The Beastie Boys, Dec 04 | Zen & the Art of Rap-ture

The Beatie Boys put rap on the map.

This is what my dear friend and former bandmate Jellyfish Twinkle reported from the Great White North: “Ottawa is cold, but it was hot the other night when the Beasties were in town.

I couldn’t have said it better. Ah, the Beastie Boys. The Adam Sandlers of hip-hop who put rap on the map. Those loud loveable slackees from NYC who started out as punk rockers back in 1981, and once toured with women dancing in cages and a huge inflatable penis during their “fight for your right (to party)” early-career success phase before slowly transmuting into activists and Buddhists.

The Boys’ first national exposure came in 1985, opening for Madonna on her Virgin Tour. Taunting audiences with profanity, they were mostly ill-received. I thought they were the most obnoxious, noxious crew I’d ever seen when they hatched on the scene in 1986 with their Def Jam debut called Licensed to Ill. Crass humored and spank nasty, it was the first rap record to reach Number 1 in the charts, a nitty-gritty ode to girls and beer.

Fleet as the rhythm of Mohammad Ali’s heyday feet, these hyper-glee cum-laude stream-of-consciousness lyrical explosions of pass-the-mic rap a la Run-DMC would go on to revolutionize the ka-ching (sound a cash register makes opening) of music. The uptight Right was appalled by the bawdy indecency of it all, while the rap vanguard of the day suspected the Boys of strip-mining hip-hop’s cultural integrity to cement their frat-boy appeal and fatten their material means.

Hailing from wealthy middleclass Jewish families, the three Bs, Mike D (born Mike Diamond, November 20, 1966), MCA (born Adam Yauch, August 5, 1965), and Ad-Rock (born Adam Horovitz, October 31, 1967), once rocking, kept rolling. Their sophomore release, Paul’s Boutique (1989), took a whole new direction, produced by the Dust Brothers. Though not well received at the time, the album, a favorite among Beastie aficionados, was groundbreaking, even visionary. It presaged the genre-bending, whirling neo-hip-pop of the 90s.

On their third record, they decided to play their own instruments. Check Your Head stitches together a sort of grab-bag of jammy funk and went to No. 1 in 1992. They would play instruments on Ill Communication (1994) as well and on a personal favorite of mine, the all-instrumental The In Sound from Way Out (1996). Hello Nasty (1998) produced the hit “Intergalactic” and brought underground legend DJ Mix Master Mike on board. The 34-year-old scratcher, whose real name is Michael Schwartz, was a booster rocket for the veteran rappers. The highly acclaimed DJ’s bombastic precision percussive work on the turntables is mind-blowing.

This tour coincides nicely with Mix Master Mike’s release of Bangzilla, a collection of B-movie and TV samples, a monster mash of weird and wacky hi-fi sci-fi beats. It won’t sell like the Beasties’ newest effort, To the 5 Boroughs, but I’m sure the worldwide exposure won’t hurt any.

When I hear the Beasties will be in Madison, Wisconsin, I am genuinely stoked. A) These guys have always cracked me up, and B) I’m from Madison, not to mention my brother-in-law’s brother manages the Alliant Center, where the wack rappers will be playing, and said he’d be happy to set me up. I head up to Wisconsin with my bandmates—the Apocalypso Tantric Boys Choir—in tow.

We arrive in the nick of time and quickly ascend to our semi-private sky box. The cavernous Coliseum is less than half full, around 5000 people. I played in a “Battle of the Bands” when I was in high school in this place. Came in third.

Madison is one of the smaller cities on the Beasties tour. And what a beautiful city it is. Lakes surround the downtown area. Wonderful university town. Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace by the state capitol. Brand new donated $210 million Overture Center, a state of the art concert venue.

The opening act rapper makes me feel a little nervous. The words are hard to hear, the prerecorded music sounds flat and uninspired, the imploring “clap your hands” feels a tad desperate, the crowd is listless.

There is a short break and out pops Mix Master Mike. The crowd kick-starts alive, jumps to its feet. Just like that, the place is rocking. This DJ is amazing. His sounds are fat and deep grooving, filling the hall, able to leap buildings in a single bound. The music is deep, rich, textured, turbocharged. Out come the Beasties dancing, bobbing and weaving in front of five large projection screens that move around while various images stream by. An incredible multi-media presentation will go on throughout the entire performance.

After a few tunes, one of them says, “Kerry said in his concession speech, ‘we should all come together now,’ and all I can say is ‘F___ that s___!’ ” The place erupts in laughter. The Beasties are like the Three Stooges of rap, and consummate pros as well. Mix Master Mike is behind the Boys and on a raised platform. They break into “Shake Your Rump” from Paul’s Boutique. Crowd has become one solid block of coherence, heads bobbing, eyes watching, and feet grooving, singing along sometimes. It’s a younger crowd predominately but mixed in among all ages.

In our skybox, a Sauk City man’s 12-year-old son is experiencing his very first concert. He likes it. Mix Master does a solo turntables thing, wicked pyrotechnics and all. Out floats a stage that looks like a Filipino taxi complete with dangling strings of lights. The Beasties plus two others (congas and keys) are wailing away. They are dressed in powder blue wedding tuxedoes, cheesy enough for the Dairy State, and, to my delight, perform several songs from The In Sound from Way Out.

A brief interlude transpires. Previously recorded fans are displayed on screen requesting favorite songs. After ten minutes, the Boys reemerge. They have changed from grey jumpsuits with white stripes and baseball caps to orange shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. The music pumps, the Beasties wangle and weave with stumble, swank, and swagger spewing rhymes, the crowd thrusting fists in the air. Images of Shiva and Hanuman light up the screens. “So what’cha what’cha what’cha want…”

After an hour and a half, they say, “For real, we love you all here in Madison,” and smoke into “Intergalactic.” Disappearing for a moment, they suddenly reappear up in the second tier in the middle of the arena, singing and dancing right in the audience. When they leave, people clamp and stomp, screaming for more. Poof, stage lights up again, and they are back on stage with their instruments.

“I hope you had a special time. We did,” they say with a certain mock deadpan sincerity. “No sleep. Sleep is the cousin of death. George Bush is not invited to this party. The Right Wing is not going to stop us from having fun. George Bush is the cousin of death. This song is for them. It’s called ‘Sabotage.’ ”

The Beasties rip into a driving fierce rampage of a tune and then launch several more before gracefully exiting and leaving the audience enraptured, the old school way.
Maybe there’s hope for the republic after all.

But then isn’t hopelessness a kind of Zen thing anyway?