I’m quite sure that my first memory of the Beastie Boys was You’ve Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party. It has to be. The song was everywhere, and even for a kid like me who barely listened to the radio, and never watched MTV (my parents didn’t allow it), you couldn’t escape the song.
It was the first time I ever remember anyone using a call-and-response, even. In grade school, there was a field trip, and there we were at a skating rink, and some DJ would wait for the chorus, and say, “All right, EVERYONE” and all the kids would yell. He’d dial down the actual rap portion, so the kids would go, YOU’VE GOTTA FIGHT (guitar riff) FOR YOUR RIGHT (guitar riff) TO PAAAAAAAARTAAAAAYYYYYY.
And this wasn’t some special version of the song, so he was just dialing the volume by hand, the buzz fading in and out.
I remember that. I also remember taking a wrong turn and running into a girl’s ankle, and then standing there feeling helpless and ashamed as her friends took her away while she cried. We’re Facebook friends now, so I guess she forgave me.
Paul’s Boutique came out, and was never quite as ubiquitous. I didn’t hear it. We were kids, we didn’t get what was happening, that music was going to be changed by samples, that the Boys got away with something by putting hundreds of samples on one record and not paying anyone a dime for them. Today, I don’t know if anyone could do that again. They’d have to pay everyone for each little riff and vocal shout, probably. Who could afford it?
But that didn’t matter to me. Not really. I had been told that the Beastie Boys were potty mouths, and I wasn’t really into that kind of thing. And they yelled a lot. Not something I enjoyed.
At some point, I was in middle school, trapped at the library while my parents were looking for something, and I flipped open a random magazine. There was an article in there about how Stephen King’s novel The Stand was too long and boring and changed points of view at awkward times.
I disagreed. I liked it.
In the same magazine was an article about how the Beastie Boys were a bunch of foul-mouthed non-musicians who drank beer and had scantily clad women in cages on their stage when they performed. But I only knew the one song. It didn’t have any meaning to me. But there was something about that level of hedonism I found fascinating. Drinking? On stage? And girls?
Today, I’m not sure rap shows are allowed to go one if there isn’t at least one scantily clad female up there somewhere. I could be wrong. I probably am.
I got to high school, and the Boys put out Check Your Head. That one was weird. The kids in my school loved it, and I found it used, and I put it on in the CD store, and my brother wanted to buy it. But it had one of those parental warnings on it, so I knew that would never fly with my parents.
I bought it for myself, and put all the songs my brother would be allowed to listen to onto a tape for him.
So What'cha Want was the big “hit” off of that one. I saw the video. Three guys jumping at a fish eye lens. I couldn’t say that I really “got” it, but there was something weirdly compelling and low rent about it. It felt like the kind of thing you could do with your friends.
I found Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique at the library. I understood the former to be dumb fun. The latter left me cold. I was young. It happens. Regardless, I got into a conversation about the two recordings with an acquaintance. I told him I liked Ill more. He said, “You’re so wrong, and I have so many reasons why.”
I went to college. Sabotage became a big hit. My brother was now “old enough” to own something with bad words on it. He wanted Ill Communication, so I ordered it for him on vinyl. It came out three days before the rest of the world got it. Somewhere along the line, my brother found CD copies of the first stuff the Beastie Boys ever did: Pollywog Stew and Cookie Puss. He bought both of them.
A year later, they would both be released together on a much cheaper CD.
Hello Nasty came out right as I left college. I heard Intergalactic. I shrugged. The boys put out a Best of, and I saw the receptionist at my workplace listening to it, and I got one of those first hits of nostalgia you get when you hear something you “used” to listen to.
I eventually found The Sounds of Science used. When I was job hunting, I’d listen to Hey Ladies on the way to interviews. It woke me up. It made me happy. I’d listen to it over and over, getting a tiny bump of joy, trying to pump myself up so when I got to my interview I wasn’t just some sad guy desperately looking for work.
The boys released three more albums after that. To the 5 Boroughs, The Mix-Up, and Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2. I’ve never heard a note.
MCA died. There are probably a bunch of half-done tracks sitting around, and the remaining Boys will put them together, and that little lump of my childhood will sigh, and look at that sad number (MCA? Dead at 47? A guy partially responsible for changing the face of an entire genre of music, gone, and only 12 years older than me, and who am I and what am I doing with my life and where is my childhood?) and all that stuff will go into a little mental box and someday I’ll tell my kid, “Well, we used to listen to this group. They were kind of considered dirty when they started, but they changed the musical world, which is more than I can say for myself.”
And maybe I’ll put on Hey Ladies one more time. Because Paul’s Boutique really is better than Licensed to Ill.