When Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz, and Adam Yauch first emerged nearly three decades ago as a trio of punk rock–enthused New York City teens hell-bent on remaking the then-emerging genre of rap music in their own snotty image, the idea that they might one day become important seemed anathema to the very notion of being a Beastie Boy—which, at the time, seemed to have more to do with a semi-ironic (but only semi) appreciation for the joys of juvenile bacchanalia than, you know, making history. Of course, much has changed since then for Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA, creators of the best-selling rap album of the ’80s, Licensed to Ill (1986), as well as its groundbreaking follow-ups Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), and Ill Communication (1994), and who, if not important (which they are), would at the very least have to cop to being influential, and who, in addition to musicians, now also identify as husbands, partners, parents, Buddhists, activists, and, as we discover, amateur affineurs.
The Beasties’ most recent album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol), released in May, is as vital, and irreverent, as any of their previous records. Casual fans concerned that they may have missed something need not fret: There is no Hot Sauce Committee Part One. Initially slated for release in the fall of 2009, the record was delayed and retooled after Yauch was diagnosed with throat cancer, an illness from which he is still recovering. In a chat on the balcony of a room at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, Diamond and Horovitz spoke about finally getting Hot Sauce Committee Part Two out into the world, reclaiming their mojo, and confronting life in the face of art.
MATT DIEHL: Before we begin, I have a question for you: There’s a track on Hot Sauce Committee Part Two called “The Bill Harper Collection” that includes a recorded voice message, but even though it’s called that, the voice on the message actually sounds like [illustrator and designer] Bill McMullen.
MIKE DIAMOND: Bill McMullen actually mentioned that last night to me himself. But it’s not Bill McMullen. It’s Bill Harper, our accountant.
DIEHL: It sounds a lot like Bill McMullen.
DIAMOND: Well, they are two people who have had extensive, intertwined relationships with the band over the years, and they both share the same first name. But the voice recording on the album is in fact that of our long-term accountant, Mr. Bill Harper.
WE’VE EMPLOYED COOL HUNTERS SINCE WE WERE 14 OR 15 YEARS OLD. BACK THEN THEY WERE LIKE, ‘THIS RAP THING—IT’S GONNA TAKE OFF!’Michael Diamond
DIEHL: I actually asked Bill McMullen if it was him on the track, and he said he wasn’t sure but that he’s never left a phone message that short before.
DIAMOND: Yeah, he mentioned that to me as well—and I would support that statement, having received a number of messages from him over the years.
ADAM HOROVITZ: He always leaves messages when he’s walking down the street, so he’s always getting distracted.
DIAMOND: Yeah. He’s always like, “Listen, I know I was supposed to get this thing to you guys two days ago, but, you know . . . I mean . . . Oh, wow! You know, it’s funny . . . I’m walking by the Bape Store right now, and it’s crazy over there . . .” It’s like, “Focus, Bill. Edit it down.”
DIEHL: Beastie Boys records seem to come out at these strange, cosmic times. Two days before Hot Sauce Committee Part Two came out, it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, which made me think of how much September 11th influenced your previous album, To The 5 Boroughs . And then recently the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles opened Jeffrey Deitch’s first major show, “Art In The Streets,” which featured street art from Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, RAMMELLZEE, and others from the ’80s cultural moment that launched the Beastie Boys . . .
DIAMOND: Things that make you go, “Hmm . . .”
HOROVITZ: Go figure.
DIAMOND: Yeah . . . It is weird. Actually, if you put those events in chronological order, first Jeffrey Deitch curated “Art In The Streets” at MOCA, then Bin Laden was killed, and then the Beastie Boys released Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Deitch is actually on the album— he raps on the record. But you know . . .
DIEHL: In any case, Hot Sauce Committee seems connected in some way to the spirit that you guys had when you were starting out.
HOROVITZ: I get that, because the last record we put out [The Mix-Up, 2007] was an instrumental record— which is not what we used to do. And then the record before that was To The 5 Boroughs, which is misunderstood, in a way. That was supposed to be our serious political album.
DIAMOND: Well, people labeled it as such. There is an overall seriousness in tone that pervades To The 5 Boroughs. We’re downtown New Yorkers and had very close proximity to the events of September 11th. Like everybody on the island of Manhattan, we were impacted by it in so many ways in terms of what we saw, what we felt, what our daily experience became in the wake of it. I was close to it that day. At the time, I was living pretty close to Ground Zero. I had to grab some necessary equipment, put it in my backpack, and flee the immediate proximity on my bike.
HOROVITZ: Also, maybe To The 5 Boroughs just wasn’t that good. I mean, we thought it was great, but looking back on it, there were some duds on there, so maybe that’s what it is.
DIAMOND: It definitely could be that. The thing about being around for a frickin’ long time is that you’re not gonna knock it out of the park every time. One time an older Jewish manager-man came out of a cave and said to me, “What you guys do, you’re doing as a career over a lifespan.” Take Neil Young: he might make a couple of albums like Trans , which is a great album, but a lot of people didn’t feel it at the time it came out. But then he comes back with Everybody’s Rockin’ , and people loved that. So you go through that. But people are saying Hot Sauce Committee reminds them of what they like about what we do.
DIEHL: There is a certain gusto to the new album.
DIAMOND: Gusto is a very out-of-fashion word. I like that you’re bringing that back. Well played.
HOROVITZ: I think what happened was that we’d been away for a long time, and so now maybe it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Those dudes that made that funny stuff, they’re back with some more funny stuff.”
DIAMOND: We got back to just expressing ourselves in purely musical terms. We sat down at the beginning of making this record and agreed that we wanted a lot of shorter songs. Our reference in that was Paul’s Boutique. We wanted to layer things very densely and have a sort of no-holds-barred, free-for-all approach in terms of incorporating any and all things.
DIEHL: You announced that vibe with the video for the album’s first single, “Make Some Noise,” which is totally epic. Danny McBride, Seth Rogen, and Elijah Wood play the ghosts of Beasties past, and Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly, the ghosts of Beasties future. How did all that come about?
DIAMOND: The idea for that video is really a couple of years old now. It came about when we were finishing the record the first time around. Pretty soon after, we were flying to England and ran into Danny McBride on the airplane. Then it became a reality . . .
DIEHL: The video directly references your infamous “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” video, and the Beasties’ more politically incorrect early era. That was surprising. For years it’s seemed like you’ve tried to disavow that time.
DIAMOND: Yeah, yeah . . . I know.
HOROVITZ: The obvious question is, why now?
DIAMOND: It’s a good question. I didn’t even think of that. I just don’t know why we’re now comfortable riffing on this video that we made 25 years ago.
HOROVITZ: My friend Sam told me last night that he was very pleased with the video. He said, “Wow, that was really good! You kind of took your greatest liability and turned it into an asset.” I thought that was cool.
DIEHL: When I watched the “Make Some Noise” video, I was really shocked when Danny McBride, as MCA, smashed a deli window and stole a six-pack of beer. I thought, You’d never see the Beasties do that in a video during the To The 5 Boroughs era. It just wouldn’t happen.
DIAMOND: Sadly, that’s a somewhat biographical story about one of our closest friends. This kid Dave Skilken was on tour with us in the early days, and he actually did throw a trash can through a deli window. Dave didn’t do it to procure beer, though, but to actually get revenge for them shortchanging him on a $20.
DIEHL: Hot Sauce Committee was supposed to come out two years ago. And then it got delayed when Adam Yauch got diagnosed with cancer.
HOROVITZ: Pretty much, yeah.
DIEHL: How is he doing?
DIAMOND: He’s in treatment for cancer. But he’s doing well. He wishes he could be here right now. So do we.
DIEHL: Did what Yauch is going through affect the making of the new record?
DIAMOND: No. Lyrically it didn’t take any big shifts or anything. It was more like we’d finished it, and thought we were done, and that’s when Adam got diagnosed. It sent all of us just reeling. Our friend and lifelong bandmate got cancer, which was compounded with this record supposed to come out and being put on hold. Everything was on hold. We just decided to see what happens. Further down the road, when Adam was feeling up for it, we started getting together and talking about the record again. It was a bit of a Pandora’s Box. Once we opened this thing back up, we were really opening it up. It was almost like what happens when you reissue an album. But since we had never issued it the first time, we got to be like, “You know what? This has always fucking bugged me . . .”
HOROVITZ: Right. Like, if we were gonna do that with Paul’s Boutique, we’d be like, “You know, ‘What Comes Around’ does not need to be on this record.’”
DIEHL: Hot Sauce Committee has a real old-school New York feel, and you’re, of course, the quintessentialNew York band. How has the city changed?
HOROVITZ: There are no real winos left in the city. You know what I mean? There are, like, fucked-up drug addicts, but no more pure winos . . . I’m just saying.
DIAMOND: I’m an expensive wino.
HOROVITZ: You’re not really. You drink wine, Mike. There’s a big difference. Actually, back in the day, if you lived on the Upper East Side, and you were a wino, you were called a lush. It’s just a high-rent term for wino.
HOROVITZ: Then you’re a lush, Mike.
DIEHL: Nas and Santigold are also on Hot Sauce Committee, which adds to the album’s New York-y feeling. Nas is from Queens, of course, and Santigold is from Brooklyn, which kind of makes it To The 3 Boroughs.
DIAMOND: Nas killed and crushed it. We are big fans. We thought the song [“Too Many Rappers”] was potentially a little out of his comfort zone, but that’s why it worked.
HOROVITZ: He gets out there on that track, talking about his fetish for Christian Louboutin. It’s very fetishistic rap.
DIEHL: How did Nas get involved?
HOROVITZ: He called us back.
DIEHL: You have some interesting collaborators on the new album. For one, you mixed it with Philippe Zdar.
DIAMOND: Another expensive wino . . .
HOROVITZ: And an authentic Frenchman.
DIAMOND: Mr. Philippe Zdar is a little bit like the uncle of the whole Daft Punk–Phoenix-Air thing in Paris and known for being in the group Cassius. It was interesting working with Philippe. He was really able to push everything. He’s very opinionated and strong-willed, which was good for us.
HOROVITZ: We take a long time on things and get kind of lazy, so it was good to have somebody come in and just be like, “This is what I think you want. You’re paying me to tell you what I think. I’m French!”
DIAMOND: Right. “I’m here from France! You’re paying me to stay in a hotel!” We would have lengthy, European-style lunches, which was one of the nicest things. There were a couple of Momofuku Ssäm lunches. We had a ritual where they’d have the assistant engineers print the mixed tape, and we’d come in in the morning and listen to what we’d done all night before and have a lengthy lunch.
DIEHL: Wait—you played what you were working on for Hot Sauce Committee at Momofuku Ssäm Bar while you ate lunch?
DIAMOND: No. That would’ve been good, though. That would’ve been an appropriate 40-year-old-plus version of what we used to do. When we were working on Licensed to Ill, we’d go and record some at Shun King, and then take cassette tapes to Area or Danceteria and play them in the DJ booth at, like, three, three-thirty in the morning. So I think an appropriate contemporary equivalent would’ve been—
DIEHL: Jamming at Momofuku.
HOROVITZ: We could’ve taken our iPods and played it at [macrobiotic restaurant] Souen.
HOROVITZ: I don’t like that place.
HOROVITZ: Yeah, it’s just not for me.
DIEHL: My mom had a macrobiotic moment and I did find a few dishes that I like at Souen.
HOROVITZ: In the ’70s, when I would see my dad, we would only go to health-food places and macrobiotic-type places. Every other week, I’d go see my dad, and he would take me to Whole Wheat & Wild Berries, which was a healthy vegetarian place in the Village. He would take me to that place Food down in SoHo.
DIEHL: Food! I was there all the time.
HOROVITZ: That place sucked.
DIEHL: I actually liked the vibe and the people in that place. It was Gordon Matta-Clark that started Food.
HOROVITZ: So it was an artist food place. See, I grew up with my mom, and I would have, like, Stouffer’s and Swanson’s. Then I’d go to my dad’s, and he’d take me to Whole Wheat & Wild Berries, and I’d be like, “They don’t have Coca-Cola on the menu? What kind of shit is this?”
DIEHL: I know. It was all carob. I was traumatized by carob in the ’70s.
DIAMOND: Yeah, I can see that. I don’t know this Food place, though. I’m kind of curious.
DIEHL: It was in SoHo on the corner of Prince and Wooster. These artists would serve as guest chefs and set the menu. It was kind of like the Cedar Tavern.
HOROVITZ: I had a neighbor who was a Cedar Tavern guy back in the ’50s, when Cedar Tavern was the spot, and he would get drunk and cook steaks in the fireplace in the apartment above us, and just pass out, fall asleep. There’d be a fire and firemen coming . . . He once put a chicken in the oven, ran the bath, and then just passed out, and water was just pouring into our apartment.
DIAMOND: You don’t get neighbors like that in New York anymore. I mean, in New York, it used to be a 50-50 shot that that would be your upstairs neighbor.
DIEHL: So how did you connect with Philippe Zdar?
HOROVITZ: We’ve employed cool hunters since we were 14 or 15 years old. Back then they were like, “This rap thing—it’s gonna take off!”
DIAMOND: Then it was plaid shirts, baristas in Brooklyn, pimples . . .
HOROVITZ: “That’s where it’s gonna be at!”
DIAMOND: Fixed-gear bicycles . . .
HOROVITZ: “Over! Fixed bikes are over!”
DIAMOND: Actually, we were impressed that Philippe has a truffle tree.
HOROVITZ: Thomas [Mars] from Phoenix, his dad actually gave Philippe the truffle tree.
DIAMOND: Thomas’s dad has a house where hundreds and hundreds of truffles grow.
HOROVITZ: We picture ourselves as being in France, recording in mansions and castles with truffle dogs sniffing around outside. Really, though, we’re just schlepping on the train in New York. I am going to be an affineur one day and make cheese, though. I’m just throwing that out there, so when it happens you’ll have had the scoop on that.
DIAMOND: Adam took a course at Murray’s Cheese Shop in the West Village.
HOROVITZ: It was Cheese 101. It was this cheese class, and they teach about the cheeses, but they put out different wines and champagne and stuff, and then me and my wife just drank all the booze first. I don’t remember what happened after that, but it was good.
DIAMOND: So in order to be an affineur, you’ll, like, keep a goat? Is that legal on the island of Manhattan? There’s that whole thing about having chickens in your backyard.
HOROVITZ: My friend Neil had a chicken.
DIAMOND: We tried having chickens at our house in Malibu, but the hawks and owls made it very difficult. That was a traumatizing life lesson for my children. They saw the cycle of life and death very quickly.
DIEHL: Mike, would you ever tap into your lushness and become a sommelier? Then maybe you could open up a château with Adam when he becomes a cheese maker.
DIAMOND: We could get married and open up a B&B.
HOROVITZ: Not in New York, we couldn’t.
DIAMOND: This is true. We would have to move to Vermont for that, where it’s legal.
HOROVITZ: Me and you in Vermont at a B&B sounds beautiful, Mike.
DIEHL: You guys were recently nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but didn’t get in.
HOROVITZ: Part of me feels it’s better we’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We’re still a band, and what made us passionate about music is that we were the little punk-rock kids at school who were not into the prevalent popular music.
DIAMOND: I don’t think Devo is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
HOROVITZ: I know the B-52’s aren’t.
DIAMOND: The Sex Pistols turned them down.
HOROVITZ: That’s what I’m saying. If those groups aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then why would we want to be in there?
DIEHL: Well, because you guys have been around so long, it seems like all of these people of different ages have their own connections with your music. We’re now talking about multiple genera tions of people who have discovered your music and grown up with it and had it become a part of the soundtrack of the lives.
DIAMOND: It’s what happens when you’ve been in the game a long time. We had to grow up in a very public way. Then all the people who started listening to us had to go through those things in their own way as they grew up. That’s the thing with all of us music geeks—music is the soundtrack to the things that happen in our lives, and there’s music that’s unique to that movie.
HOROVITZ: I don’t know if this has anything to do with what you’re saying, but I think that because we’ve been around for so long and we really don’t make many records, we’ve all sort of grown together. But if we’d been putting out a record every year, you wouldn’t be able to see that growth in the same way.
DIAMOND: It’s like when you’re around your kids all the time, then you don’t really notice they’ve grown. Then they see Grandma and she’s like, “Oh, my god, look how big they’ve gotten!”
HOROVITZ: It’s like if your uncle fucks up bad, but then kind of gets his shit together.
Matt Diehl is a contributing music editor for Interview.