The Beauty of the Beasties

Somewhere on 6th Street in the mid-1980s a siren dressed in white played me a scratchy tape of “Cookie Puss”; she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard and sensed that someday everyone would hear that crazy noise she could claim as her own. She had a baby bump from a local Rastaman and let me stay in her hammock till dawn so I could escape from the endless after hours mix of Ramones and Bambaata down the street. When I heard Adam Yauch I thought about Jerry Lewis’s flickering image in the original Nutty Professor, never imagining that the Beastie Boys were about to transcend the Kurtis Blow on roller skates Washington Square afternoons of yore and help bring hiphop to the masses beyond New York. The sadness of Yauch’s death has provoked many to ponder the Beastie’s significance, and while there is a lot there, the deepest impact on me was the unearthing of a vast reservoir of ’80s-’90s remembering about the “real” old days in a way that hasn’t happened yet.

This espn.com entry brought me back to the Beastie’s undying love for hoops, and the glorious New York Knicks’ continuum from Rory Sparrow and Bernard King to John Starks, the tongue-spurting nastiness of Mase and Oakley, the heartbreak of Patrick. The sports angle was picked up on by this essay, which engages in a sweeping analysis of the Beastie’ place as guardians of an idea about ’80s New York that was actually pioneered by several artists and just plain art folks who preceded the Beasties by several years. It’s a graying crowd of late-night dreamers who continue to rage against the Koch-Giuliani-Bloomberg machine that has steamrollered almost all sense of authenticity in this town since the period that spawned hiphop, punk, and street art.

So don’t even sniff nonsense like this, which tries to claim the Beasties as hipster forefathers, since it’s jarringly obvious that hipsters are notoriously apolitical and have almost nothing to do with people of color (unless it’s TV on the Radio), focused on indie rock and a simulacrum of Midwestern bait and tackle bar serving Old Milwaukee. Furthest from the hipster aesthetic is an authentic urban cultural expression like hiphop, or the post-disco rhythm and blues that served as its spiritual sampling ancestry.

Take for example the “Get It Together” track alluded to by the espn.com piece, the one with the John Starks reference. Guest starring here was Q-tip from A Tribe Quest, who had many moments that defined the early ’90s for me, the most significant being 1993’s Midnight Marauders. A video from that album seems to capture the New York nostalgia right around the beginning of the Giuliani makeover.

The sampling on Midnight Marauders revealed an eclectic jazz/r&b sensibility that can only be associated with someone switching around the dial for Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” Bob James’s “Nautilus, Steve Arrington’s “Beddie Bye,” and this staggering performance by Minnie Riperton (source for the sample on Tribe’s “Lyrics to Go” begins around 3:07). These fleeting moments that lie somewhere between Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder, some time after disco gave way to D Train and Unlimited Touch are the true story of American music in the ’70s and ’80s, not the one-hit wonder nonsense of the VH1 histories that confuse and distort any understanding of the period.

The Beasties did an incredible job attaining street credibility but you also have to remember that their moment was nurtured by the Def Jam intersection of Russell Simmons, Run DMC, Rick Rubin and LL Cool J. They were white faces that helped to finally make the music commercial by infusing the genre with “hard rock,” although hiphop was always about rock, whether it was the “Body Rock,” or “Planet Rock,” or Bambaata loving Kraftwerk, or the Wild Style aesthetic that embraced Debby Harry and Patti Astor and we all knew that punk attitude was always to a large degree a black attitude. In the end, nobody was really paying attention. The Beasties flowed with the slow and low of classic breakbeats and scratchy double-dutch Converse All-Stars.

We lost that New York, and it’s all about class politics and the divisions enforced by the neoliberal destruction of the city. It’s not just what physically happened, or the displacement and the criminalization of entire class of people. It’s the way memories are interrupted, and history is dismantled. We can thank Adam Yauch,who died way too young and who spoke out against war and heard music in the streets, for not letting us sleep on that.

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