Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The <i>Beastie Boys Book</i> is as freewheeling and funny as their albums

The Beastie Boys Book is as freewheeling and funny as their albums

The Beastie Boys have created a book, and it is preposterous. It contains a cookbook from chef Roy Choi including a sandwich called the “Egg Man” that begins, “Make this shit with a dozen eggs… plus 2 more.” (So, 14 eggs; you put caviar on top.) There is a short graphic novel about some weird early-career gig they did that is, frankly, hard to follow. Different chapters have different fonts, sometimes within the same chapter. Literary heavyweight Jonathan Lethem shows up to pen some sort of philosophical treatise on “white boys”; it’s kind of bad. Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead also drops in for a giggly, faux oral history of “Cookie Puss,” personifying the subject of the Beastie Boys’ first rap song as if it were a mysterious alien visitor; it’s also kind of bad. There’s a lab report from journalist Ada Calhoun that scientifically determines it is okay to both like the Beastie Boys and hate sexism at the same time, which, you know, good to have on hand. And so on. It is a preposterous book. It is also a beautifully messy (and large) talisman containing within it many of the great joys and surprises that come with listening to the Beastie Boys, which can be weirdly moving to read in 2018, some seven years after their final album.

But back to the preposterous part: This thing is absolutely action-packed with pictures—two-page splashes and collages and mid-’80s Def Jam promotional photo shoots—and they (the pictures) are probably the most preposterous thing in this big, preposterous book. Look at the one they chose for the cover! Look at how Mike D (left) is dressed! He’s wearing a Volkswagen emblem on his chain! Why is Ad-Rock (right) doing that cowboy pose! Why is MCA—actually, he looks cool, there in the middle, but you get the idea.

You realize, reading the Book, that this was actually part of a cohesive philosophy within the band (MCA dubs it “so bad it’s awesome”)—to pretty much exclusively do shit that cracked each other up. There’s a weird comic energy justifying the frat-life satire of Licensed To Ill and the cartwheeling pop culture psychedelia that came afterward, the scrappy videos and weird stunts. Even here, in their career-encapsulating tome, they insist that their final album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, still has a first part that was lost in a boxcar in Missoula, Montana somehow. It is a ridiculous book. These are ridiculous men.

This phase happened!
This phase happened!
Photo: Carl De Souza (Getty Images)

They finally get their comeuppance for all those stupid outfits in one of the book’s final chapters, where fashion icon André Leon Talley tears into them for dressing like dumbasses for several decades. Choice quotes: “[Y]ou look like airport workers, like people who are part of a union.” Elsewhere: “This is like Adam Sandler meets Tom Hanks at a baaad former bank building in the Suburban Diaspora of New Jerrrsey” (sic). Some of the book’s best moments come via these guest chapters, like Luc Sante’s anthropological description of New York’s music scene circa 1983, or Amy Poehler’s affectionate and smart critique of their entire videography (on “Sabotage”: “I truly believe there would be no Anchorman, no Wes Anderson, no Lonely Island videos, and no channel called Adult Swim if this video did not exist”).

The best and most necessary external voice comes 346 pages in, from founding member Kate Schellenbach, who was booted from the group in a manner no one really specifies but that everyone agrees was shitty, and mostly Rick Rubin’s fault. She, too, lets them have it, not so much for kicking her out but for losing sight of their own identities and turning into the very noxious misogynists they had once satirized. They made good in part by signing her later band, Luscious Jackson, to their Grand Royale imprint in the mid-’90s, a period during which they also disavowed much of the Licensed To Ill era and issued an on-record apology to literally all women in “Sure Shot.”

This surplus of voices is part of the joy of Beastie Boys Book, particularly in its first part, which vividly recreates the pulse and feel and very concrete topography of pre-Giuliani New York, when punk was splintering into post-punk and imitating different subgenres, and a thing called hip-hop was somehow assimilating all of them into something cosmic and new. The Beastie Boys were born into the moment sampling was invented, the mythic New York of Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, and the book is startlingly good at conjuring its spaces, from Russell Simmons’ film-noir private-eye office to the rundown Chinatown tenement that Mike D and Adam Yauch lived in together.

The book’s entire first half is devoted to this wild, intoxicated, freewheeling adolescence, with whole chapters detailing individual shows (Black Flag at the Peppermint Lounge) and pizza parlors (Samson’s) and songs (“Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren). In one of the book’s best tricks, other writers appear right on the page, mid-anecdote, so while you’re reading one Beastie Boy, you’ll get interjections from Yauch’s mom, from the dreaded Rubin, and, most often, from whichever Beastie Boy isn’t presently writing. They keep jumping over each other like they can’t wait to finish the story or shout the punchline or just howl the rhyming couplet alongside their old friend. It’s infectious and disorienting and compulsively entertaining, and probably the closest we’re going to get to a reunion.

Beastie Boys with Run DMC in 1985
Beastie Boys with Run DMC in 1985
Photo: Vinnie Zuffante (GettyImages)

As the book goes on, these interjections fade out, their lives becoming less intertwined and rambunctious. The last quarter of the book feels less like a social history of recent American pop culture and more like you got randomly seated next to Adam Horovitz for a cross-country flight and had exactly two drinks with him while splitting a pair of earbuds and talking about his career, which, to be fair, still sounds like (and is, book-wise) a very good and cool way to spend your time. He’s funny and loquacious, making a solid argument that Hello Nasty is the Beastie Boys’ best album (it’s actually their third best) and giving a candid recounting of the band’s final years.

You realize in this back stretch that the reason you’ve been reading wasn’t all the goofy humor or wild metatextual interjections but rather the music itself, lively and taut and funky, bouncing off the page. One early chapter waxes philosophical on the beauty of cassette-era mixtapes, and the book is, appropriately enough, loaded with loving playlists, inspired by everything from the ’80s night club Danceteria to a Toyota Corolla. Each Beasties record, too, gets detailed track-by-track notes, which also function as mini musical histories, detailing the byzantine samples and influences and backstories that composed each track. All of these are springboards for crate-digging and YouTube-plundering in the same way that the albums themselves are, the way they run like pissant teenage ne’er-do-wells through the pop culture of the 20th century and turn all of it into beats and rhymes and comedy.

As for life, well: The messy reality of life isn’t the focus of the book anymore than it ever was on a Beastie Boys album. Adam Yauch’s death doesn’t loom large here—Horovitz deems it “too sad to write about”—but his life does. He’s the animating presence of the book, a preternatural technician and prankster and creative force, the guy who manually looped John Bonham’s drums for “Rhymin’ And Stealin’” and spearheaded the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Spike Jonze marvels over his filmmaking spirit; Wes Anderson canonizes his jokey Swedish alter ego, Nathaniel Hornblower.

The devotion to the grand Beasties philosophy—to endlessly, over the course of decades, crack each other up—becomes almost tangible, an outgrowth of that New York adolescence that commingled punk rock’s pluck with hip-hop’s omnivorousness. In one of the book’s most deliciously nerdy chapters, Horovitz reveals that their entire final album was a ridiculous conceptual stunt about the impossibility of sampling in a post-Paul’s Boutique universe. Or is that a joke? It’s impossible to tell; the layers of irony are too thick, and you were already lost when you came here. The Beastie Boys Book is a reminder that the Beastie Boys are one of the most enduring and innovative musical acts of the past half century precisely because they are also one of the funniest—at least, to each other. Did I mention that this book contains a chapter written by Sasquatch?