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.

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