The Beastie Boys: Subverting African American Hip Hop Culture Through White Punk Roots

The Beastie Boys, a New York hip hop group started in the 1980s under the name The Young Aborigines, were actually a punk band. Of the three members many know the Beastie Boys to be today, Michael “Mike D” Diamond is the only one who was an original Young Aborigine. The other two, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, were brought on later and the Beastie Boys as we know them were formed. Having started out as a punk band of white, middle class teenagers being influenced by others on the scene such as Bad Brains, and moving into hip hop where they became internationally known, the Beastie Boys appropriated aspects of both cultures and bridged the gap between punk and hip hop with their uses of sampling, humor, and teenage angst. Because of their background in punk, and their combining of musical genres, the Beasties changed hip hop to become a genre that reached a wider audience and expanded the culture.

beasties collage

The band is discussed in the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush, images of which are included above, because of their start in the punk/hardcore scene. The introductory blurb (top center) reads, “the original brat pack was a second-rate hardcore group no one took seriously. Only later — applying [Hard Core] attitude to Hip Hop — did they make a splash” (Blush, 183). After the addition of Ad-Rock to the group, coming from a different punk band called The Young and Useless (who were apparently truly useless, according to an interviewee, left image) the Beasties recorded a punk EP, Polly Wog Stew in 1982 on Rat Cage records (full EP audio posted below). While Polly Wog Stew was not well-received, they tried again to make a second record, Cooky Puss (bottom video), which, according to Blush was “the first White attempt at Uptown Hip Hop” (184). On this 12″ tape, they recorded a prank call to an ice cream shop and used that on top of some simple beats and record scratches  to make a new track. Using similar techniques to those that created the beginnings of hip hop, taking  drum breakdowns, later called “breaks,” of rock songs and putting them on repeating loops, the Beasties were now appropriating a completely different culture from punk — but were the two really so different?

Interestingly enough, considering that punk started out as a mostly white-dominated genre of music, one of the Beasties’ main influences was a black punk group, Bad Brains (which is actually who they chose their initials, B.B., after, left image). MCA eventually made a demo tape called Brooklyn with his idol, Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains, but that project did not go any further, as the Beasties were already famous for making hip hop by that time (top right image). So, back to hip hop.

Hip hop and punk, as I will show, are not so different in their basic attitudes. In an interview for the HBO series Sonic Highways, season 1, episode 8, Mike D tells the audience, “We were punk rock kids, and the second we heard hip hop — ‘that’s for us!'[…]punk rock had Doc Martens, spiky hair. Hip hop had sneakers and sheepskin coats. Different uniform, but the attitude was exactly the same” (00:29:33-00:30:06). The only big difference was that hip hop was dominated by African Americans in lower socioeconomic areas of New York, who had figured out how to loop the breaks on vinyl records and were doing the spoken verses that became rapping. The Beasties, as a group of white boys, were, with the exception of MCA, “complete spoiled bastards…effete little shits — a very snotty, elitist bunch,” according to artist Sean Taggart, who made flyers for the punk scene at the time (left image), and the boys were definitely not impoverished, but they were funny. Once they learned to create the beats, which they often did by cutting physical tapes and recreating them as loops over which to add other (punk) elements, they had the foundations of creating hip hop music.

Much of the early hip hop, like punk, dealt with the personal and social struggles of those making the music. Iain Ellis, in his book Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists, discusses the use of dark humor by rap artists in an effort to make serious, often political points relating to the hardships and social disadvantages of growing up as African Americans in post-Civil Rights America. In addition to these political rap groups, others used juxtaposition of humor alongside their serious lyrics, and:

“The resulting incongruity humor offers an engaging comic relief in tandem with the subversive main content […] The pervasive locker room humor of gangsta and dirty rap served to perpetuate the half-truth that rap music was the sole preserve and representative voice of young, urban, black, male America. However, the full truth was that rap had included female voices since its early years […] and, though rare, white acts, too, joined the rap game during the 1980s” (Ellis 194-5).

These styles of lyrics having heavy political messages were unique to the African American experience in the US, and shaped the belief that hip hop was only for, and could only be produced by, African Americans. But punk too was a movement created out of anger and the Beastie Boys, being the first white hip hop band, began to appropriate the culture and put their own punk, angsty spin on it.

When the Beastie Boys came on the scene, they were introduced to Rick Rubin, a white NYU punk who had equipment to produce music in his dorm room, and out of that, the Beasties’ first album, Licensed to Ill, a hip hop album, was born in 1986. Rubin had partnered with Russell Simmons to co-found Def Jam Recordings in 1984, and on their label, the Beastie Boys’ album was the first hip hop LP to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, quite a feat for some white kids appropriating music (billboard.com). Why was their music so immediately popular?

Ellis argues that “Their long-standing credibility within this largely black genre has been subversive in itself, suggesting that space is available for any artist with the requisite quotients of hip and humor” (196). It was this humor and creative wit that made their music so widely relatable and fun for an American, and even global, audience. They played with lyrics about being a kid living at home, rebelling against their parents by wearing long hair, smoking cigarettes, and owning pornographic magazines, while being sharp enough to break into the mainstream. “This capacity to bridge the hip and the wholesome via humor has been a marker of the band’s subversive strategies throughout their career” (Ellis 202). Not to mention, they poked fun at the machismo and seriousness of the political and gangster rappers, making them even more marketable to a wide audience.

The Beastie Boys were a group of affluent white kids from New York City who found their niche in making hip hop music, but not without elements of their original genre of punk. They discovered hip hop in the context of an emerging culture with space to expand, and combined the hardcore sounds of punk with the satire and beat-making of hip hop to create something new and popular in the mainstream. By appropriating a classically African American style of music, they subverted a culture and mixed it with another to create a new era and style of hip hop, one that still holds up today. The topic of sampling was considered to be given more weight in the discussion of the Beastie Boys’ rise to fame, but that brings up questions of their Jewish religious identities as well as their race, as there is much to be said about the tradition of sampling in Jewish history. However, taking the lenses of race and class fit better when discussing hip hop versus punk, and the punk identity of the Beastie Boys seemed to contribute more to the style of their music than their Jewishness. For more discussion on sampling and Jewish tradition, one may refer to the article by Jon Stratton which is listed in the bibliography of this essay.

 

Works Cited

Primary artifact: Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Feral House, 2001. pp. 183-185. Images digitally scanned, cut and pasted together in collage format by Arielle Gerrish, 12 March 2018.

Caulfield, Keith. “Beastie Boys Blazed Billboard Chart History.” Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/489107/beastie-boys-blazed-billboard-chart-history. 12 March 2018.

Ellis, Iain. Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists. Soft Skull Press, 2008. pp. 195-203. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sdsu/reader.action?docID=478547&ppg=178#, 12 March 2018.

“Beastie Boys – Pollywog Stew EP (1982).” Youtube, uploaded by NewWorldPictures, 24 April 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu5VkypHzoI.

“Beastie Boys – Cooky Puss EP (1983).” Youtube, uploaded by In Between, 9 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp7Fu-ng83E&feature=youtu.be.

Stratton, Jon. “Sampling and Jewishness: A Short History of Jewish Sampling and its Relationship with Hip-Hop.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2016, http://muse.jhu.edu.libproxy.sdsu.edu/article/627196. Accessed 12 March 2018.

Advertisements

Theosophy & Educational Culture

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.19.01 PM

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.18.53 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.20.02 PM

 

Today, education and the development of youth in the United States is facing a host of challenging issues. Despite outspending a majority of the advanced nations throughout the world on a per-student basis, we lag behind significantly in many key metrics such as math and science literacy, graduation rates, and diversity within school systems.1 That being said, I believe one of the most crucial areas our system is falling behind in is a difficult one to measure: self awareness of our global impact. The US education system stifles our students ability to understand the larger environmental picture through it’s country-first mentality and overemphasis on traditional economic growth. Looking to educational systems throughout US history that have challenged this status quo in some way, such as the theosophical community’s system of education in San Diego, may offer some guidance and insight as we look for ways to address this issue in future generations. Katherine Tingley, the leader of this community, came to Point Loma to establish a cultural center based on the principles of theosophy – a religious philosophy grounded in Christianity, Eastern religions, modern science, spiritualism, and an ethical existence. The theosophists of this time rejected materialism and promoted oneness, the divinity of nature, and the principles of karma. Much of this had to do with the fact that they believed in a system of re-incarnation where each soul is continually evolving towards a higher state of existence and a greater understanding of eternal truths. Because of this belief, theosophists held a unique view on how their actions towards the environment would affect their own lives and the lives of others, and it was reflected in their teaching methods and overall approach towards learning. From the lense of modern educational theory, their Raja Yoga school subverted the role and purpose of educational institutions in American culture through valuing and demonstrating ideals of self-sufficiency. The visual artifacts and primary accounts of this community held in the special collections archive has given me deep insight into their philosophies, while my discussion with Robert Ray, the head of the archive, has provided an additional layer of understanding around their educational impact at a regional and national level.2

 

The Raja yoga school was the educational arm of Tingley’s community, a boarding school created for the intellectual and moral development of young people. Similar to the many western religious educational institutions that came before it, however, unique in its approach to the development of its land and policies relating to sustainability. From a modern perspective, our educational system has always placed tremendous value on the development of specific skills, and how those skills will translate into economic gains – either for the individual or broader US economy. Following the industrial revolution, the primary function of schools and universities was to meet the needs of the expanding industrial machine.3 Consequently, this has led to a rise of individualism and a lack of understanding on how our actions affect our peer communities around the world as well the health of the planet. Western economies flourished under this model of education for decades, however, it has fostered an educational culture that disregards the accelerated depletion of our natural resources in pursuit of economic expansion. The curriculum, subject matter, and conversations taking place on US campuses does not reflect a sustainable approach to economic advancement. The intellectual development of young people is geared towards propelling the economy forward, but it does not inform – or in many cases even discuss – sustainable ways of doing so.

 

Tingley and her university differed substantially from this model in that they sought to be self-sustainable in all aspects. This was reflected in the infrastructural and agricultural layout of the community, as well as the curriculum. Core subjects, such as the humanities and sciences, were taught to students from a perspective of oneness with the environment. For example, in the first and second visual artifacts attached, students are being taught a lesson on biology while simultaneously seeing how the plant life cycle is physically taking place. In the third artifact, we can see the integration of the environment and nature into the communities imagery and messaging. This model of informing students of their environment and the importance of maintaining it throughout the educational process was a departure from the cultural attitudes and practices in the US up to this point.

 

Along with promoting intellectual growth, the school aimed to develop students from a moral and spiritual perspective. This wasn’t a practice that differed much from other universities and schools throughout US history, however, is an important aspect of how the cultural subversion came about. The ethical decision-making component of the curriculum at the Raja yoga school had been present in educational environments in US since the very first universities and public schools were developed – even as these institutions shifted away from being dominated by some form of Protestantism.3 What made the Raja school unique and impactful in terms of American educational culture wasn’t its push for moral righteousness, it was its philosophies around environmentalism. The beliefs that guide the majority of western faiths contain valuable lessons about moral decision making in one’s life, but lack empathy towards our environment and the future generations that will inhabit it. From a modern lense, the Raja yoga school was distinct in that it shared this perspective with young people while also preparing them intellectually and economically.

 

Despite the rise of globalization and increasing interaction among cultures, it appears that educational programs in the US continue to attach little importance to the balance of economic growth and sustainable strategies as students are groomed to shape tomorrow’s economy. Tingley and her school represented a significant subversion of this American cultural philosophy. As shown in the visual artifacts, young people were taught the value of a healthy ecosystem while simultaneously learning the core subjects and hard-skills that would allow them to produce for their community. Schools and universities have long served as a microcosm of society, and our nation’s lack of consideration towards the environment is reflected in the coursework and culture on US campuses. From a modern perspective, the Raja yoga school serves as a valuable example of an interruption of this cultural practice. The philosophical driving forces behind this subversion of culture, such as the belief in reincarnation, can clearly not be diffused into school systems and university campuses in the US, nor should it. However, the community’s approach towards education, and deviation from traditional US educational culture, provides a valuable perspective for today’s students and educators.

 

References:

    1. Desilver, Drew. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries” Pew Research Center, (February 2017)
    2. Ray, Robert. “Katherine Tingley and the Theosophical society of Lomaland” SDSU Library Special Collections and University Archives, (March 2017)
    3. Rosenblith, Suzanne. “Religion in Schools in the United States” Clemson University, (June 2017)

HACK #2: Film Bodies

Psycho scream gif.jpgPsycho stab gif.jpgPsycho die gif.jpg

I chose to watch “Psycho” (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I am personally a huge fan of Hitchcock and I grew up watching many of his films, but for some reason I had never seen “Psycho” before. I knew nothing about the plot, I had only seen the iconic shower murder scene. While I was watching the plot unfold, I kept being surprised by the way the everything developed. I went into watching “Psycho” with the intent to focus on the gender relations between the characters, and what kind of character they were portraying. After reading the prompt for the writing portion, I re-read the example questions for this movie, and the questions about gender inspired me.

Generally speaking, films tend to have repetitive archetypes that reflect the ideals of society at the time it is made. The majority of classic films have firmly set gender roles, and there were certainly traditional characters in “Psycho”, but what I appreciated about this film was that the characters were unexpected. In the article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” author Linda Williams discusses the psycho-sexual components of pornography, horror, and melodramatic films. She argues “that there is a strong mixture of passivity and activity, and a bisexual oscillation between the poles of each,” (8) with passivity and activity as prescribed female and male traits, respectively. This applies to the female roles in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” but not entirely. When we are introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) at the beginning of the movie, she seemed to be a meek secretary; her role reverses when she actively decides to steal and run off with $40,000. This agency does not last long, because she is soon after murdered in a motel shower. Similarly, her sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles), has a brave moment when she sneaks into the Bates’ house searching for the mysterious Norma Bates. She was of course ambushed by the killer son, Norman Bates, who attempted to attack her before being intercepted by Marion’s boyfriend Sam. Presumably, Lila survived and her sister did not because Marion did not have a man to save her. Female characters can be strong sometimes, but they must always return to passivity because the audience would feel too uncomfortable with an independent woman. This translates to a more negative overall response to the movie. Alfred Hitchcock is a cinematic genius because he knew exactly how to make his characters interesting, while still relating to the audience’s ideals.