Beastie Boys cofounders on creative process, ‘License to Ill,’ Adam Yauch

The Beastie Boys’ reputation has always been that of fun party boys, but their sound design was groundbreaking when they launched. Their first album “License to Ill” came out in 1986, and it has sold over 10 million copies since then. That release is still one of Columbia Records' fastest-selling record debuts to date.

But the band has had lots of ups and downs. In the beginning, they were opening for the likes of Madonna and Run DMC. Then burnout set in. There were album flops and creative lulls. Plus, the death of cofounder Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA) eight years ago meant the end of group.

Now the other two founding members, Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock), are telling the group’s full story in a documentary called “Beastie Boys Story.” It premieres on Apple TV+ on April 24. 

The Beastie Boys first formed in New York City during the early 1980s. After meeting each other at a concert in high school, Yauch and Diamond decided to start a band together. 

“It's not dissimilar from any high school band anywhere. Just friends hanging out. Let's be in a band. Let's start a band. We love music and it's something to do,” Horovitz says.

Horovitz, a friend of both Diamond and Yauch, joined a year later when a previous guitar member quit. 

Diamond says the group’s name comes from the “dumbest things we could think of at the time.” He says “Beastie” is an acronym for “Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence.”

Upon reflection, Diamond says the name made no sense, considering the band’s first drummer was Kate Schellenbach, a woman. 

As rap music became more popular during the 1980s, the band was drawn to the genre, leading to their debut single “Cooky Puss.”

“There is nothing that was completely revolutionary and completely unlike anything that had come before it, as is when we heard rap music. And then all of a sudden, here it was in clubs that we could go to in downtown New York,” Diamond says. 

Looking back, Horovitz didn't see the group’s approach to rap music as appropriative:

“I'm sure there were rappers and there were people that didn't like white guys rapping. But I feel like, at least the rappers that we knew and were friends with, saw us as not taking up the space that they're taking up. ... We were like a weird novelty.” 

While finding their hip-hop sound, the trio realized they needed a DJ and producer to help arrange their music. They then met Rick Rubin at his dorm room at New York University, who later became a co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, a hip-hop record label.

“License to Ill”

Def Jam released “License to Ill” in 1986. One of its singles, “Fight for your Right,” became a hit that catapulted the band to musical renown.

It was initially a song that made fun of frat boy culture. Then it was soon embraced by the very people it was critiquing. It led to the band’s embrace of a party-boy image — at least on the surface.

“You know how like a little kid, like a toddler tells a joke that's really stupid, but the grown-ups all laugh? So then the little kid tells the jokes — and the joke again — and then the grown-ups laugh again. And so they just keep telling that same joke,” Horovitz says. “We were getting attention for being this type of person. We're like, well, let's just keep doing that.“

But the attention led to the band feeling alienated and disconnected from their roots as relatively unknown New Yorkers. And due to record agreements, the band didn’t make money from their debut record.

After tough financial times, the band got together again to release more music. They later litigated to get creative freedom over their work. 

The Beastie Boys eventually released eight albums during their 30-year run. 

Adam Yauch’s legacy

According to Diamond and Horovitz, Yauch had the creativity and instincts to push a musical idea directly into action. 

“Adam had this knowledge, an uncanny sort of knowledge of how to do things, how to take an idea and make it happen,” Horovitz says. 

Diamond recalls the time Yauch built a special studio while recording “Pass the Mic.” 

“We take the drums down from the stage and then he's like, ‘We need to get a lot of cardboard boxes.’ And he builds this tube out of cardboard boxes. It comes out from the kick drum, and then we put the mic at the end of it,” he says. “That's how we ended up with this sound of the drum loops on that song. It was another crazy Yauch experimentation moment.”

Horovitz says that looking back, each record is “part of a timeline.” But as Diamond likes to say, “It all adds up to a lot of time that the band spent together ordering lunch.” 

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Rosalie Atkinson