On The Beastie Boys And The Hip Hop Enculturation Of 1980s Suburbia

by Thomas Brett

With the news last week that Beastie Boy member Adam Yauch (aka MCA) had died, I thought about the seismic impact hip hop had when it first burst the bubble of kids living in suburbia all over North America and beyond during the 1980s. As the producer Rick Rubin noted in a recent interview, “The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs. As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Indeed, when I was in high school in Canada in the late 1980s, there was a definite, turning point moment when hip hop music ignited the collective mind of our mostly white suburban school. As I remember it, there was a pre-hip hop era, and then a post-hip hop era. In the pre-hip hop era, most kids listened to a lot of white bands and idioms–like rock and UK synth pop–partly, I think, because these were just the sounds that were around us, accessible and marketed to us, and considered cool. (I added Glenn Gould, New Age music, and jazz fusion to the listening mix, but then again, I wasn’t cool!) Then, as if out of nowhere, the soundscape was changing with the sounds of Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, and the Beasties too. I remember this post-hip hop era well because I made mix tapes (yes, cassettes) of a friend’s record collection (yes, vinyl LPs), soaking up all these new sounds from far away urban milieus. It struck me that while rock and synth pop were about constructing certain kinds emotion and a sense of what even back then I thought was an overly self-indulgent moodiness, hip hop worked by way of a different mechanism. I felt different listening to this music but wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what exactly the feeling was. All I knew was that the sounds were hard-hitting, but unlike rock music, also infectious, syncopated, and poly–with lots of different rhythms going on at the same time. In a phrase: hip hop was cooly energized music. And even if the lyrics didn’t necessarily speak to our immediate experiences in the suburban northern latitudes the music and the beats made you feel like a cool insider just for listening to them.

The Beastie Boys were part of this wave of hip hop culture that hit our school. They were, of course, three middle-class white guys from Brooklyn who had appropriated the hip hop habitus, sound, and fashion sense, but they put their own spin on everything in an honest way, recording for Rubin’s Def Jam record label, gaining the respect of their musical peers (Chuck D. of Public Enemy once said that the Beasties “had the best beats”), and selling millions of records too. Of the three Beasties, Yauch had the most raspy and grainy voice that set it apart from his band mates’ more whiny-sounding vocal timbres. His was a breathy, soulful voice.

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One of the Beastie Boys’ releases that made an impression on me was their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Produced in collaboration with a pair of sound-hound producers from California who go by the name the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique features over a hundred samples from other songs (which cost the Beasties around a quarter of a million dollars in licensing fees, this just before all the big lawsuits that would considerably drive up the cost of sampling others) to make an intricately layered and funky sound. My favorite track was the irresistibly funky “Hey Ladies” on which you can hear among numerous other samples, the voice of James Brown chuckle-intoning “Ain’t it funky now?” every now and then. I re-listened to the song recently and it still sounds good.

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