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.”