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POP MUSIC

Bad Boys to men

June 13, 2004|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

London — "Hey, Buckingham Palace!" Mike Diamond says in high, pinched New York tones as the Beastie Boys' minibus swings past the ugly royal pile. "Hence all the flags. And this is the Mall."

Actually, Brits say "Mal," not "Maul," but yes. And America's premier white rappers are playing a late-afternoon showcase gig for a select couple of hundred fans and assorted media right beside this historic ceremonial way.

The venue is the toney though not quite snobbish Institute for Contemporary Arts, mere yards from her majesty's London residence.

"Well, there's a nice juxtaposition," the sociable Diamond muses as the trio disembarks, unnoticed, at the stage door. "When we first came here in 1987, Parliament debated whether to ban us from entering the country."

Now in their late 30s, the Beastie Boys are respected senior citizens of hip-hop. Their new album, "To the 5 Boroughs," is their first in six years, and it arrives this week garlanded with high hopes. Commercially, it's expected to be one of the biggest hits of the summer. Artistically, it's a de facto test of whether the once wild young rappers can grow older gracefully.

Back in the '80s, when mere mention of the name "Beastie Boys" gave officialdom conniptions, the group reigned unchallenged, Brats of the Decade. They rapped rude words. They drank beer onstage with an (often topless) woman dancing in a cage. Their most popular song invited fans to "Fight for Your Right (to Party)." And their show featured a 25-foot-tall hydraulic penis.

That was just the uncontested stuff. Days before that original U.K. tour, a tabloid launched a story that, at an all-star event in Switzerland, they had told a group of disabled children seeking autographs, "Go away, you ... cripples!" The story exploded in the British press. The band denied absolutely that it had done any such thing, but the mud had been slung, and those indignant members of Parliament fulminated.

For the young Beastie Boys it was one of many signs that their success had run out of control.

Middle-class sons of an interior designer (Diamond, now 37), an architect (Adam Yauch, 38) and a playwright (Adam Horovitz, 36), they got together in the early '80s and grew into rebellious, satirical rappers. Their debut album, "Licensed to Ill," so captured the spirit of noisy youth in the Reagan era that it sped away toward an eventual 9 million U.S. sales. But, they acknowledge now, the well-brought-up boys tried too hard to be bad, and they've taken a long, slow road to find themselves as thoughtful, sophisticated souls.

A break for self-respect

Before the whirl of sound check, TV interview and live show, they shin up a ladder to sit on the flat roof of the arts institute and sun themselves while they talk, in seclusion, above the traffic's hubbub and the babble of fans arriving on the street below.

At first, looking at those early days and those rather primitive versions of the people they are now, they squirm painfully at remembered "embarrassment" and even "humiliation" at temporarily becoming the boozy, macho boneheads they'd intended to mock.

"On the 'Licensed to Ill' tour we really homed in on being jackasses," murmurs Yauch (alias MCA), who seems a kindly soul, except when it comes to self-criticism. "We were taking [a shot at] frat guys and then suddenly they were our whole audience and they were going, 'Yaaaaaaaaah!' "

"When it first happened it was really exciting," allows Diamond (Mike D). "Like being Led Zeppelin. Until we were saddled with being these characters from our own jokes."

"It's the become-what-you-hate theory," says Horovitz (Ad-Rock). They had to stop. Recover their self-respect. With some distaste, he dredges up an apparently trivial moment from the "Licensed to Ill" tour aftermath -- "me and Yauch getting tickets from the cops for wearing beer helmets" -- and says that started "the transition" for him.

The latest manifestation of that odd transition from living out an essentially fictional brattishness is a rap called "An Open Letter to NYC" on the new album.

Warm yet largely unsentimental, it tackles their hometown's deep, dense, collective emotions in the Sept. 11 aftermath. It champions the Statue of Liberty principle but embraces all the jostling touchiness of the city, too:

Writers, prize fighters and Wall Street traders

We come together on the subway cars.

Diversity unified, whoever you are.

On the L we're doing swell

On the number 10 bus we fight and fuss.

In fact, the Beastie Boys' studio reunion was triggered by the New Yorkers Against Violence benefit they organized in October 2001.

"It was a time when you would sit down and talk and really evaluate what's important," Diamond says. "What a lot of the world missed was just how caring New York became post-9/11. So we had to be sensitive in what we wrote, pick our shots. But you don't want to sugarcoat it either. Bad stuff happened.

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