The Beastie Boys, New York City, 1986. Photograph by Lynn Goldsmith
From The Smart Set:
There’s a straight lineage from Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” to the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” on License to Ill. In fact, the Beastie Boys sampled directly from “Peter Piper” on another song from License to Ill, “The New Style.” Clearly, they were paying attention. Don’t get me wrong, “Brass Monkey” is a stupid song. The lyrics are verging on asinine. But they flow. Sometimes they move ahead of the beat, sometimes they fall behind it. One Beastie will start a line before the other is completely finished.
Got this dance that’s more than real
Drink Brass Monkey — here’s how you feel
Put your left leg down — your right leg up
Tilt your head back — let’s finish the cup
M.C.A. with the bottle ‘ D. rocks the can
Adrock gets nice with Charlie Chan
We’re offered Moet – we don’t mind Chivas
Wherever we go with bring the Monkey with us
Simple tricks like the pause before “down” and “up” in the third line give the whole song an off-kilter jauntiness that much of previous hip-hop hadn’t figured out how to produce yet. And here is where the Beastie Boy uniqueness really arrived. It doesn’t seem like much of a revelation on the face of it, but the Beasties started to trade vocals within a line. They realized that it sounded better if one guy said “put your left leg” and then the other guys say “down,” and then the first guy comes in again with “your right leg” and the other guys finish with “up.” The possibility for layering and lyrical complexity had taken a great leap forward, just like that.
You could say that Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill are companion albums. Both groups were hitting on some of the very same ideas at the same time. In fact, Run-DMC and the Beasties knew one another by then and they were both working with producer Rick Rubin. The rap world was still small enough that an innovation by one group could be heard at a show and used by another group in a song the very next day. It was like the Dutch and Italian painters of the late Renaissance. They were competing with one another, watching one another, grabbing at the latest idea and then trying to one-up that idea in the next painting. Raising Hell and License to Ill were released within a few months of each other in 1986. By their second album, Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys had already learned from, synthesized, sampled, and moved on from what Run-DMC had thrown at them.
The death last week of MCA (Adam Yauch) seems particularly cruel. If the universe were fair, the Three would have managed to die together. Perhaps they could have gone down in a fiery crash to match the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But it didn’t happen that way. Real world stories rarely have such tidy endings. The only thing to do now is to mourn the death of one man, Adam Yauch, and thus the death of the trio of which he was one indivisible part.