SXSW Music: Beastie Boys Talk Ill Communication in Austin Studio
Ad-Rock & Mike D detail the origins of “Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”
By Kevin Curtin,
12:40PM, Fri. Mar. 15, 2019
“It’s a little sad to admit,” Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz sighed, reflecting on how often the Beastie Boys wore disguises – wigs, fake mustaches, and ludicrous outfits – in 1993 and 1994 for nothing but their own amusement.
“You’d become this person,” elaborated Michael “Mike D” Diamond. “You’d go out to eat and then go to a Hollywood party as this person, which is way more fun than going as yourself.”
“[Adam] Yauch would be next level, though,” added Horovitz, noting that it was departed Beastie “MCA” who owned a massive walk-in closet full of disguises. “He’d be like, ‘Oh shit, I gotta go to the Post Office. I better put on this Yosemite Sam costume.’ It was a thing.”
All that’s to say that the concept for their classic “Sabotage” music video, in which they’re dressed like Seventies B-movie detectives, came naturally.
On Thursday evening, Horovitz and Diamond sat down at Spoon drummer Jim Eno’s Public Hi-Fi Studio to record a conversation with longtime friend Nathan Brackett, head of editorial for Amazon Music. The discussion, to an audience of a dozen journalists, advanced today’s South by Southwest keynote interview, also officiated by Brackett. Yesterday’s interview, however, dialed in on a singular topic: the Beasties’ fourth album, Ill Communication, which turns 25 in May.
Following the phenomenal popularity of debut full-length License to Ill, the trio’s sophomore effort Paul’s Boutique had “bricked” with fans. The next two albums found the Beasties rediscovering themselves as a band, mostly by getting stoned and jamming.
“It was just really fun. We were learning how to play and having all this fun in the studio. Then we finished this record Check Your Head and we went on tour,” explained Horovitz. “John Silva was our new manager and he sent us out on tour for a year playing everywhere. Last time we’d done that, we were the ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’ guys, and so now we’re in these clubs, and it’s way more fun.
“We didn’t expect that. So now we were a band.”
Horovitz further explained that, after that year on the road, he, Yauch, and Diamond went straight to the studio and made Ill Communication, an album that eventually brought the NYC rap trio back to headlining huge shows.
The conversation, which Brackett dutifully wrestled to stay on-topic, dove into specific Ill Communication tracks, all of which they facetiously referred to as “smash hits.” Horovitz revealed that “Sabotage” began as an instrumental titled “Chris Rock” (no relation to the comedian) and then a rap song with a Queen Latifah sample as the hook. Later, he reimagined it with angry lyrics inspired by a Lee Perry track he’d heard where the dub innovator was “going off on somebody.”
Horovitz jokingly directed his ire at producer/engineer Mario Caldato Jr.
“I decided, ‘I’m going to Mario’s house’ – he’s got a studio at his house – ‘to record vocals,’” Horowitz chuckled. “‘And the lyrics are all going to be about how Mario is the worst person in the world and he’s holding all of us back.’
“He’s not. He’s a wonderful person and has always been encouraging.”
The 45-minute interview also went deep on “Sure Shot.” They got the track’s hook by waking up their friend DJ Hurricane via a 3am call, then recording what he came up with over the phone. Still, it was the track’s third verse that came to represent the Beasties’ feminist awaking, following the previous decade’s meathead antics.
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end
“Speaking for me and Mike, we’d smoke a lot of pot and we’d say stupid shit, ’cuz that was kind of our bread and butter – just making fart jokes and stuff,” explained Horowitz. “So we’d have a track and write lyrics with the track playing over and over again, round and round, and be like, ‘Okay, Mike’s turn.’ He’d say a bunch of stuff, then it’d be my turn, then Yauch’s turn, in whatever order.
“So in the middle of all these dumb jokes about whatever – Yauch had 1,000 lyrics about 2001: A Space Odyssey; I don’t know if we ever used one, but he said way too many – your boy says some super heavy feminist shit in the early Nineties!”
“It’s one of those things your friend does in passing and it’s just like, ‘That’s dope,’” added Diamond. “It doesn’t dawn on you how it’s actually gonna affect people. It makes me proud of Yauch and proud of our music.”