Russell Simmons is straining to be heard over the noise at Nell’s, the ever-so-trendy disco/bar where you’re guaranteed to be seen by the right people.
Simmons, the kingpin of the city’s dynamic rap music scene, is at Nell’s to wish happy birthday to one of his artists, Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C.
But it’s past midnight now, and Simmons is discussing the question of whether the uncompromising, irreverent attitude of another of his acts--the bratty, blistering-hot Beastie Boys--is good or bad for business.
The Beasties’ outrageously rude ‘n’ rowdy tales of sex and rampage have made the trio the overnight darlings of American teens. Sample line from the group’s uproariously funny--and controversial--debut album, “Licensed to Ill":
Livin’ at home is such a drag Now your mother threw away your best porno mag. The album is the fastest-selling debut in Columbia Records history: 1.3 million copies since December and is still moving at the rate of 200,000 a week.
That’s clearly good business.
But Simmons, who manages the Beasties, worries that the group is beginning to burn some of its bridges in the industry.
“I love the fact that these guys don’t compromise, but it makes my job harder,” says Simmons, leaning forward in his chair so that he can be heard by both a reporter and one of the Beasties, Adam Yauch.
“They don’t give a damn about playing by the rules and that’s fine to a point. But they would be smarter if they stopped being jerks and insulting everyone . There’s no need to make enemies at the record company or at the radio stations,” Simmons says.
Yauch, 22, a thin, intense kid from Brooklyn who is known by Beastie fans as MCA, frowns. Simmons’ remark appears to be the latest in a series of reprimands following complaints of backstage rudeness by the Beasties during a recent television show taping.
A frustrated MCA snaps at Simmons, “I tell you, we didn’t know she was the producer’s wife .”
Simmons and MCA go at it for a few more minutes before MCA gives up and wanders back to the disco room, leaving Simmons free to say anything he wants about the Beasties. And what he wants to talk about is the group’s attitude.
“I like to think of myself as someone who likes controversy, but these guys are making me into a pussycat,” Simmons says. “I asked them to edit out a lot of (the offensive language) on the album. . . . I thought a few images . . . like slugging the teacher . . . were enough, but they wouldn’t change anything. That language causes me problems when I approach major companies for endorsements. The lyrics make them uncomfortable.”
Simmons pauses and shrugs.
“On the other hand, I think the companies will eventually come around. Success has a way of making people accept you. You see what’s happened at radio. Some stations were so offended by the lyrics that they vowed they would never play the record. But (the track) ‘Paul Revere’ got so hot that some stations figured they had to play it. What they did was edit out every word in the four minute song that they thought was offensive.”
The station was left, a smiling Simmons says, with 40 seconds of music.
One tame line from “Paul Revere":
I said, I’ll ride with you
if you get me to the border
The sheriff is after me
for what I did to his daughter. . . .
In the small, cluttered Greenwich Village offices of Simmons’ management company, Beastie Boy Mike D (real name: Michael Diamond) tugs at his red Miller Beer cap and settles back in a chair. It’s early afternoon on the day of Jam Master Jay’s birthday and Mike D, 21, is about to begin yet another phone interview.
On some days, all three Beasties--the third is Adam Horovitz, 20, son of noted playwright Israel Horovitz--are on phones trying to satisfy the flood of interview requests that hasn’t stopped since “Licensed to Ill” broke into the national Top 40 in December. The first white stars to emerge from the black rap music scene are a media delight.
The first angle for writers is the album, which is the teen outrage of the ‘80s--a collection that mixes every contemporary musical style that parents love to hate: rap, punk and heavy metal. The lyrics about sex, drugs and violence aren’t the kinds of things many parents feel are appropriate for their 14-year-olds: “I met a girl at a party / And she started to flirt / I told her some rhymes /And she pulled up her skirt.”
More troubling are references to getting high, punching people in the face and doing things to girls with a wiffle-ball bat. Some parents are bound to worry that youngsters take the images literally--as opposed to funny exaggerations of the bad-boy life style.
Then there is the band itself. The Manhattan trio, which first gained national attention as the opening act on 1985’s Madonnna tour, combines the bratty street swagger of the Bowery Boys, the rude aggression of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” stance and the zany spirit of the Three Stooges.
This rebellious, anything-goes attitude has intrigued teens ever since Elvis and the Stones, Alice Cooper and Kiss. The Beasties’ forte is having fun by exaggerating this tradition.
Like their pals in Run-D.M.C., the Beasties--who despite their street image are from middle- to upper middle-class families--are children of today’s mass-culture world. Their songs abound with humorous references to fast-food chains, TV sitcoms and adventure movies. One song on the album features a snippet of the “Mr. Ed” theme song.
Critics, too, love the band. England’s pop paper, Melody Maker, named “Licensed to Ill,” co-produced by Rick Rubin, the album of 1986. But it was a Village Voice headline that best reflected the Beasties’ accomplishment in creating both a provocative image and conceptual jewel. The headline: Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece.
“Yo,” Mike D says into the phone, but there is a problem on the line and he goes back to nervously tapping his fingers on the desk.
There’s a reason he appears tense. There are only three days before the start of the Beasties’ first headline tour and there was still much to be done. (The tour includes stops Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium and Sunday at the UC San Diego gymnasium). Interviews, once welcomed by the struggling band, are now grating. MCA and King Ad-Rock (Horovitz) are waiting for Mike D in an adjacent office. They need to meet with the group’s attorney.
Once the call is connected, however, Mike D tries gamely to live up to the spunkiness expected of a Beastie Boy.
Bill Adler, the publicist for Simmons’ Rush Productions, has written down the name of the disc jockey who is calling from Holland, but Mike D can’t read Adler’s scribbling. So he turns the question of the caller’s name into a routine.
“Is this Jesse?,” he says. “Can I call you Jesse? Yes, it’s true. . . . I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again . . . we were banned from our own record company offices in New York. They said we stole a camera and that we harassed secretaries. There was also the time an executive started chasing us and his toupee fell off. But now that our album has gone platinum, they keep calling us up and asking us to go to lunch.”
“Yes, Klaus? Can I call you Klaus? We have heard that some people are upset with the language on our records, but we don’t give a. . . .
“Oh, sorry, Klaus. We don’t give a gosh darn about what these people think. Was that better? They can call us sexist. They can call us druggies. They can call us violent. It doesn’t matter. The key to the Beastie Boys’ success is that we are not yes men.”
By now, the tension has faded from Mike D’s face. He’s having fun.
After another pause, he responds to a question about Michael Jackson, who, as owner of the publishing rights to the Beatles’ songs, refused the Beasties permission to put their own customized version of the Fab Four’s “I’m Down” on their album.
“What would I do if I met him?” Mike D says. “I’d unplug his oxygen tent, rip off his surgical mask and spit in his face.”
“Thomas? Are you still there?”
Across the room, Adler, a former New York Daily News music writer, smiles at the way Mike D orchestrates the call. But he always knew the Beasties had a winning attitude. The Boys, he says, have had a lot of practice.
Adler first saw the Beasties perform before an all-black audience in ’84 at the Encore Club in Queens. The trio had just been signed by Rush and everyone was wondering whether a white act would ever be accepted as rappers. The Boys got booed off the stage the first time he saw them at an all-black club, but he admired their spunk.
But the hostility of that crowd was nothing compared to the next time Adler saw the trio: the summer of 1985 when the Beasties opened for Madonna at Madison Square Garden.
“It was one of the classic mismatches of all time . . . like the time Hendrix went on the road with the Monkees,” Adler says, ignoring a secretary’s cry that yet another magazine is on the phone asking for a Beasties interview. ‘They came out on stage in front of 20,000 15-year-old Madonna wanna-be’s who had never heard of them, and they started saying things like, ‘Don’t you love us . . . don’t you love us.’ The booing was deafening. . . . So MCA jumped on top of one of the speakers, grabbed his crotch and started insulting the crowd in very graphic language.
“It was one of the great punk moments that I have ever witnessed. I expected a bolt of lightning to come down and strike him dead. It was so audacious. That’s when I knew they would be stars.”
“Yeah, things are getting hectic,” Mike D says as he walks from the Rush offices to Blimpie’s, the neighborhood sandwich shop. “People who wouldn’t even let us in their building a few months ago are trying to get in touch with us--and there just isn’t enough time. We’ve got to get the show together for the tour and we’ve only got three hours to work on it tonight.”
Then it’s time for the interview.
The Boys aren’t noted for their warmth with the press. There’s the story in the current issue of Rolling Stone about a female reporter racing out of a room in tears after trying to interview them.
They also enjoy telling about sneaking into the hotel room of another writer who, they say, had gotten on their nerves during a long afternoon interview. They poured a bucket of water on the sleeping journalist--and captured the whole scene on videotape. They hope to show it during their upcoming guest veejay appearance on MTV.
And the interview in Blimpie’s doesn’t get off to a promising start.
“Look,” MCA says, in response to the first question. “We need to relax. I think we would rather just hang out and chat rather than do a formal interview. We are getting pretty tired of the standard questions and answers. You can find everything you need in the bio. Just write it all down again and say we told you. Most people just want us to rephrase the bio anyway.”
After a few minutes, however, the Beasties become more cordial. They even seem to enjoy a casual inquiry about what bands first excited them.
Given their fondness for put-ons, however, it’s easy to suspect MCA is kidding when he names the group that everyone else in rock always seems to cite: the Beatles.
Asked how anyone can tell when the Boys are being serious, Mike D responds, “That’s where the fun comes in. . . . You trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t.”
But MCA interjects, “In this case, though, it is true. I did like the Beatles. My parents used to play them all the time . . . ‘Abbey Road’ . . . ‘The White Album.’ ”
Ad-Rock, wearing a Texaco cap, cites Kiss as the first band he cared about, but, like the others, said he was most influenced by the
British punk bands--groups like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Sham 69.
The three Beasties could never find anyone at their schools who shared their tastes; in fact, they would often get teased or roughed up by the other kids. So a bond was formed.
They got the idea for forming a band in 1980 after seeing Black Flag, the classic Los Angeles punk band. “Most of the bands we liked were from England, but here was a group from America,” says Mike D. “It made the idea of being in a band seem less remote.” Ad-Rock remembers seeing Black Flag for the first time and being intrigued by the slam-dancing. “I had never seen that much energy before . . . all of a sudden people were bouncing into each other. One guy even dove from the balcony onto the stage.”
By 1981, the Beasties had built enough of a reputation on the punk scene to make a record for the small, independent Rat Cage label. Following their musical interests, the group began incorporating a few elements of rap music in the act, and it was well received by the mostly white punk audience.
But the core rap audience at the time was black. How would those fans react to these white boys?
The Beasties began getting an answer in 1984 when they were signed by Def Jam Records, which replaced Sugar Hill in the ‘80s as the creative and commercial home of black rap music. The label is co-owned by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin.
Simmons’ strategy with the Beasties was to make sure the trio was accepted in the black community before the company tried to make a run for the larger white teen market. The goal was to avoid the impression that these white kids were just posers in a black music world.
Simmons put the Beasties on the biggest rap tour of 1986: Run-D.M.C.'s “Raising Hell” tour, which attracted a mostly black audience. Before the group went on stage each night, however, Simmons made sure that the group’s record--"She’s On It,” a hit on black radio--was played over the sound system.
There was a moment of confusion when three skinny, pimply white boys then skipped on stage, but the Beasties went into one of their raps and won over the crowd.
In fact, the Beasties built such a strong foundation with black audiences that “Licensed to Ill” zipped up Billboard magazine’s black music sales charts faster than it did the pop or rock charts when the album was released just before Christmas.
Soon, however, the white teens caught on to the group and began rallying behind the album. In the Jan. 31 issue of Billboard, “Licensed to Ill” is No. 7 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the black music charts.
Because radio programmers are uneasy about the colorful language of the record, it’s not surprising that the Beasties’ album is doing a lot better on the sales charts than on the air-play charts.
What is surprising is the reluctance of hard-rock stations to play “Fight for Your Right (to Party),” a classic in the style of such earlier radio favorites as Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.”
Asked why heavy-metal specialists KNAC-FM in Long Beach doesn’t play the record, program director Jimmy Christopher dismissed it as a “novelty rap record, not really the pure hard rock that we pride ourselves in playing.”
But Ad-Rock ridicules such thinking. “Bon Jovi and Cinderella are the jokes,” he says.
Run-D.M.C., the black rap trio that is also managed by Rush Productions, had already done much to break down white teen resistance to rap music, but everyone involved with the two groups acknowledges that the Beasties’ race has made it possible for them to get an even stronger hold on the white teen market.
On this point, Rush’s Bill Adler says, “Let me draw an analogy with the early days of rock. For the last 2 1/2 years, it is like I have been working with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard--the black stars of a new music. And now, Elvis Presley comes along.
“Whatever else you can say about the talents of Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Whodini and the other acts at Rush Productions, they are not white and that still matters in this country. It might mean as much in 1987 as it did in 1956 when Elvis hit.”
While this issue of white intruders in a black music scene could cause tension, Run-D.M.C. has been one of the Beasties’ biggest boosters. Run’s Joey Simmons even co-wrote a couple of songs on “Licensed to Ill.”
One thing that snaps the Beasties to attention is the suspicion among some critics and industry observers that the Beasties are really just a puppet band--that their concepts are designed by Run-D.M.C. and producer Rick Rubin.
Mike D scoffs, “That’s all so ridiciulous. We make all the decisions on our records. . . . We have complete veto power. One of the reasons we are so busy now is we have so much control over what we do. . . . Everything has to get OK’d through us.”
A few hours later at Nell’s, the Beasties loosen up after a tense three-hour rehearsal. Though most people in the room are dressed quite fashionably, they are wearing their T-shirts and sweatshirts and jeans. Away from cameras and the pressures of the day, they drop their Beastie bravado and become just three guys in a rock band. MCA even admits his amazement over the instant success of the debut album.
“I think kids are happy to be hearing something different . . . a band that doesn’t sound like Bon Jovi or Cinderella or one of the other Aerosmith imitators,” he says. “I think kids relate to us because we don’t have a b.s. image and blow-dry our hair five times a day . . . and that we have a sense of humor about what we do.
“Russell and people at the record company worry that we are always out to offend someone, and we do sometimes have fun with people, but it gets to the point where your legend precedes you, if you know what I mean. People start looking at anything we do as something outrageous or offensive, and we’re not always trying to offend someone.
“We are just trying to be ourselves. A lot of people are surprised that we are so normal. They come up to us after meeting us and say, ‘Gee, you guys are actually very nice.’ ”
What about the parents who worry that the references to sex and drugs will be interpreted by kids as endorsements?
“I read somewhere that people think we glorify drugs, but I don’t think we glorify anything,” MCA responds. “I think we are making fun of things. . . . All the things you see in movies and hear about on records . . . the drugs, the sex and the violence. Kids know we’re joking. They know the difference between making fun and giving approval.
“One of the things that bugs me is that a lot of people don’t give credit to kids. In fact, a lot of people don’t consider kids people at all. They don’t credit kids with the intelligence to listen to music and see what is a (parody). Parents get too uptight and scared. Kids aren’t stupid.”
In another corner of Nell’s, Russell Simmons is taunting MCA again--calling the Beasties spoiled rich kids. Simmons claims that MCA’s parents’ house in Brooklyn is bigger than his family’s last four houses combined. . . that it’s “worth $1 million if it’s worth a penny.”
Once more, MCA objects. “It’s not worth anywhere near that. My folks bought it for $20,000 or something 20 years ago when it was a run-down neighborhood.”
Turning to the reporter he adds, “My mother works for the board of education and my father is an architect. That ain’t rich, man.”
Later, Simmons, out of earshot of MCA, wants to make sure he doesn’t give the reporter the wrong idea.
“You know, I’m just having fun with them,” he says. “The thing that really gets me is when people think they are some kind of puppets. I guess people get that idea because they can’t picture anyone who acts as irresponsible as they do being able to pull themselves together. But when it comes to music, they are very serious. They get the job done. You tell them you need a song for a movie and they work all night until it’s done.”
Later, Simmons gets surprised himself. While mentioning that the Beasties will star in a comedy movie this spring, he learns from the reporter that the Beasties want to finance the film themselves. He had hoped to convince the Boys to allow his company, Def Jam, to finance it. Though apparently Simmons knew the group was considering financing the film itself, he thought the matter was still open.
“They told you that?” he said, not smiling. “Well, I told you, they’re not anybody’s puppets.”