For the MTV Generation, the Beastie Boys occupy a special place in the cultural imagination. They were hip-hop anomalies—three Jewish boys from New York City who, through their relentless creativity, imagination, and sheer force of will, grew to become one of the greatest rap groups of all time. You followed these former punk-rock kids (BEASTIE hilariously stands for “Boys Entering Anarchistic States Toward Internal Excellence”) on their wild ride from the beer-spraying caricatures of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” to avant-garde video artists to woke OGs.
That journey is captured by their longtime collaborator Spike Jonze in Beastie Boys Story, a new concert documentary streaming on Apple TV+. Filmed at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre last year, the film sees surviving members Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D) reflect on their evolution from the immature dudes who objectified women and wanted to name their debut album Don’t Be a Faggot to the progressive feminists they are today, thanks in large part to the outsize influence of their dearly departed bandmate, Adam Yauch (MCA).
The Daily Beast caught up with Ad-Rock and Mike D—via Zoom, naturally—to discuss the current pandemic, the Beastie Boys’ legacy, and the Trump of it all.
I see you fellas are out in California. Looks nice! I’m hunkered down in rainy Brooklyn.
Ad-Rock: Yeah, we’re out in California now.
Mike D: Our former home!
This is pretty fuckin’ wild, right? I’ve certainly never experienced anything like this in my lifetime.
Mike D: We definitely haven’t. Was it SARS, Adam, when we were touring in Asia and my kids were really little, and you and Mix Master Mike had the masks?
Ad-Rock: We were each wearing two masks.
Mike D: You guys were ahead of the curve, actually, in the mask-wearing etiquette of things!
Ad-Rock: I just didn’t wanna get fuckin’ SARS!
You guys may be out in California right now but you’re New Yorkers at heart. How does it feel to see New York City be the epicenter of this pandemic, and how do you feel de Blasio and Cuomo are handling things?
Ad-Rock: What do I know?
Mike D: We’re pretty removed out in California, in our own separate bubble out here. I have access to the outside here, so feel very lucky.
What motivated you two to do the stage performance? The piece did strike me as a meditation on aging, and evolving as a person.
Mike D: One of the things we wanted to show in the book and the stage show is that we feel like we’re super grateful that we’re lucky enough to, over time, change and keep changing and growing. And here, we get to be onstage—Adam and I, and Adam who I’ve known longer than anybody other than my own biological brother—and talk about all this shit.
Ad-Rock: The motivation to do the movie was that, when we wrote our book, we were trying to figure out how to promote the book and didn’t want to do a book tour. We didn’t want to just go to bookstores and…I don’t know what you do for book tours? So we decided to put on a big show. We did that, and once we were done with it, we realized we didn’t film it, because we like to document everything. So we asked our friend Spike Jonze to just film it, so he did, and we thought it was just going to be a document of our show but he turned it into a much bigger thing.
Mike D: We hopefully showed—or can’t help but to show…I don’t wanna say we only know how to fuck up, but we learned a whole lot from our mistakes. I’m not saying that people should hurt other people or should be intentionally fucked up, but I don’t know how else we could have learned without this trial and error of getting things wrong along the way. That’s how I think of our musical and creative process, and it’s also happened on other levels as well.
Did the band have a come-to-Jesus moment on the Licensed to Ill tour where you were just like, man, we’re not having fun anymore. This shit is tired. Was it maybe your arrest in England, Adam?
Ad-Rock: Honestly, I think when we really stepped back—just me, Adam and Mike—to really get a grasp on everything was after we had toured for a year and the whole rollercoaster of Licensed to Ill for us, and when we stopped getting payment from the record from Def Jam, we were like, what the fuck is that about? Because we were all friends. It’s like getting a text from a friend that they didn’t mean to send to you saying, Oh, Mike’s such an asshole. You get that and realize your friend is maybe not your friend, and it’s weird, and that happened to us. But it tightened our bond and made us think, OK, what do we want to do going forward? That was definitely the tipping point. All the crazy shit and being burned out on tour and stuff is valid for us, because it was true, but the whole thing falling apart with Def Jam changed everything.
Did it make you cynical when it comes to the music industry?
Ad-Rock: We never thought we were even in the “music industry.”
Mike D: Yeah. In hindsight, we should have thought of Russell Simmons as an executive, because he was opportunistic and was trying to make as much money off of us and off of rap music as he could, but we just didn’t think of him that way. That was our bad. We were in this naïve state where we thought we were friends—and Rick [Rubin] more we really thought we were friends with, because we were in his dorm room hanging out and working on shit all the time. It was both. We were on tour forever with Licensed to Ill, and we felt disconnected with who we were, because we had to play this role every night, and were getting paid to play this role onstage every night, whereas we came from this Downtown New York background where creatively everyone did whatever they wanted to do, which was exciting, and now we’re being these caricatures. Then, when Russell was like, We’re not going to pay you until you make this record for us immediately, we were like, Fuck you. It’s fucked when you don’t get paid but it was helpful for us, because it unified the three of us in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened.
How did you smooth things over with Rick and Russell?
Mike D: Well, Russell I can’t speak of because it sounds like he’s done some really horrible things, but with Rick, it was time. We had to leave and got ripped off, which sucked, but then got to be the band we wanted to be, and Capitol Records let us do whatever the fuck we wanted to do and paid us along the way. So we built our own studio here in California, G-Son, where we created all our own stuff, and once in a while would have some dude from the record label come and visit and go, Oh, that’s what you guys are doing? Alright. Cool. That was a huge deal to us. Then, Rick broke out from Def Jam and did what he wanted to do, which is produce a lot of records. Although me and Adam could have easily been working at K-Mart—well, not K-Mart.
Ad-Rock: You would have sucked working at K-Mart. I think I would be fine.
Mike D: Where? What department?! Ad-Rock: You could throw me in any department. I don’t care! Sporting goods is fine, hardware, whatever.
Mike D: You know where you would be good? Paragon.
Ad-Rock: It feels like a lot of energy, the people who work at Paragon.
Mike D: No but downstairs, in the baseball-glove area of Paragon? I feel like I could trust you there, like, Oh, this one would really break-in, this one wouldn’t.
Ad-Rock: I would just get super high every morning, show up at Paragon, and be like, You guys, the Rawlings mitt…the snap-action on a Rawlings is where it’s at. But Mike, could you see me working in the camping department?
Mike D: Oh, you’d be great in the camping department. You’d be like, well, what I find when I’m in the fourth day of an overnight, this is where the difference really kicks in with the mattress pad. Maybe you should just consider that once this whole COVID thing is over. I don’t know if anyone’s going to buy camping stuff in a store again anyway.
Ad-Rock: Or maybe camping gear’s the only thing they’re gonna buy.
A big focus of the documentary is how your attitudes toward women evolved over the years, culminating with that line MCA delivers in “Sure Shot”: I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end. But how did it evolve? What helped you on that journey?
Ad-Rock: All of us that grow as you get older, you look back on shitty things that you’ve said and done, and hopefully you try to really think on that—and think on how to change, and be a better person. I don’t think it’s that different for us as a band as everybody else. It’s definitely heightened because we said a lot of dumb shit, and were very famous for saying that dumb shit, so you gotta walk around being the “Fight For Your Right to Party” guy, and so you’re like, Do I want to be the “Fight for Your Right to Party” guy? Eh, I don’t think so.
Mike D: It was fun for a minute but then it sucks to be that guy forever. And the thing that made it different for us as a band is, we get to influence each other. When you’re in a band, you’re in this weird bubble of reality. The reason we were able to make the records we made is we were always trying to impress each other, and the way we’d impress each other is we’d always want to make each other laugh—and that never ended. But one of us changing can affect all three of us, and you grow from there.
Adam, I’m also a big fan of your wife Kathleen [Hanna]. How did having a partner who’s one of the leading feminist voices in punk music help you evolve?
Ad-Rock: Um…I don’t know? You know, I’m trying to think of a basketball analogy. Mike said that I was B.J. Armstrong of the ’96 Bulls, so your team gets elevated by Michael Jordan, right? You can’t not get better by being around Michael every day.
Mike D: Now that I’ve been watching the Last Dance doc, I feel bad about the B.J. Armstrong comparison a little bit.
Ad-Rock: B.J. Armstrong was a professional basketball player. I’m sure he’s great! Better than us!
Mike D: In the recent episode, they went into the big playoff game where Jordan buys in to the triangle offense, and keeps penetrating and dishing to B.J. Armstrong. And what does B.J. Armstrong do? Fuckin’ nails it every single time, Adam. That’s you.
We could’ve used him in Game 6 of the ’94 Finals. I’m a huge Knicks fan and I know you guys are too.
Mike D: And you still say that in such a relaxed and genuine way! [Laughs]
I’m a masochist at this point. But what do you guys think of the sorry state of the Knicks?
Mike D: We’re life-long Knicks fans. Ugh. God, it’s hard. Where it’s really changed for me is, I get genuinely angry now when every year people are like, Oh, we got RJ Barrett, now it’s really gonna turn around. I get really angry when people are like, I see a lot of potential, things are gonna turn around. No! No, it’s not turning around!
Not until they get a new owner.
Ad-Rock: As Mike and I have said before, we’re not gonna say anything against James Dolan! He’s a wonderful person. We enjoy your free tickets.
Fair enough. You know, one of the big parts of the show is the firing of drummer Kate Schellenbach from the band, and the regrets you guys have over how that went down. Are you still in communication with her?
Mike D: It’s funny you should ask that. Adam and I were on a couple of Zoom calls with her last week.
Ad-Rock: Mike, I forgot to tell ya: I went to Kate’s place, like, five days ago to pick up a Wacky Pack puzzle.
Mike D: That’s impressive. So you actually had a semi-not-socially-distanced hang.
Ad-Rock: As you know, she wasn’t feeling so great, so she had the mask most of the time. We don’t hang out with Kate that much but when we do, as the kids say, it’s all love.
Mike D: I give her a lot of credit.
Ad-Rock: All the credit.
Mike D: It’s amazing how generous she is with being cool with us.
Ad-Rock: The when they go low, we go high—she takes it to heart.
The stage performance and documentary also serve as a big tribute to the late MCA, who comes off as the moral conscience of the group.
Mike D: I think what we tried to get across in the show and the film is how nothing was impossible to Yauch, and that was very inspirational and drove us as a group. Adam talks about it many times, but you’d walk into the studio one day and there would be six cameras set up and it’s oh, we’re making a video. It was this thing of, not only was anything possible but we’re doing this. It allowed us to do so much.
Ad-Rock: Looking back, it seems like he would bring more of his personal business into our band, whereas Mike and I—and maybe I’m wrong with this, Mike, and I complain about shit all the time with my personal business, and you know that—
Mike D: You don’t wanna know about my personal business!
Ad-Rock: I know I don’t! But he brought in more of what he was interested in as a person, and not just as a musician, into our band. Think about, like, the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
Mike D: Yes, but we all did it. The things I learned from Kathleen [Hanna], the things you learned from Kathleen, those things worked their way in in a cool way. We all had those moments. Yauch had a lot, and that was great. To me, the main inspiration was maybe that he was doing it first and it was OK, but also that main thing of anything was possible—and not only was it possible, you’d just do it.
Ad-Rock: So you’re saying I’m wrong.
Mike D: Well, I don’t know. Maybe a little! I guess I see it slightly differently.
Ad-Rock: That’s not OK! [Laughs]
What’s the Beastie Boys’ legacy?
Ad-Rock: Lyrical mastery, really. Just flow dominance. That kind of thing.
Mike D: And clearly from our book, Andre Leon Talley agrees—revolutionized the world of fashion multiple times over.
Ad-Rock: You ever notice how when people make their lists of the greatest rappers of all time, you know, you got Rakim on there, Big Daddy Kane—we’re never on that list, Mike. It’s never about that.
Mike D: No, we’re not. Because our strength is as a group, Adam. You know, coach said a long time ago: no hot-doggin’, no showboatin’.
Ad-Rock: We’re like the Moneyball of groups.
One thing that didn’t make the Apple TV+ documentary is that the dick in a box from the Licensed to Ill tour is apparently still in a warehouse in New Jersey?
Mike D: The dick in the box did appear in the performance, and yes, it is still in the storage facility. Adam has a nice little story about the dick in a box.
Ad-Rock: I just went to visit it a few years ago. Just to say hi, I guess. I don’t know. We’re still paying storage fees, if that’s what you’re getting at. It’s been 33 years.
Mike D: But at least we got to use it last year, so maybe it’s not as bad. What can we do with it now is the question, Adam? Going forward, what is the positive purpose for that thing? Can somebody put it on their front lawn?
Ad-Rock: We were going to give it to George Bush, and then we just never got around to it.
Mike D: Junior.
Ad-Rock: George W. We could give it to Trump but…I don’t know.
Mike D: He might embrace it in a way and, I don’t know, put a fuckin’ MAGA hat on it.
Ad-Rock: Is that the new, “Put a bird on it?” “Put a MAGA hat on it?”
You mentioned Trump and I remember shortly after his election when MCA’s playground was defaced with anti-Semitic and pro-Trump graffiti. How do you feel about the current state of things under Trump? As Jewish New Yorkers, it does seem like there’s been a wave of hatred in the wake of his election.
Ad-Rock: I think he’s doing a great job! I mean, the entire country is swept up in a global pandemic, he shows no empathy…
Mike D: He’s gonna get us reparations from China! [Laughs]
Ad-Rock: I think we’re fucked.
Mike D: We really are. And a lot of it really is because of leadership—or lack thereof. With the anti-Semitism and racism and sexism and homophobia, that’s always there. Trump, unfortunately, gives an empowerment to more of those voices. But I’ve been disillusioned because with me and Adam growing up in New York City in the ‘80s, civil rights was such an important part of our human evolution and our country’s evolution, and to feel like we’ve stepped back is a really disillusioning thing. But at the same time, I feel like we all gave up too easily. We didn’t want to get into the hard part, keep pushing it, and keep discussing it. We let up. I guess it’s all our faults. Everybody’s.
Do you guys ever see yourselves making music together again?
Ad-Rock: Mike’s really hard to work with, I gotta say!
Mike D: I don’t think that’s true, Adam. I’ve shown time and time again, Yauch being hot fire, you being icy cold—I’m the glue guy.
Ad-Rock: You know, I just recently learned that Mike was starting a new band without me. That’s cool, Mike!
Mike D: It’s a pandemic thing! It’s like a pandemic relationship—it doesn’t count!