star’…”
Mike: “‘Las Isla Bonita’ kicks ‘Lucky Star’s ass.”
Adam: “I’m still not sure how it all happened. We were basically these three pimply douchebags who were only concerned about where the nearest White Castle was so we could get burgers and she was thinking about private jets to Greek islands. I mean, I wouldn’t have liked to hang out with us back then. I think the only reason she kept us around is because Madonna was kind of punk…”
Mike: “I don’t know, man. If this was my game show appearance I would say ‘no’. It seems bold, but Madonna was zero punk. There were a couple of photographs where she looked like Siouxsie Sioux but that was about it.”
Adam: “New wave, then?”
Mike: “Yeah, I could get behind that. She was certainly a little bit new wave…”
Adam: “Yeah, but Mike, if you put on ‘Shack Up’ by A Certain Ratio right now, Madonna would 100% know and love that song.”
Mike: “That still doesn’t make her punk, though. Her ambition wasn’t punk. She always wanted to be the biggest thing on the planet and I mean, she’s Madonna and should always have been the biggest thing on the planet. It wasn’t like she was trying to make something that was going to turn the system upside down. She was no Vic Godard and the Subway Sect.”
Adam: “Dude, she was on ZE Records. That was like Alan Vega’s label…”
Mike: “Yeah, that’s true. I’d forgotten about that. I loved that shit.”
Adam: “Saying that, the whole thing was very exciting. We definitely didn’t expect to be on such a big tour and I definitely didn’t expect to be staying in all those really nice hotels. Room service was awesome – we had to pay for all of it, which we definitely didn’t realise at the time.”
Mike: “The escargot story is in the book, but it’s really your story to tell, Adam. I was an innocent bystander in the whole thing.”
Adam: “I mean, yeah, the whole thing is in the book, but the long and short of it is that I had a whole plate of steaming hot escargot dropped on my crotch.”
Mike: “In fact, y’know what, I owe you an apology, Adam. I’ve thought about it, and if I’d really been on it in the same capacity of, say, Neo from The Matrix or one of those superhero type dudes, then I could have stopped it. There was a split second there when I saw the waiter unsheath the escargot and before it fell on your lap I could’ve dove across the room and saved you. But I didn’t.”
Adam: “It’s OK Mike, I definitely wouldn’t have saved you. I would have just watched a steaming hot plate of edible snails fall right on your dick.”
Sucker MCs: Learning the ropes from Run-DMC
Adam: “Oh man, I can still remember first hearing Run-DMC’s ‘It’s Like That’ back in ’83. That song was like a massive hit in New York. I mean, it was a real game-changing record in the history of hip-hop, so we were completely in awe when we first met them.”
Mike: “We first met them through Russell Simmons, who is Run’s brother and owned Rush, which was ours and Run-DMC’s management company. We used to hang out in his office or at Rick’s [Rubin] dorm room a lot. You might think, who would even want to hang around an office or a dorm room, but we were psyched. It gave us somewhere that wasn’t just a record store or a street corner to hang out on.”
Adam: “I mean, we were nineteen at the time and we really had nowhere else to be. We had to be somewhere…”
Mike: “Exactly, we were just finishing high school and I used to think it was super exciting to be able to hang around with all these college kids. Like, Rubin’s room had this big PA at one side of it where he’d play all the Def Jam stuff he had coming out and it was super exciting to even be there.”
Adams: “Yeah, and although Russell’s office might have been this super crappy office, you never knew who would be happening by. One day, you might have Kurtis Blow down there, and the next it might have been Whodini or someone like that. It was really cool just to hang out and talk to people.”
Mike: “Anyway, Russell was also our manager, so the friendship with Run started from there. It was cool to hang out with them and learn from them. Sometimes when you meet your idols, it doesn’t work out so well, but they were always really open and generous.”
Adam: “In fact, one of the reasons we got the Madonna tour was through hanging with them. Madonna’s people kind of wanted Run-DMC to open for them and Russell was like, ‘yeah, but they’d be twenty grand a show. They were like, ‘thanks, have you got anyone else?’ And Russell went, ‘well the Beastie Boys could do it for maybe $500 a show?’”
Mike: “It’s actually hard to imagine us being able to do rap shows without them. Jam Master Jay, in particular, was a visionary architect kind of dude. He was the first guy to really figure out how you should do a big rap arena show.”
Adam: “I mean, if you ever watched them play, they were easily the best rap group live and were the band that everyone wanted to emulate. Even when they played clubs they treated it like a massive show.”
Mike: “Yeah, and that was totally down to Jay. You have to remember that rap music up to that point was kind of designed for the club and Run-DMC was really the first band that realised that the sound had to be at a certain level if you wanted to play at a certain level. Before that, people would just show up and try and make it happen; they were the first people to really plan that kind of stuff out.”
Adam: “We ended up touring with them in ’86 and ’87 and even though those two tours were fucking crazy, I think those shows with Run-DMC was a continuation of the lessons we learnt with Madonna. Being able to watch them every night really taught us how to be a rap group.”
The Beastie Boys Book is out now. Images courtesy of Faber & Faber.