The Beastie Withinby Arye Dworken on Nov 1, 2004 • 10:42 am
AD-ROCK, MCA AND MIKE D. EMBRACE THEIR INNER HEEBS
We didn’t think of the cover concept for this issue—the Beastie Boys did. When we arrived at the Long Beach Arena in California to photograph them, their publicist greeted us with mixed news. The bad news was that the Beastie Boys weren’t digging any of our cover concepts. The good news was that they had spent the entire afternoon in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles scavenging for props for their own concept: delinquents in an alleyway playing dreydl instead of craps—a kind of Cooley High meets Welcome Back, Kotter.
The Beasties’ latest album, To The 5 Boroughs, has been widely acknowledged as a return to the old school, a paean to their early days in New York. But, one element is entirely new: what Ad-Rock calls the embracing of the “funky-ass Jew.” Though they never explicitly addressed being Jewish in their lyrics, it’s always seemed to be part of their mystique: There was the classic song “Shadrach” about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three furnace-surviving Jews living under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar from the Book of Daniel; There was their confession they ate shellfish on“B-Boy Bouillabaisse”; And, there was the way that their Jewish surnames, Yauch, Horowitz and Diamond, remained part of their personas—coexisting alongside their hip-hop pseudonyms. Our proclivity to read Jewishness into their opus sometimes went to extremes. While the stoners played their Led Zep albums backwards in search of satanic messages, we decrypted “3MTA3” on the cover of an early album as verification of the rumor that the three had attended the Metropolitan Talmudic Academy in Washington Heights, N.Y., where as rumor had it, they were expelled for eating at White Castle.
It’s because of the Jewish signposts sprinkled throughout their opus that their latest album feels like a Rosetta Stone. Whether in call-outs to “hide the matzoh,” “holler back challah bread” or the couplet “the truth is brutal/your grandma’s kugel” the Beastie Boys are entering a new artistic stage, and pleasantly, it’s not one they’re shy discussing. I spoke with Adam Yauch and Adam Horowitz in the dining room outside their recording studio in New York and Mike D by phone from Los Angeles, where he and his wife reside with their newborn baby. Over the course of our conversations, MCA would show me how to best simulate Borat’s Jew-claw (see above), Ad-Rock would nominate Mix Master Mike as the Schwartz of the Month and Mike D would ask me how to say pimp in Hebrew. So here are the Beastie Boys as you’ve never seen them before.
What have you guys been up to the past couple of weeks?
Ad-Rock: We’ve slowed down local press. Doing some international now.
MCA: And I did a round table phoner with Asia. I pick up the phone and then this moderator pops out and says, hello, you are on the phone with Singapore, Thailand. They had to take turns asking questions. It felt a lot like the Iron Chef.
Do you guys get a chance to talk to each other in between recording and touring?
MCA: We have certain regions in the city that we block off from each other. Like that Brady Bunch episode where they split up the rooms with tape.
Ad-Rock: The Muensters did that too.
MCA: I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this but there’s a certain area in the [recording] room that Adam is not allowed to walk in.
I’ve seen you a lot of times in the city [to MCA] in the periphery in the city. You’re like a reoccurring character in my background. I’m not sure if I’m in your movie or if you’re in mine.
MCA: I actually have six body doubles out there. You’re probably running into number five.
Do you two still ride the subway?
MCA: No, I only ride in limos. Subways are for peasants.
[Ad-Rock opens his wallet and whips out his Metrocard, throwing it down on the table]
MCA: Are you actually impressed that this fool has a Metrocard? I’ll pull out some tokens. I laugh at his Metrocard.
Did you [Ad Rock] grow up in Jersey?
Ad Rock: What is that supposed to mean?
MCA: What’s wrong with Jersey? A lot people are from Jersey.
Ad Rock: James Murphy [LCD Soundsystem’s lead] is from Jersey. But he’s not a Jew. My brother and sister were born in East Orange. I have never been there. I was born on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
MCA: Well, on the Beastie Boys Message board it says you were born in New Jersey.
Ad Rock: It’s lies.
Where did you grow up [to MCA]?
MCA: Brooklyn near Cobble Hill. You know where Atlantic Avenue is? I was over by the Transit Museum. Junior’s [the acclaimed cheesecake restaurant] wasn’t that far from me. My family still lives there. My parents are mad at what’s going on in that neighborhood because all these tall buildings are going up in there.
Ad Rock: It’s all NYU’s fault. But I do want to clarify before we move on that I was *not *born in Jersey.
MCA: So, in that lyric when you said, I’m from Manhattan, you’re from Secaucus, you’re lying?
Ad Rock: No, when I say “you” it means I’m not talking about myself. That’s what “you” usually does.
What’s with the Bigfoot references that you guys are kicking around nowadays? In the new video, in interviews…
MCA: People keep asking us what we’ve been up to the past six years so we started telling people we were kidnapped by Sasquatch.
Was being asked that question irritating? Because you were all still technically around.
MCA: Every time an album comes out you have the Top 5 questions that just about everyone will ask. That question was the one on top. The others were: why did you guys record the album yourselves?…Is Ad Rock from Jersey?
Ad Rock: People ask us about the World Trade Center on the cover.
The drawing was from 2000, before 9/11 happened.
Ad Rock: You, my friend, are doing your research.
MCA [to me]: So, where are you from?
Ad Rock: He’s from Jersey.
I’m from Linden, NJ. Which is near Newark, the car theft capitol of the world.
Ad Rock: My dog was from Newark. He’s no longer with us though. But we did give him credit on the album as the “Assistant Regional Manager.”
MCA [mock crying]: Freddy, the dog, was here every day where we recorded.
You recorded the new album here?
MCA: Yes. We’ll show you around [MCA grabs the tape recorder and speaks into the microphone]. We are now entering the control room…
I just read that interview you all did with Russell Simmons in Interview Magazine. You gave him a hard time.
MCA: You know that Russell changed some things. He was even more obnoxious in the real interview. He was saying things like, MCA, why don’t you have a bitch? And they edited it to “women.”
He’s really into pink nowadays. Every time I see him on TV, he’s garbed in pink.
MCA: The funny thing is I asked him about that and he said, pink is the biggest thing. Pink is fashion. And then a little bit later, his man-friend walks in and Russell asks him, pink’s in, right? And he says back, nah, it’s over.
Ad Rock: He said, pink’s dead in LA. Pink will never hit Chicago. And no one will ever wear it in New York.
MCA: Fat Joe is wearing it in the new video.
Ad Rock: But it’s going to be dead soon. Someone should tell Fat Joe that.
Was that the first time you spoke with him in a while because I know there was some tension between the Beastie Boys and Russell?
MCA: We’d run into him everyone every now and then. Just basic small talk.
Ad Rock: Russell doesn’t talk about things like the wife and kids. He talks about himself.
Do you know each other’s lyrics by heart?
MCA: We work so hard on these songs and we hear them over and over again. On this album, we wrote our own lyrics [individually]. This was a very democratic album where we split up the lyrics very even-handedly. And we constructed all the songs. Mix Master Mike did some scratching but we made most of the beats.
Mike D is now living in LA.
Ad Rock: He’s what they call “bi-coastal.”
MCA: His place in LA is insane. It has tiered gardens. One time we were at his house and we tried to throw a basketball from his terrace to his swimming pool and I couldn’t even throw it that far. It feels like some guy from Creed’s house, not Mike D’s.
Ad Rock: I wanted to stay in the pool house but it was too far from the main house and I got scared. That’s how large his estate is.
So, I feel like I grew up with you guys. I remember picking up your first cassette.
MCA: How old were you then?
Ad Rock: Why haven’t we been in Heeb yet?
MCA: They’ve only had six issues. They needed to build up to us.
All the pop culture references in your lyrics; I had to look things up when I was younger. All your New York references must be so foreign to people who don’t live here. On the new album my favorite references are Crazy Eddie and George Whipple from NY1.
Ad Rock: Do you know why the George Whipple lyric is funny? Because he has hairy eye-brows, not a “hairy ass.”
Since this is for Heeb, I have some specific questions I want to ask you.
Ad Rock: You want to ask me about Chinese food, don’t you?
I can’t help but notice that this album has a ton of Jewish references. On your previous albums, you never used words like “kugel,” and “matzah.”
MCA: I’ve been trying to get my Uncle Freddy to teach me some Yiddish so I could work some Yiddish lyrics on an album.
Ad Rock: My dad knows Yiddish. [to MCA] Your mom doesn’t know Yiddish?
MCA: Not like my Uncle Freddy. I mean, my mom knows words like “tuchus.”
Where are your families from? Like what’s your ancestry?
MCA: My mother’s side is Jewish and my mother’s father came to America when he was three years old from Galicia. They keep switching from Poland to being part of Austria but people called him the “Galiztiana.” My mother’s mother was born here but her parents came from Ellis Island.
Ad Rock: My father’s side is from Hungary. [to MCA] What’s Mike’s deal? I know his mother’s name is Hester.
You three met up through the hardcore scene. I read somewhere that each of you was a Minor Threat fan.
Ad Rock: We still are.
MCA: We once prank-called Ian Mackaye. He didn’t think it was very funny. I called him up and said I was Alf or something and he said, no you’re not, and hung up. So years later, he says, yeah, I remember that call. He wasn’t laughing. Like, almost still pissed off about it. He didn’t get that we looked up to him and this was our way of showing affection.
[Ad Rock begins to play Minor Threat MP3’s off of his cell phone].
Now that you’ve gone back in time, let’s continue with it. The Licensed to Ill period of time. I know how you all feel about that…
MCA: No, actually. What do you think we feel about that time?
Well, you’ve made public apologies about your behavior during that time.
MCA: A lot of times people tell us, you must be embarrassed about that time and hate that album and what you all did. But that’s not true. We’re actually very proud of some of the stuff off that album. In fact, we don’t dislike that stuff as much as people think we do.
What did your parents think at that time? I can assume they gave up on you becoming doctors or lawyers.
Ad Rock: I think my dad was happy that I was actually doing something that was making money and that I wasn’t being a fuck-up. Initially, they were upset that I wasn’t going to school anymore. But I did eventually graduate high school—granted it took me five and a half years.
MCA: My mom was concerned when I dropped out of Bard after two years.
Were you embraced by the hardcore scene when you were in high school? Because in interviews, it seems that you were hanging out with all the influential members of the New York hardcore scene like Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front. Why’d you veer into hip-hop?
Ad Rock: We were always listening to hip-hop even when we were in the hardcore scene. One of our favorite bands was Bad Brains and they mixed hardcore with reggae.
MCA: We would hang outside of CB’s and throw down rhymes.
The band always seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends. What happens when you can’t keep up with those sort of expectations?
MCA: I don’t think we’re so ahead of the game. We’re not discovering these things, we’re just writing about what most people know about already. I think people put too much of an importance on what we consider fun.
Ad Rock: Here’s a scoop for you; you know those sandwich makers from England? They’re going to blow up. I say invest in those.
Do you ever read your own reviews and press?
MCA: On our last album, I made a point of not reading press but this time around, I’ve been reading and I do get mad. Our publicist tells me I’m being too sensitive.
Do you remember what you were reading when you got mad?
MCA: The Spin cover story.
You didn’t like the Chuck Klosterman piece?
MCA: It was snotty. He had this condescending tone, this rock journalist with a stick up his ass. He took things that we said in-jest and put it into a serious context. I was driving and I saw him the other day and I wanted to roll down the window and call him a “dick weed.” I don’t know why people have to belittle us.
Do you consider this album a nostalgic one?
Ad Rock: We didn’t set out to write the album like that but it turned out that way. People say that sound-wise, it’s a retro album, it’s an old skool album but I don’t think it sounds any different than what we used to do. See, releasing an album once in six years can screw you, because there are these expectations…
I noticed in the song released last year, “In A World Gone Mad,” you refer to George Bush and Saddam Hussein while on the new album, the political references are more subtle. Was there a weird reaction when that song came out last year?
MCA: Some people were mad. Yeah.
Ad Rock: My uncle Joe was mad. He asked me why I wasn’t supporting the troops. But it wasn’t like that—it’s about the President.
MCA: It would be so nice to see things change. Its so tiring being in this constant state of fear. If you’re asking if we wanted to make political statements, then yeah, we did. We’re hoping To The 5 Boroughs will have an impact. Years from now, it will sound outdated but that’s a trade-off.
Do you feel that your relationship with New York has changed in the past couple of years?
Ad Rock: 9/11 really changed a lot of people’s lives tremendously. Having lived near it, I was pretty shaken up.
Do you want to see Kerry in office or do you want to see Bush out of office?
MCA: Honestly, I don’t know a lot about Kerry but yet I am so hopeful for him. Truthfully though, does anyone know anything about Kerry. But I cannot remember an important time like this. Every one is talking about politics. We are all on the edge of our seats.
I remember when you played the Tibetan benefits. People gave you a hard time about that. Do you see a bit of a parallel between that and what’s going on in Israel with the Palestinians?
MCA: It’s a completely different story. It seems confusing to me. It seems less black and white. There’s violence on both sides, which is very different than Tibet. The Tibetans don’t react violently. But in Israel, both sides need to chill the fuck out already. It’s enough already…excuse me for cursing. Sorry.
Ad Rock: It’s a very sad situation. Innocent people are getting hurt. We played there in ’94 in Tel Aviv. There are so many wonderful things about that place like the pizza and falafel there was amazing. You can’t find falafel like that in New York.
Do you want to go back?
MCA: Right now, I wouldn’t want to go there—it’s a little crazy. But my impression of the country was that it was amazing landing and seeing Hebrew writing on the money and the walls. Seeing a Jewish state was an incredible thing. I wish there was a solution already because having Israel is a very important thing.
Ad Rock: I gave my grandmother a poster from that show that was in Hebrew.
MCA: Just hearing people speak Hebrew as a first language was really cool especially coming from the Diaspora. People here are a bit embarrassed and shy about being Jewish or sometimes, they’re so loud and obnoxious about it, like over-compensating. But seeing it over in Israel as something so natural was pretty incredible.
Do you know about the urban myth in the Jewish community?
MCA: You mean about the Jewish school?
Yes! You know about the rumor that you went to the yeshiva high school, MTA?
MCA: Many people have asked me and I usually tell people that we did go there. Isn’t there that hint on Licensed to Ill that it says “MTA3.” Well, it’s really “eat me” backwards.
[I call Mike D.]
Hey Mike. Congrats on the new baby.
Mike D: Thanks, man. You’re Heeb. Shouldn’t you say “big mazel?”
Do you mean, mazel tov?
Mike D: Big mazel is more hip-hop.
I hear you’re bi-coastal now.
Mike D: I come out to LA once in a while but I am mostly living in New York. I’m in LA now and we just got back from Tokyo. They’re great fans. There was a festival there with about 40,000 people and everyone gets into it.
Are things a lot different now that you have a new kid? Does that influence your decisions now as a thirty-something year old rapper?
Mike D: If anything, having a baby close by is good inspiration for acting more juvenile.
Where did you grow up?
Mike D: I grew up on the Upper West Side near Central Park West.
Did you like growing up on the Upper West in a heavy Jewish community? Did you hang out in Zabar’s?
Mike D: We were more of a Barney Greengrass family. But my mom, since then, has had a falling out with them. I still go visit my mom in that neighborhood all the time. Of course, she’s a Jewish mom. She’s got to see her grandchildren at least once a week.
Where is she from?
Mike D: She’s part Lithuanian and part Hungarian.
Was it weird when you three began the Beasties considering you were from such different neighborhoods?
Mike D: Well, we had so much in common from a musical perspective. We would buy records together and go to shows. When I first met Adam Yauch, it was at Bad Brains and Stimulator shows. There were no geographical rifts really. Back then, the neighborhoods were way different than they are now. It wasn’t judgmental and so separate.
Was your mom cool with your scene or did she want you hanging out with the kids on the chess team?
Mike D: Like any mom, she wasn’t so fond of the safety pin in my ear and the bleached hair. But as long as I took school seriously, she let it slide.
Was she encouraging?
Mike D: I think up until Hello Nasty, my mom was just waiting for the Beastie Boys novelty to end. She would say that maybe I would grow up someday.
Yauch was very vehement that the three of you are not embarrassed by your past.
Mike D: Those records have an energy and a vibe that we still try to emulate. I’m proud with what we came up with but there are things that we look back on and have this sort of “oh, you crazy kids” moment. Thematically, we were whack but there’s something to be said for that sheer unadulterated energy.
What were you were thinking back in the day when you were sampling Led Zepplin and The Beatles. Did you really think you were going to get away with that?
Mike D: We never thought that shit out, to be honest. It was just, what works and what doesn’t. We never intended those samples to be a punk rock maneuver. It was all sonic considerations. People place too much of a rebellious intention behind things like that. If it sounds good, then cool. If it doesn’t, then maybe not. I didn’t sit there saying, oh no, maybe we shouldn’t be messing with Paul McCartney. I didn’t know better.
When you’re in LA, do you miss New York?
Mike D: I am only at ease in New York. I don’t feel the same way in LA. Despite September 11th, I still feel safer in New York than in any other place. Initially, we all came out to LA because of our work with The Dust Brothers. And my wife, who is a Los Angelino, wanted a place here as well.
The new album is out and people are saying The Beasties are finally back…did you expect the reaction you’re getting?
Mike D: I’m not reading much that people are saying about the new album and us. I was a little surprised on how people honed in on the more serious nature of the album but completely ignore the sillier rhymes and the components of the album that are about the three of us having fun. There’s this generalization that you can’t have this awareness, this general concern for how things are and also be lighthearted. People have such a hard time focusing on the double nature of us. This is not a political album. It’s an album of us trying to entertain each other.
But the album cover seems like you are trying to say something about 9/11?
Mike D: But New York is not just one thing. It’s not all happy or all mean or all grimy or all serious. It’s a combination of all those things. The album is our interpretation of the spirit of New York. A mixture of all these ingredients that make New York a great place so having that on our album cover…that is a good indication of what you’re going to hear.
Did you find that the backlash of “In A World Gone Mad” pushed you guys to dilute your political opinions?
Mike D: That was a song that we needed to get out at that time. That’s how we felt. We became more serious at that time because of September 11th and that was what was on our mind. With more distance, we were able to inject our humor into the music again.
People label you as trendsetters. Yauch mentioned the Spin article and its portrayal of you guys.
Mike D: That sort of thing can’t make me too angry. Because that’s the writer’s spin. He has the upper hand and he wanted to make himself look smart and that’s what he did. That’s the relationship we have with writers. We’re at their mercy. So, I don’t get angry because I can’t control that. Not that I’m giving you the permission to make me look bad.
Do you consider the album a retro one? Some critics said it was intentionally back thinking?
Mike D: Definitely not. We didn’t sit down to consciously make a certain sound or a certain feel. Even looking back on the album now, I wouldn’t consider it a retro. I would file it under “goofy.”
Tell me about the Jewish references on the new album—where did that come from?
Mike D: I don’t know where that came from. I think while making this album, we became very comfortable with that side of us. And besides, that’s a characteristic of being New York. The references aren’t even Jew-exclusive any more. They’re New York.
What was Israel like for you when you toured there in 1994?
Mike D: There was this very distinct, pent up energy. An intense energy unlike any other show we played. I felt like they needed a show like ours—that they needed this release. Being there definitely impacted me. The physicality of seeing the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock—it’s a dicey situation. The land is so holy to so many people and it doesn’t seem as concrete as the problems facing other countries. Like, America’s issues are very simple and the solution is very easy: getting Bush out of the White House.
How political active are you in the coming election? A friend of mine was pretty disappointed that you three were not touring in support of Kerry.
Mike D: I find the prospect of Bush winning completely terrifying. Like, terrifying. I am doing what I can as a father, as a musician, as a human being to get him out.
Thanks for your time, Mike. And, again, congratulations on the baby.
Mike D: Don’t you mean “big mazel?”
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About the Author
Arye Dworken lives in a tastefully decorated two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with his wife, son, and dog named Barrett. Barrett is named after one of the original members of Pink Floyd yet Arye wouldn't necessarily consider himself a big Pink Floyd fan. It just felt like a good dog name. You can find more Arye on aryedworken.tumblr.com or twitter.com/aryedworken.
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