Mike D on Sept 11, the politics of music, and Grand Royal

From the Herald Sun (Australia):
January 11, 2007

Nature of the Beastie
The Beastie Boys' address is New York, wherever the music goes, writes Nick Higginbottom


FROM hip hop to punk and partying to politics, the Beastie Boys have done it all in the past 20 years. And they've done it with style -- New York style.

The Beastie Boys have dabbled with many musical influences, but no matter what they do, they remain quintessential New Yorkers. Straight out of Brooklyn with an attitude that said "get on board or get out of our way," they won fans all round the globe and helped bring the hip hop revolution into popular culture.

Yet with their in-your-face attitude, their brash confidence and flamboyant style came a constant sense of positivity that seems to encapsulate every soul from the Big Apple. Drummer and MC Mike D says it's the New York way.

"You're hard pressed to know that you're in a post-9/11 world in New York," Mike D says from his pad in Manhattan. "It's basically back to being a completely full-on, 24-hour-a-day, crazy, a-lot-of-stuff-going-on-at-all-times city. That's what New York's always been and always will be. It holds a unique place that way.''

The events of 9/11 may not have changed the city's heartbeat, but America's subsequent War on Terror sure has left the Beasties and their fellow New Yorkers feeling a little peeved.

"As New Yorkers we really feel used," Mike says. "We had this terrible tragedy happen in our own backyard and then that was the excuse for this whole other debacle (Iraq) that's spun out of control.

"It's pretty obvious to New Yorkers, or really everybody around the world, that what's happening in Iraq actually has nothing to do whatsoever with what happened here (9/11)," he says.

"And that's actually the saddest thing."

Since bursting on to the scene in 1986 with their debut album Licensed to Ill, Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D managed to succeed within a predominantly Afro-American form of music. The closest any white performers had come to being hip to the sound previously was Blondie with the hit Rapture. And while pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash acknowledged it was cool to attempt such a crossover, he never said Blondie's Deborah Harry was a good MC.

The Beastie Boys, however, were better than good. Their anthemic Fight For Your Right (To Party) perfectly summed up their rebellious nature in the early days. But on their most political record to date -- 2005's To the Five Boroughs -- they messed with their old school anthem to capture a mature approach while still throwing a cheeky barb and tipping their hat to another hip hop giant from their city.

"You've got to party for your right to fight," they blasted on Right Right Now Now.

"We were just flippin' it a little bit," Mike says of the song. "But at the same time it's also a shout-out to Public Enemy because they kind of did the same thing back in the '80s. They had a lyric where they flipped a thing around and they had a hook for one of their songs Party For Your Right to Fight. They definitely set the pace in terms of making incredible music that people wanted to dance to. That was incredible music, but they had a lot to say at the same time."

Getting political was never a plan for the Beastie Boys MCs when they hit the studio to record To the Five Boroughs. It just happened.

"It's kind of like, just events happening in our immediate world so it was where we felt compelled to go," Mike says. "I mean New Yorkers, we do live in this huge city and we can rush past each other and not look each other in the eye, but in times of need generally people are pretty pumped to help each other. Yeah there's a strong sense of community even though it's such a big city.''

Now, Mike D and his cohorts are the elder statesmen of their game. A greatest hits collection, Solid Gold Hits, summed up their career so far in 2005.

Though they still perform with the energy and enthusiasm, they're now 20 years and six albums older. So what do they know? Has hip hop sold out? Has the market been saturated with sucker MCs?

"Not necessarily," Mike D says. "To me hip hop is always evolving. I don't think I ever would've imagined that hip hop would be as huge a music form as it is now. I never would've imagined as many hip hop records (on the market). It's a saturation, and not just in America, but everywhere in the world."

While he's amazed hip hop artists have created beats for the entire world to break to, not everything Mike D hears is music to his ears.

"Unfortunately it's like anything, there's only a certain percentage of what's being made of anything that's actually really good," he says. "By and large, unfortunately, quality's not necessarily going to hold up. Most things are going to be, like, whatever, and then there's going to be some that are actually really good and set the pace for everybody else."

Who does Mike D see as setting the pace at the moment?

"I guess OutKast are always at the front," he says. "Gnarls Barkley and some different s---. And, you know, Kanye West. He's in between things right now, but I think he'll probably switch it up again. And Lupe Fiasco."

Although he retains a keen ear for new sounds, Mike D is in no rush to get back into the record company business. After setting up their Grand Royal label in the early '90s and releasing the irrepressible Check Your Head in 1992, the enterprising trio looked like they were on a winner. Two more of their own albums and a bevy of releases from other artists such as Sean Lennon and Buffalo Daughter resulted in a cult following for the label. Then in 2001, the label folded.

"We did it for a while and it was fun," Mike says. "It was kind of like we had a utopic idea about it, doing it purely for fun and being involved with things we liked and things with friends. But at the end of the day it also had to work as a business and we really don't have any interest in being business people."

Fans of the label and of the philosophy behind it -- the Beasties promised every demo tape sent to Grand Royal would get a listen -- were devastated. But it ended up becoming a drain on their own creativity.

"So in the end, and with a bit of hindsight, it comes in a lot of ways as a great relief to us," Mike says. "It's bad because it would've been really nice to have it continue, but at the same time it's a relief because we can get back to just being fans of music and making music. Not having the business of music so much."

After touring on the 2005 Big Day Out, the Beastie Boys return to Melbourne for the Good Vibrations festival next month. They'll bring with them regular keyboard player Money Mark, and percussionist Alfredo Oritz.

"And of course we'll be going down there with the world's greatest DJ, Mix Master Mike. I mean, the man has titles," Mike laughs.

As far as material goes, expect the works.

"Usually we mix it up a lot and try and have all our records represented a bit," Mike says. "So there'll probably be a whole variety of stuff."

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