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How Beastie Boys Brought Skate Culture to the Masses

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Throughout their active career, the Beastie Boys have had a unique relationship with skateboarding. Despite none of them being particularly accomplished on a sponsorship level, they maintained an authentic connection to skate culture for so long that it’s hard to imagine the two not being linked. However, when their debut album Licensed to Ill was released in 1986, the synergy between skateboarding and mainstream music was tenuous at best. The idea that three Jewish rappers from New York City – a decade-plus before the entire East Coast had a thriving skate industry – known for boisterous hip-hop rock party anthems connected with the then-subculture of skateboarding was foreign, to say the least. Contextually, there were no bands charting who had any real roots in skating, and if they did, it wasn’t touted as a marketing tool. In fact, there were only a handful of pro skaters from the East Coast, let alone any who were Jewish.

Skateboarding in the mid ’80s was California; hip-hop was still finding its legs and identity in culture and the actual music industry, and the only true “skate” music being pushed was skate rock via Thrasher Magazine’s editorial and compilation albums. During this time, skateboarding still had a very Anglo-punk stigma to most, which was completely inaccurate considering how many Latino and Asian pioneers there were in the sport, and hip-hop represented urban street culture. The two seemed worlds apart. But for Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond, and Adam Horovitz, whose musical journey began in punk rock clubs and dance venues around Manhattan, cultural lines were bridged by subway stops and the explorative innocence of youth. There were no better ambassadors than a bunch of wise-asses steeped in crate digging, graffiti, DIY, and utilitarian fashion to champion skateboarding. Contrasted against INXS putting skate photography on the cover of Kick a year later, the Beastie Boys posing in photos with skateboards just seemed like how they got to the shoot rather than a prop – and it probably was.

Unlike most music autobiographies, the new Beastie Boys Book traverses more than a band’s story arc within music. While the 590 pages do detail several industry clichés – including cowboy booted A&R guys and tense relationships with major labels – the monograph is a written and visual journey of style, trend, music, fashion, culture, art, slang, and, most importantly, friendship. While the book has many characters and B-stories, the main figures are the three members of the band and the locales of New York City and Los Angeles. Written by surviving members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, Beastie Boys Book is also a love letter to Adam Yauch who, despite being just a year-ish older than Diamond and Horovitz, comes off as a mentor and almost stabilizing figure of the iconic band.

Unlike Diamond and Horovitz, Yauch is depicted as a the least celebrity-yearning of the Boys, never fully assimilating to fame as evidenced by his spiritual journey and immersion into Tibetan Buddhism. As the group’s constant, the images of Yauch throughout the book, save several where he’s wearing costume, are the most stylistically consistent. While his facial hair combos often fluctuate, MCA mostly looked what we identify now as a “typical skateboarder,” which is fairly accurate since he was, but there’s more significance than him being able to pump on a halfpipe. Yauch’s and his bandmates’ affinity for skateboarding not only set off a grip of style trends and influenced soundtracks and even brands (via their friendship with Spike Jonze), but it can be argued that it grounded and revitalized their careers.

The genesis of this relationship began with their 1989 sophomore effort Paul’s Boutique. Though it is now heralded as a masterpiece, it was initially a commercial disappointment and consequently thrust the band, most of whom had relocated to Los Angeles, out of the spotlight. Prior to their second album the Beastie Boys were superstars, but they not only lost their glow but, even worse, appeared kitschy to their mass audience as the funked out dance track “Hey Ladies” was their only single to chart. For many, the last images they had of the band were them dressed up in garish 1970s gear, emulating both Saturday Night Live more than rising rap crew.

Several other visuals were crafted in support of the record, but it was “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” that proved predictive and revelatory. Directed by Yauch himself, it’s a lo-fi pastiche that mixes candid footage with clips from action sports videos, and it even shows Yauch skating on the streets of Los Angeles. In between the surf, skate, and snowboarding tricks are footage of the band recording the track, driving around stoned wearing costumes, a confused kitten, and generally staying loose without the frat bro layer. In a sense, the song and video are the secret sauce that created the loose, free blueprint that allowed their subsequent effort, Check Your Head, to hit so hard.