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book review

Beastie Boys Book

By Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz

Spiegel & Grau, 590 pages

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Among the surprisingly plentiful going-concern white rappers in 2018, an allegation of making “frat rap” has become an insult-du-jour. It tidily sums up the accusation of lifestyle over substance: a hard-partying bro making music about being a hard-partying bro, hip hop’s black-built history an afterthought. For better or worse, it also makes for a wildly successful strategy. There’s a reason Post Malone keeps topping the charts. As much as he claims to distance himself from hip hop, the face-tattooed Bob Dylan fan is always riding in its lane.

Frat rap’s history is both loaded and fraught. It also has a clear origin: The Beastie Boys’ 1986 debut Licensed to Ill. The first hip-hop record to top the Billboard 200 (hmm, what made them different from the artists who came before them?), it brought the Beastie Boys substantial fame. It also framed them less than accurately. Some of that – much of that – was their fault. They’re the ones who chose to tour with a hydraulic penis and a DJ booth designed like a six-pack of Bud. But as surviving members Michael (Mike D) Diamond and Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz suggest in Beastie Boys Book, which came out on Oct. 30, the trio also lost control of their image in a system that had big ideas for them. Just as privilege plays a huge role in art’s success, others in powerful places can steer it away from its intentions, too.

That’s a narrative too well known by anyone not born a straight, white, cis man in or near a major North American city. But it’s a welcome thread for Mike D and Ad-Rock to string through Beastie Boys Book, precisely because of the movement they inadvertently launched. The book becomes a 600-page demonstration of how it’s actually possible for idiot man-children to grow in a system that encourages them to remain idiot man-children.

The New York trio spent three decades transforming themselves. They were a hard-core punk band obsessed with Bad Brains and Black Flag before Afrika Bambaataa entranced them into hip hop. Their music criss-crossed genres until Ad-Rock picked up a Roland TR-808 drum machine after pocketing US$10,000 from a Beasties-scored British Airways commercial. Then came Licensed to Ill. Then their 1989 masterwork, Paul’s Boutique, on which producers the Dust Brothers took the art of sampling to never-before-seen heights. The Beastie Boys would go on to pick up their instruments again, then pick up samplers again, then, by the time they made their final record, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the Beastie Boys were recording their own music to use as samples, crediting them under fake names on their own songs.

Much of Beastie Boys Book, though, zones in on the few years before and after Licensed to Ill. And while the Beastie Boys’ publicly progressive turn in the nineties is well documented, Mike D and Ad-Rock lob some (some) hard questions at the circumstances that led to their rise, both in and out of their control.

The Beastie Boys lived the now-sanctified frat-rap image in the mid-eighties, and while it evolved from their own sense of humour it was quickly co-opted and repackaged by the music industry, including an MTV that was eager to host rap videos but was still very white. And, signed early on to Def Jam Recordings by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, Ad-Rock and Mike D found their business affairs being meddled with and their image skewed for entertainment, with the late Adam (MCA) Yauch at one point quitting the band after battling Def Jam. (The band blames Rubin, too, for a scrapped homophobic album title that almost beat out the name Licensed; meanwhile, the recent sexual-misconduct allegations against Simmons, as first reported by Variety and the Los Angeles Times, are glossed over.)

It was a lot for the three to take in. “When it became a huge thing, and all these, like, frat dudes were buying our records and coming to shows, we realized we couldn’t control any of it,” Mike D writes.

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Beastie Boys – Adam Yauch (MCA), left, Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D) – in London, U.K., in 1993.Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

With Beastie Boys Book, he and Ad-Rock make a very public effort to take that control back. Part of that is through a few sincere, if brief, apologies for what they’ve done. But they also attempt it through structure: For all the consistent fun of Horovitz’s and Diamond’s narrative voices, the book’s storytelling choices swing more wildly than the samples on Shake Your Rump. It’s peppered with asides and retorts from each other, and, crucially, from external voices. A reader might find that they gloss over the kicking out of early member Kate Schellenbach – although they would be pleased to find she authors a whole chapter of her own later on, addressing her departure head-on. St. Marks Is Dead author Ada Calhoun drops in with a mid-book “lab report” analyzing the Beastie Boys’ early sexism. And the authors have former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley review their early outfits, making his thoughts clear as soon as he sees their b-boy outfits: “This is an appropriation of the hood.”

In inviting these voices into an official examination of the band’s legacy, Beastie Boys Book becomes an example – if an imperfect one – of how to acknowledge one’s failures. Inadvertently, this builds a book whose structure mirrors the Beastie Boys' own music: their own voices juxtaposed with samples of voices they respect, checking their heads with both conscience and humour on display.

As with their career, the book feels cut abruptly short. Hot Sauce became their final record, Ad-Rock writes plainly, “because Adam got cancer and died.” The book doubles as a tribute to MCA, the gravel-voiced emcee who died of salivary-gland cancer six years ago. The Beastie Boys ended then; they’d never intended to be a duo. They’d already spent years being cast as something they didn’t want to be.

Josh O’Kane is a Globe and Mail technology reporter, 2018 Polaris Music Prize grand juror and author of the music book Nowhere With You.