You might say the Beastie Boys were in the right place at the right time--much like another famous white boy, Elvis Presley, in an earlier era. The Beasties, who started out as a punk band in New York, saw that hip-hop was the future of pop music and embraced the sound. The surprise is that the hip-hop community embraced them back.
Just as rap began infiltrating pop culture in the mid-'80s through acts such as Run-DMC and LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys took what had been considered a musical fad to new heights of popularity, expanding it to a larger, white suburban crowd that would enable hard-core rap acts to greatly increase their own sales. The key for the Beasties was that the music was accepted as much in the rap community as by the outside rock audience.
Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA), Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. King Ad-Rock) capitalized in 1986 on the good fortune of releasing a quality hip-hop record at a time when the nation's young music fans were craving something new.
Propelled by this demand, the Beastie Boys' debut album, "Licensed to Ill," was the first rap record to top the national pop chart. "Ill," which has sold more than 5 million copies, was a brash combination of rowdy rap 'n' roll and somewhat explicit hip-hop party songs that were partially penned by Run-DMC's DMC.
"They're legends in the rap community," says rapper WC, who along with Ice Cube and Mack 10 is a member of the Westside Connection. "I always listened to the Beastie Boys coming up. They were on one of the heavy-hitting labels [Def Jam] at the time."
Def Jam Records, which was then headed by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, was also home to LL Cool J. The label, which quickly signed a distribution deal with Columbia Records, was so popular that hip-hop consumers would buy anything with the Def Jam name on it. That included the Beastie Boys.
"I remember when 'Licensed to Ill' came out--it had a tremendous effect on rap," says Joe Levy, music editor of Rolling Stone. "Because [they were white], you didn't expect rap fans to be as affected by their record as they were."
Says Mack 10, who says he still listens to "Licensed to Ill" regularly: "We didn't care that the Beastie Boys were white. Everybody in the ghetto had the Beastie Boys album."
A large part of the Beastie Boys' commercial success could be attributed to their off-record exploits. Their videos featured raging parties, scantily clad women and a brash defiance of authority figures. Their stage shows consisted of spraying beer into the crowd and the displaying of a huge inflatable penis--components that thrilled frat boys across the country and outraged their parents.
If "Ill's" music created a bond with the hip-hop community, various factors combined in the next few years to make the group more commercially viable in the pop world than among rap fans.
When the Beasties released their second album, 1989's "Paul's Boutique," the rap world was smitten with the work of politically charged rap outfits such as Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy and N.W.A.--all of which made the black experience in America a major part of their lyrical direction. This created a natural schism between the hard-core rap audience and the white Beasties.
Even without that development, there is reason to believe that the Beasties would have moved toward a more pop- and rock-based sound.
In "Paul's Boutique," the Beasties displayed tremendous creative growth. Living in Los Angeles and recording for Capitol Records after a bitter financial dispute with Def Jam, the Beasties joined forces on the album with the Dust Brothers, the producers of pop-rap hits from Tone Loc and Young MC. Instead of the simple rap samples found on "Licensed to Ill," the group turned to more textured backdrops.
Their lyrics also became more experimental. Whereas "Licensed to Ill" was largely frivolous party music, "Paul's Boutique" demanded that the listener pay attention to the lyrics--which often dealt in obscure pop culture references.
The group continued to show growth in its third album, 1992's "Check Your Head." By then, the Beasties were rapping less and less. For the first time, the Boys played their own instruments: Diamond on drums, Yauch on bass and Horovitz on guitar. This sound, which echoed their early punk roots, drastically deviated from rap's standard track: a looped drum pattern, a repetitive bass line and an assorted keyboard pattern or two.
Even though the Beastie Boys' fan base is now believed to consist more of white rock and rap fans than black hip-hop fans, hip-hop artists still draw from the group's extensive musical catalog.
Dr. Dre, LL Cool J and the Beatnuts have incorporated either portions of the Beastie Boys' music or lyrics into their own work. A track on "The Element of Surprise," the latest album by Vallejo rap veteran E-40, features a sample of the Beasties' "Paul Revere," one of the most popular numbers from "Licensed to Ill."
"They're hitting the wide range," says the rapper Guru, who along with DJ Premier makes up the rap group Gang Starr. "You may have one ghetto kid tell another one, 'Yo, the Beastie Boys album is all right.' It's a word-of-mouth thing. It may not be like when they first came out, but at the end of the day, a group like that, I wouldn't be worried about credibility. I would just do my thing. And that's what they do. I respect that."
The Beastie Boys play Sept. 8 at Cox Arena, San Diego State University, 8 p.m. $27.50. (619) 594-7315. Also Sept. 11 and 12 at the Great Western Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, 8 p.m. Sold out. (310) 419-3100.