Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boysby Alan Light
In 1987, three white Jewish boys from New York City were the most fascinating phenomenon in the burgeoning rap music scene. No, really. The Beastie Boys, barely out of their teens, had just released Licensed to Ill, which quickly became the first hip-hop album to reach number one on the charts. Pairing vulgar and hilarious lyrics with heavy-metal-derived musical backing and a punk DIY attitude, the Beasties—MCA (Adam Yauch), King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), and Mike D (Michael Diamond)—changed the face of rap forever by bringing it into the mainstream. In the years that followed, they would change it again and again—musically, culturally, and politically.
To create The Skills to Pay the Bills, Alan Light spent years taping conversations with the group, their friends, roommates, producers, engineers, collaborators, and other artists from Madonna to Chuck D. Here, as told from the inside, is the fascinating tale of three rump-shaking, innovative rappers whose albums still go platinum and whose tours continue to fill arenas after more than two decades of making music. The Skills to Pay the Bills chronicles the Beasties’ unique journey from the hardcore New York underground to the top of the Billboard charts. It is a story of larger-than-life personalities, noble causes, funky beats, and truly one of the most influential and ambitious groups of all time.
I said, Where’d you get your information from, huh?
“The first time I met them, I thought I was on Candid Camera.” —D.M.C.
“I think I made out with Adam Yauch once in their dressing room.” —Madonna
“One of my favorite groups is the Beastie Boys.” —Bono
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Read an Excerpt
The Skills to Pay the Bills
By Alan Light
Random HouseAlan Light
All right reserved.
1: Young and Useless: 1981--82
ADAM YAUCH: I met this guy John Berry at Tier 3, a little teeny hole-in-the-wall punk club, and we hung out a little. Then a day or two later, John brought Mike with him. They had this band called the Young Aborigines--Mike played drums, John played guitar, Kate Schellenbach played percussion.
JOHN BERRY: When I first met Adam Yauch, he was the funniest motherfucker I'd ever met in my life. He had this incredible knack for picking up somebody's voice. He was really into Monty Python. I think a heavy influence of his was the silly-walk skit.
ADAM HOROVITZ: I have this memory of seeing Yauch at a record store. He wore an overcoat and boots and just looked funny. I'm not saying that I looked cool, but he looked funny.
SASHA FRERE-JONES: I went to Saint Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, this private, progressive school. Mike D came in as a junior. He was from Manhattan, was into punk rock, and instantly started hanging out with all the cool, good-looking girls. He used to wear an Isaac Hayes T-shirt, which was incredibly cool at the time.
JILL CUNNIFF: When I met Mike, he had sort of crazy calico hair. Adam Yauch had a raincoat with "White Riot" spelled out on the back with pieces of tape, and combat boots. We all wanted to be hip, cool punkers.
BERRY: The first practice was at my house--we called it the Hell House. Just a bunch of fucking noise. I don't think there was any direction, no one really taking any reins or being, like, the creative guru. It was just a bunch of kids dashing around.
KATE SCHELLENBACH: Adam Yauch started hanging around, and after rehearsal he'd start playing the bass. He knew how to play "Public Image" by Public Image and that was it. Like two notes. Then we started switching around--I'd play drums and Yauch would play bass and we'd make up songs about the bodega downstairs, stuff like that. Mike had nothing to do, so we made him the singer. Which was funny because he was so introverted and shy and so he was the least likely candidate to be lead singer.
YAUCH: We went and saw Black Flag one night. It was like when Black Flag first came to New York and Dez [Cadena] was singing, it was before Henry [Rollins]. I think it was actually the first time Henry ever saw Black Flag, too. And after we saw Black Flag, all these kids from D.C. started moshing, and we'd never seen that before, diving off the stage. This was at Peppermint Lounge up on Seventy-seventh, or somewhere in Midtown. But I think we got kind of inspired by that. It was just when hardcore was kind of starting in the U.S., because we were listening to more punk bands coming over from England, Stiff Little Fingers and stuff like that. And things were starting to happen like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image. And that's the kind of stuff that was inspiring us. Young Aborigines was more going toward those kind of P.I.L./Siouxsie sounds.
I think after we saw Black Flag, we thought we should start a hardcore band. There weren't really any New York hardcore bands, so it was kind of like the D.C. hardcore scene, there was sort of an L.A. punk scene. But Bad Brains was the first band that was really starting to play fast. And I guess Minor Threat was probably just coming out. And we were like, Let's start a New York hardcore band, kind of as a joke. And that was called Beastie Boys. We were trying to think of the stupidest name.
CUNNIFF: When we first saw Black Flag play, we thought it was really funny. Like, Look at these people banging into each other, look at this guy sweating with no shirt on. (laughs.) Like, "What is this?" They started the band as, like, a joke on that. I don't know if they say that about themselves now, but that's really what it was.
SCHELLENBACH: Adam Yauch was making buttons for bands, homemade buttons. And he made this "Beastie Boys" button and it was cool-looking. It was just a cool word, and then we adopted it. So the button came first, and then the band.
BERRY: This may be argued, but I think I actually came up with
the name. We decided that we should have a gang, an Elks Lodge--type thing. We had secret handshakes and stuff and we'd wear old-man clothes that we'd find at Salvation Army, and we'd smoke cigars. The thrust was pretty much to walk around and annoy people and just be obnoxious. I don't think there was an agenda, really.
YAUCH: The first gig was a party at John Berry's house. It was my seventeenth birthday, and we bought a whole bunch of beer. I think it was the first time Mike ever got drunk.
SCHELLENBACH: That was, like, a notorious party. All our friends came and then people who weren't our friends came and there was a fight, someone got beat up and people had to run. Upper West Side kids, downtown kids, Brooklyn kids. And we showed Super 8 films, we had TVs on, we played--it was a multimedia experience.
YAUCH: Right after we played, Dave Parsons came up. He ran a record store downtown, Ratcage, and he said, "I'm thinking about starting a record label, would you guys want to make a record?" It was the first time we ever played, and we were playing at somebody's house. So--sure!
ANTHONY COUNTEY: Dave Parsons was the focal person in New York, [the reason] why everybody knew each other. He had this brilliant record store in the basement, it was in the same space that Bad Brains recorded upstairs. Dave was bringing records in, you could find all the UK Subs and Cockney Rejects and all this English oi! stuff, all this punk stuff, all the most obscure stuff, and he would just get his hands on copies of everything. We were all there every day, "What's new? What ya get?" "Oh, yeah, Backstage Pass!" All those great records.
Dave Parsons was wacky as hell at that time. He would wander around the Village, sometimes in a dress, and we never knew why--he's not a transvestite. He now lives in Switzerland with his wife and a kid, and he's known around Europe as Charlot; he does a Charlie Chaplin routine for crowds in the summer. He's really good, he's very like Charlie--he dresses like Charlie, walks around like Charlie with a cane, and climbs a ladder that isn't leaning against anything, and people love him! And put money in a hat and he lives on it! He is an amazing man, someone definitely worth biographing.
SCOTT JARVIS: Between the time we recorded [the songs that would become] Polly Wog Stew and when we mixed it a few weeks later, the studio sort of went under. The guy running the studio was on the road with Bad Brains and was supposed to be sending the rent, but it never came. And the guy who actually owned the space, his ex-girlfriend came by and told me that he was going to sell the equipment. So we had to scramble to get that stuff out of there. I took the tape machine over to my girlfriend's apartment. We laid all the equipment out on the bed, wired together. Everyone came over and we did the mixes there in the apartment, and edited it together with, like, paper leader tape and Scotch tape.
SCHELLENBACH: We didn't play a lot of shows, really only a handful. But they were good. We played A7 with Bad Brains, we opened for Circle Jerks.
THURSTON MOORE: The Beastie Boys were one of the bands in the first generation of the New York hardcore scene--Heart Attack, The Mob, Urban Waste, Even Worse, the Nihilistics. They were really kids, but they weren't like street-rat kids--they obviously had this edge over everybody else. Their humor was a little more sophisticated; it wasn't just fart-joke humor. Mike D was this skinny kid jumping up in the air and landing on the stage like this screaming little bird or something. They stood out. They were more weird than the rest of the hardcore bands.
COUNTEY: They were the youngest, freshest hardcore band, the most irreverent, satirical even, but really good. They were funny.
JESSE MALIN: My band Heart Attack used to play bills at CBGB with the Beastie Boys, and we'd see each other at a place called Ratcage on Avenue A, which was the basement of a rehearsal studio. They were from uptown, and I was a borough kid from Queens, and so even though I liked some of their records I didn't fully relate. There were little cliques in those days, even though the scene was only a hundred people. It still had that schoolyard rivalry, and I never fully connected with those guys. I thought they were just ripping off Bad Brains--but I was probably ripping off the Circle Jerks or something. They had their own kind of circle and they kind of hung with themselves. They were connected with these girls who dressed like the Slits and who had a fanzine called The Decline of Art. And to be quite honest, it seemed like they had money, and a lot of us didn't. In time everything changed and they became cool people. They took Murphy's Law out for their first tour and I thought that was really cool of them, and they seem to give back a lot. But in the beginning we were like, Oh, fuck those rich kids--but that's how you are.
HILLY KRISTAL: The Beastie Boys were great. They were nice kids. It was a good band, very good. They played here at CBGB a few times, and then they changed a little bit and they got into other things. Would I have tagged them for success? No, I wouldn't. It's hard to say who would be a success, because hardcore was never played on the radio. At that point there were so many things happening, you couldn't really tag anything for success.
BERRY: I became less and less interested and started missing rehearsals. A couple of times I went to rehearsal really fucked up on speed, crystal meth, and dragged this friend along with me, who they really didn't like. I think it was Diamond who called me, and he was like, "Obviously, you're not interested in this anymore, and we're going to get Adam Horovitz to play." And I was like, "That's cool."
NADIA DAJANI: We used to call Adam [Horovitz] "Adam Ant." He was really little. He was a scruffy little kid. His mother had a clothing store called Gee, the Kids Need Clothes--it was used clothes. All the mothers in the neighborhood knew her because none of us had any money and she'd let you sort of walk out of there with armloads of clothing for practically nothing. She was so great. If you were hungry, you could just go there; if you ran away from home, there were never any questions asked. She was so supportive of Adam and came to all the shows with us.
HOROVITZ: After their record came out, my band, the Young and the Useless, started covering Beastie Boys songs. And then we got to be friends. So when John went AWOL, I took his spot. I came up from the minors.
JIMMY DRESCHER: There's a Young and the Useless seven-inch out somewhere that I don't even possess, and I sing on it with them. We did "Rise and Shine." You know that song--"Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory . . ." We did it really fast.
YAUCH: I think that Polly Wog Stew came out during my senior year in high school--like toward the end of it. So we played some shows that summer and then I think I went away to school. Bard's only, like, two hours' drive away. I would come back if we had gigs. I would come back sometimes just to practice and hang out on the weekends.
MICHAEL DIAMOND: Vassar came and went so quickly for me. It's really hard to line it up. What's a semester? And then the semester I was supposed to be there, I was there only about half the time.
HOROVITZ: I was going to City-As-School then. I was still going to high school around the time of, like, the Madonna tour.
YAUCH: I was really thinking I was going to stick around Bard the whole four years, but then, that summer, I got a job in a recording studio at Shakedown and I just felt like between playing with the band and working at the recording studio, I was learning more about music relevant to what I wanted to do than I was at school.
MOORE: Late at night, when I would walk my dog or something, I would see Mike D and some of his friends, just barely out of high school. It was great--you would see them walking around, and they would have their trench coats on that would say "Beastie Boys" on the back, and they would have these hardcore haircuts, Doc Martens and stuff. And I thought, "Oh my God, what a cool little gang walking around the Lower East Side like that, they're so young." It was a romantic image.
Excerpted from The Skills to Pay the Bills by Alan Light Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Alan Light is the former editor in chief of Vibe, Spin, and Tracks magazines, and a former senior writer for Rolling Stone. He is the editor of the New York Times bestseller Tupac Shakur and The Vibe History of Hip Hop.
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The Skills to Pay the Bills is about the adventurous journey that the Beastie boys have gone through during their music career. It is written by Alan Light and he gets involved with the group and many of the people that they associate with to find out what they have been through and the way they got to their fame. The music enthusiasts that are part of this rap/ hip-hop group include - Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horovitz (King Ad-Rock), and Michael Diamond (Mike D). These three Jewish boys from New York City are interviewed and the people they are encountered with are also interviewed in this ethnography about the Beastie Boys to inform its audience about the things that happened behind the scenes. The major themes in this book include the coming of age and dedication. Coming of age is an important theme in the book because it shows how the Beastie Boys started their career and throughout the book the history of the rap group is unfolded. The history of this influential group also shows how dedicated the band members are towards the music that they produce. I like how involved Alan Light gets with not only the band but also other famous musical stars, and how the title of the book is named after one of the bands famous songs “Skills to Pay the Bills”. The only dislike I had reading this book was that it was written in all quotes. I would recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about the history of music enthusiasts or even just about The Beastie Boys. It is an interesting book that includes an inside look of how the career of The Beastie Boys was all played out.