The Beastie Boys’ Feminist Evolution
Musical history loves contradictions. All is forgiven when one ascends to the status of rock n’ roll God. When David Bowie died, the cultural pundits of the internet debated how to reconcile his artistic career with his penchant for underage fans. Conclusions relied heavily on phrases like “it was a different time,” and “one must separate the man from his music.” There’s an artistic mysticism beyond a listener’s understanding, as though the virginity of 14-year-olds is an acceptable and necessary sacrifice for the crafting of “Suffragette City.”
When the Beastie Boys released their first album Licensed to Ill in 1986, they were already rock gods. After touring with Madonna for a year, the trio put together an LP that ran on cheap beer, partying, and ejaculate. In their videos they wore white tank tops with leather jackets and smashed things. I don’t dare question how many 14-year-old girls were involved. This first album (original title: Don’t Be A Faggot) is 45 minutes of sonic space filled with misogyny (see: entire track called “Girls”) and homophobia (see: original title).
The three albums that followed (Paul’s Boutique in ’89, Check Your Head in ’92, and Ill Communication in ‘94), were focused attempts to lose the one hit wonder moniker that trailed them when the masses found themselves hungover on the Beastie Boys’ frat boy rap. This pair of albums shows clear musical and lyrical evolution — the beats no longer the one-touch outpouring of a drum machine and the verses witty without the inclusion of bodily functions.. This trio of albums is still certainly worth listening to; the Beastie Boys could have settled in this musical nest and grown comfortable. No one would have blinked.
Yet 1998 brought Hello Nasty, the album on which the Beastie Boys’ gave themselves their most significant makeover: their attitude. The album’s third single “Sure Shot” is a distinct turning point in the band’s history. In a verse, MCA, the same man who screeched “The girlies I like are underage,” declares, “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.” This verse, while also a call to action for the music industry as a whole, is largely self-referential. MCA acknowledges that their previous work was riddled with mistakes. Though Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were not quite the ethical quagmire of the Beastie Boys’s first release, MCA expresses that a lack of resolution for their misogyny is worth as much self-reflection as that misogyny itself.
Though the remainder of the 22-track Hello Nasty LP does not contain such explicit references to a feminist dialogue, the overall tone of the album is a distinct departure from their earlier work. The rhymes and references are more playful — the band is full of creativity and positivity. The track “Body Movin’” is a testament to the fact that you can make an instantly-classic dance-party anthem without a single mention of Xanax. “Flowin’ Prose,” is a re-evaluation of one’s perspective on life; a diatribe on Buddhist philosophy with shout-outs to Gandhi and Dr. King. “I Don’t Know,” and “Instant Death,” are almost Sufjan Stevens-like moments of meditation. In the 2004 Beastie Boys’s anthology The Sounds of Science, MCA described how he wrote “Song for the Man,” after observing how men harass women on the subway. The lyrics “Why you gotta be / Like you got the right / To look her up and down / What makes this world / So sick and evil?” speak for themselves.
The complete picture of Hello Nasty is perhaps the most complex intersection of ideas the band ever created. It’s motifs and philosophies run as deep and purposeful as Radiohead’s OK Computer, which was released just a year prior.
For a band who essentially made their mark on music via the subjugation of women, the “Sure Shot” verse — Hello Nasty as a whole — was a powerful move. Many bands, eager to retain their fame, would have let this verse linger as a fallback response to criticism. “We paid our dues and said our piece.” “We don’t want to be known as ‘preachy.’” Often, these slim apologizes do more work for one’s public image than they’re worth. A marginalized community receiving some sort of assurance is not uncommon. However, having said apology turn into action and resolution has little precedent. When someone declares they will make things right and then proceeds to do so — how is one to respond? Can one ever get far enough beyond their mistakes that the shadows they cast no longer linger? Or is it merely the act of trying that absolves?
Yet, what made “Sure Shot” a turning point — as opposed to a pit stop — in the Beastie Boys’s history, was the continuation of their efforts to make things right, both lyrically and globally. After these four lines were shared with the world, the group never wrote another sexist lyric for the remainder of their careers. Not only that, but they rallied against those who did.
Perhaps the Beastie Boys began to take women, and themselves, more seriously during the mid-90’s because it is when all three of them met the women they would marry. In the documentary The Punk Singer, Ad-Rock credits his relationship to Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna as the impetus for the band’s feminist awakening. In a scene, Ad-Rock discusses the guilt of rapping “Girls, do my laundry,” while the woman he wanted to marry was printing Riot Grrrl zines. Consequently, the chillingly pedophilic call of “girlies” that dominated the group’s first album was replaced with the over-earnest inclusion of “b-boys and b-girls” and shout outs to Miss Piggy. “There are no excuses [for past lyrics],” Ad-Rock told Time Out New York in 1999. “But time has healed our stupidity.” Mike D married Tamra Davis, a filmmaker. MCA married Dechen Wangdu, a Harvard graduate and activist.
With this powerful female force behind them, it’s no surprise that the band became ardent activists for women’s rights, among other issues. In 1998, the Beastie Boys received the Video Vanguard trophy at the MTV Video Music Awards. When it was his turn to speak, MCA ignored the time limit and used his place onstage to discuss the United States’s involvement in the Middle East. He asked the audience, and the world, to look towards nonviolent means of conflict resolution.
The next year, at the same awards show, the Beastie Boys won the award for Best Hip-Hop Music Video and used their speech to talk about the sexual assaults that occurred at Woodstock ’99 — a music festival that had happened only weeks before. Not only did he draw attention to the assaults, he implored the entirety of the music industry to speak with their concert security teams and take responsibility for keeping women safe at live shows. The band altered their own live shows, as well, by changing the lyrics of their old songs to be more progressive. They requested that artists they performed with to refrain from performing songs with a sexist message. All the while, the band continued to acknowledge that sexism was a part of their history — a part they were ashamed of. But the message remained: we changed and you can, too.
In 2012, MCA died, at age 47, from throat cancer. The musical community openly mourned. Many obituaries cited his humanitarian work and in particular, his feminist activism. Contrarily, a widely circulated LA Weekly editorial penned by Ben Westhoff encouraged readers not to “reduce” MCA’s career to a single lyric; that lyric being the aforementioned pro-women verse from “Sure Shot.” Lest his legacy be tarnished by one of the most straightforwardly feminist sentiments ever expressed by a male rapper.
It would seem that Westhoff has little to worry about after all. Despite the Beastie Boys’ progressive efforts, it appears history hasn’t chosen to recollect them in the light they worked so hard to craft around their former inebriated selves. As of March 2016, three out of five of the band’s most popular tracks on Spotify and Apple Music come from their first album. On Amazon Music, it’s four out of five tracks. The violence, aggression, and youth of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” and “Brass Monkey” are irresistible in comparison to hearing grown men find things that rhyme with the phrase “multilateral nuclear disarmament” on 2004’s opus To the Five Boroughs (the origins of many of their most political and consequently least-popular tracks).
This raises the question: is it acceptable to indulge in disparaging music knowing that, a few years later, these guys would come to their senses? That they wouldn’t die actually believing a woman should spit shine their shoes and fetch them a cold one?
It would be a tragedy for the Beastie Boys catalog to be lost to a generational gap in which their first albums serve as throwback noise for 40-something wine parties, and their second coming (Hello Nasty and beyond) is tossed aside as being too political for those who embraced the sleaze of Nelly and Eminem during their early 2000’s youths. It was the Beastie Boys’ responsibility to come to terms with their own ignorance and they fulfilled their end of the bargain. So sure, let’s not reduce the legacy of MCA and, by conjunction, the Beastie Boys as a whole, to a single lyric. For they grew to be so much more than “All I really want is girls!”