Q&A With Mike D. of the Beastie Boys

Q: How has your background of living in New York City informed your work?

A: People say, "I can't imagine how you grew up in Manhattan!" Somehow, they think that it can't possibly have been safe or productive. When I first became aware of music, it was probably the same way a lot of people do — even more suburban or rural people — from my older brothers playing music. The tremendous difference was that at the same time, I didn't need to ask my mom for a ride to go buy a record. Admittedly, my parents were of the more liberal sort, so as long as it didn't interfere with me being in school, I could go tag along with my brothers and go see the Clash or an Elvis Costello show when I was, like, thirteen years old.

Even whereas today it's a smaller world in terms of being able to access music via the internet and people e-mailing you cool music from wherever and having a musical community that reaches far beyond where you are geographically, that still in no way can match having that actual access to live music and other people playing music right around you all the time. That's how the Beastie Boys met each other. We all went to different schools — Kate [Schellenbach, original Beastie Boys drummer, later formed Luscious Jackson] was going to Stuyvesant, I was going to St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, Adam Yauch was going to Friends [Seminary] at that point. John Berry, who was our first guitar player — I knew him from a school called Walden on the Upper West Side. We were all in different schools, but we'd all see each other at these different shows.

Another huge impact on me growing up musically in New York was having to take the subway from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn Heights every day. That's how I first started hearing battle tapes — early Hip Hop tapes that people had taped from Afrika Islam's Zulu Beat Show of like the Harlem World Battles, like the famous ones like Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee or the Soul Crush Brothers.

New York isn't segregated the way many American cities are, where there are specific ethnic neighborhoods that don't necessarily co-exist, or they co-exist but in a much separate sense. To me, to this day, I look forward to getting in taxis, because a lot of times I'll hear some incrediblem usic from the Punjabi Taxi Driver, and then I'll start talking to him about Bhangra.

Q: What do you think of the current climate in New York City. Is it as exciting today?

A: First I'd have to say I'm not really qualified to answer that question, because on the one hand, the music that was so significant to me when I was growing up; well, that was then and this is now. I was of a certain age, and let's face it...I'm not fifteen years old anymore. At the same time, I think the environment must be a little bit different. I remember when I was fifteen and going to see bands, the drinking age was eighteen, so it really wasn't a huge deal. There were never really issues of drinking ages, where bands could play, cabaret licenses and where venues could be that exist today. It's in the same way that real estate in general is at such a premium on the island of Manhattan now. I think that's affected all art scenes — not just music.

I remember going to the East Village for the first time as a fifteen-year- old and going to Tompkins Square Park. That really seemed like a pretty edgy thing to do. You didn't know if that was safe or not. Obviously, it's totally not like that anymore. If I were growing up in the city now as a teenager, I'd probably be spending all my time in Brooklyn somewhere. With both music and the visual arts, it's not like those same sorts of scenes don't exist anymore, it's just that they've been forced to exist somewhere else.

Q: What were some of the early, influential bands you saw back then?

A: For me, growing up in New York, it started with Elvis Costello and the Clash and then got into louder things like Bad Brains and Stimulators, because those were like the local bands. Then I started getting into bands from England like the Slits. I remember seeing Gang of Four at Irving Plaza, that was a really big show for me.

Q: The Beastie Boys did a bit of an about-face. The band circa LICENSE TO ILL seemed to espouse a certain persona of beer-drinking frat boys. Despite it being tongue-in-cheek, the band became initially associated with that stereotype. From there, the band has since gone out of its way to do a turnaround, from attempting to increase awareness of the plight of Tibet to issues of sexism and homophobia. How effective do you think the medium of music is as a tool of this type of social change?

A: Music has always had a really profound place in our world because music as a form just goes beyond how words can reach people, or for that matter, even how visual images can reach people. Music has the ability to touch or galvanize or grab people, if you will, in a truly transcendent way. It can either take a collective mass of people on a journey to a different place or inspire them to become involved in making their own music or to initiate some great social change. This is evident across cultures, across time and involves every different kind of music, whether you're talking about Hip Hop, Punk Rock, the many revolutions that have taken place within the brief history of Jazz, Gospel Music, or even the roots of Sanskrit as a language. It's an ancient language, going back thousands and thousands and thousands of years was always meant to be recited and sung, basically. I know it sounds a bit far-fetched on my part.

Q: Did You expect Hip Hop to become the major, cultural force that it is today?

A: Definitely not. When I first heard Hip Hop, like battle tapes or the first Sugarhill records, being someone who was into Punk Rock at the time, it totally blew me away. The only other music I was listening to at the time was Punk Rock and Reggae. All of a sudden, Hip Hop was almost, if not equally radical, way more radical than either Punk Rock or Reggae. It was combining beats and vocals and was really stripped down and getting its message across without having to be hugely produced. Instantly, I knew it was for me. I instantly became a huge fan of Hip Hop and held it on a very high pedestal. I had really high regard for it. We'd hooked up with Rick Rubin, who then went onto produce our first record. Through him and Russel Simmons, we met Run-DMC. That was a huge thing for us, because to me, Run-DMC were huge rock stars. "Sucker MC's" was out in New York, and that was a huge record and "Jam Mater Jay" was a huge record. They dropped their first album with "Rock Box" on it, and that was a huge song. To me they were tremendous stars. The fact that we were actually hanging out with them and around them when they were making records and on tour with them, I thought of that as really huge, but at the same time, if you'd asked at that time if I could foresee Hip Hop becoming the backbone of all kinds of popular music that's made today — whether its pop songs having looped beats or rock songs on rock- styled radio having guys rapping and having a D.J. in today's equivalent of heavy metal bands? I'd say no. There's no way I would have foreseen that.

Q: What are you currently excited about?

A: I'm always a bit eclectic, if you will. Hip Hop will always be an ongoing thing for me, and I don't just mean old Hip Hop. Like I said, I love the Neptune's production. I'm totally amazed with some of the songs they've done for Jay-Z and Ludacris. At the same time, I love having discovered Bhangra from being in taxicabs. Here in New York, you've got everything. There's even the other side of Indian music, like the whole devotional musical scene. That's how I met Bhagavan Das, and I produced a record for him. I met him through this small spiritual music scene, and he has just had an amazing voice. I had him sing on this Moby remix I was doing at the time, and I ended up making an album with him. That to me is one of the incredible things in New York. You can go from hearing incredible devotional music on Wednesday night, going out to see Radiohead play at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, and staying home on Friday listening to whatever you wanna listen to because its too crazy outside. And on your way back and forth to any these things, you get to check out whatever it is that your taxi driver's checkin' out.

Q: What do you think of the current mainstream?

A: That's a pretty broad question. Mainstream to me encompasses everything from N'Synch to P. Diddy to Jay-Z to Dr. Dre to J-Lo. In an interesting way, I wonder if we've ever had a time when mainstream actually has meant so many different things simultaneously. To me that's a potentially good thing, being the electric eclectic type of person.

Q: What's next?

A: Well, like I said, I did the music for that Bhagavan Das record, and that comes out in August. On the band front, that's in the Top Secret stage, because we're working in the lab so to speak, at the moment, and scientists like to keep their things secret.

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