- Michael Diamond (Mike D)
- Adam Yauch (MCA)
- Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock)
Although the Beastie Boys first found fame as a rude 'n' crude party band, the hip-hop pioneers eventually settled into a more conscious groove driven by clever wordplay, inventive genre splicing and elaborate videos.
Still, the New York trio weren't afraid to evolve or experiment—in fact, each one of their albums sounded different—and they became known as vocal supporters of social causes and global issues.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the original incarnation of the Beastie Boys was a hardcore punk band. After all, during their long and storied hip-hop career, the New York born-and-bred trio—Michael Diamond (Mike D), Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock)—specialized in rebellion, rule-breaking and expectations-flouting.
These qualities emerged immediately after the Beastie Boys released their 1986 debut, Licensed To Ill. The band destroyed hotel rooms, were banned from record label offices, partied hard and pulled pranks on journalists. Even on TV, the band acted crude and obnoxious: Their American Bandstand appearance was censored, and a memorable appearance on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers found the band completely befuddling the host with their rowdy antics.
All of this bad boy behavior, of course, went over like gangbusters. Licensed To Ill was the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and the electric guitar-squealed "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)"—meant to be an ironic goof on songs about debauchery—was taken at face value and became a huge pop hit.
Yet Licensed To Ill was far from a joke: The album's conflation of hip-hop and hard rock—highlighted by Led Zeppelin samples on "Rhymin & Stealin" and "She's Crafty" and the Bo Diddley-interpolating juvenile homage "Girls"—was inventive and fresh. No wonder the Beastie Boys opened for Madonna on her 1985 tour: The group matched the Material Girl's ambition note for note.
Just three years before, the Beastie Boys weren't quite as ready for prime time. The group initially formed as a quartet featuring former members of a group called Young Aborigines: Yauch, Diamond, drummer Kate Schellenbach and guitarist John Berry. This new configuration, which played their first show at Yauch's 17th birthday party, released the punk roar Polly Wog Stew EP in 1982. Horovitz replaced Berry for the next year's "Cooky Puss" single, a release that touched on hip-hop and showed off the band's juvenile sense of humor.
The AC/DC-sampling "Rock Hard" 12-inch followed in 1984, although the stakes were a bit higher: The vinyl was released via Def Jam, a new imprint run by pal Rick Rubin, the Beastie Boys' live DJ. The label would soon ink a major label distribution deal, meaning the Beastie Boys potentially now had a far larger audience to corrupt.
Still, the group very quickly moved beyond their delinquent phase. 1989's patchwork Paul's Boutique—a sophisticated, dense pastiche of samples spanning all genres and eras—in particular was a creative leap forward, with its emphasis on easygoing funk and hip-hop grooves and mischievous lyrics brimming with pop cultural references.
The Beastie Boys turned to full-band hip-hop on 1992's Check Your Head, a heavier album on which the three players augmented their guitar-bass-drum parts with colorful percussion and atmospheric electronic production. Unsurprisingly, this record had a rawer punk feel, as did several moments on their next LP, 1994's Ill Communication, most notably "Tough Guy" and the goofy "Sabotage." Appropriately, the latter boasted a video spoofing cheesy crime TV shows—a testament to the band's ongoing fondness for elaborate, forward-thinking visuals.
Ill Communication overall had a conscious, old-school hip-hop vibe featuring hints of jazz, reggae, psych-rock and electro. Two songs even sampled Tibetan monks, which led to the creation of the nonprofit Milarepa Fund to raise funds for and awareness about the country's fight for independence from China.
The fund pointed to the Beastie Boys' growing concern for social issues. Now long past their rude early days, the band—and Yauch especially—started using their influence and popularity to raise awareness for causes in which they believed. In 1996, the group organized the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco, which drew 100,000 people and raised $800,000.
1998's Hello Nasty once again showed off the band's sense of humor (the boast "If you try to knock me you'll get mocked/I'll stir fry you in my wok") and a growing fascination with b-boy funk, robotic electro and synthrock. By this time, the group had settled into a groove where each member's distinct, individual personalities shone through: Horovitz was the most natural rapper—as evidenced by his motor-mouthed, nasally yelps—while Yauch served as gravel-voiced elder statesmen and Diamond fell somewhere in between.
In the next decade, the Beastie Boys slowed their roll, releasing 2004's self-produced To The 5 Boroughs and 2007's instrumental LP, The Mix-Up. As they were gearing up to release a new album, however, Yauch announced he had cancer in one of his salivary glands, which caused the band to cancel tour dates and the LP release.
The band did eventually release a new record, 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, but Yauch's health curtailed much more activity than that. Sadly, he passed away from cancer several weeks after the group's 2012 Rock Hall induction. His death effectively put an end to the Beastie Boys.