Throughout their active career, the Beastie Boys have had a unique relationship with skateboarding. Despite none of them being particularly accomplished on a sponsorship level, they maintained an authentic connection to skate culture for so long that it’s hard to imagine the two not being linked. However, when their debut album Licensed to Ill was released in 1986, the synergy between skateboarding and mainstream music was tenuous at best. The idea that three Jewish rappers from New York City – a decade-plus before the entire East Coast had a thriving skate industry – known for boisterous hip-hop rock party anthems connected with the then-subculture of skateboarding was foreign, to say the least. Contextually, there were no bands charting who had any real roots in skating, and if they did, it wasn’t touted as a marketing tool. In fact, there were only a handful of pro skaters from the East Coast, let alone any who were Jewish.
Skateboarding in the mid '80s was California; hip-hop was still finding its legs and identity in culture and the actual music industry, and the only true “skate” music being pushed was skate rock via Thrasher Magazine’s editorial and compilation albums. During this time, skateboarding still had a very Anglo-punk stigma to most, which was completely inaccurate considering how many Latino and Asian pioneers there were in the sport, and hip-hop represented urban street culture. The two seemed worlds apart. But for Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond, and Adam Horovitz, whose musical journey began in punk rock clubs and dance venues around Manhattan, cultural lines were bridged by subway stops and the explorative innocence of youth. There were no better ambassadors than a bunch of wise-asses steeped in crate digging, graffiti, DIY, and utilitarian fashion to champion skateboarding. Contrasted against INXS putting skate photography on the cover of Kick a year later, the Beastie Boys posing in photos with skateboards just seemed like how they got to the shoot rather than a prop – and it probably was.
Unlike most music autobiographies, the new Beastie Boys Book traverses more than a band’s story arc within music. While the 590 pages do detail several industry clichés – including cowboy booted A&R guys and tense relationships with major labels – the monograph is a written and visual journey of style, trend, music, fashion, culture, art, slang, and, most importantly, friendship. While the book has many characters and B-stories, the main figures are the three members of the band and the locales of New York City and Los Angeles. Written by surviving members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, Beastie Boys Book is also a love letter to Adam Yauch who, despite being just a year-ish older than Diamond and Horovitz, comes off as a mentor and almost stabilizing figure of the iconic band.
Unlike Diamond and Horovitz, Yauch is depicted as a the least celebrity-yearning of the Boys, never fully assimilating to fame as evidenced by his spiritual journey and immersion into Tibetan Buddhism. As the group’s constant, the images of Yauch throughout the book, save several where he’s wearing costume, are the most stylistically consistent. While his facial hair combos often fluctuate, MCA mostly looked what we identify now as a “typical skateboarder,” which is fairly accurate since he was, but there’s more significance than him being able to pump on a halfpipe. Yauch's and his bandmates’ affinity for skateboarding not only set off a grip of style trends and influenced soundtracks and even brands (via their friendship with Spike Jonze), but it can be argued that it grounded and revitalized their careers.
The genesis of this relationship began with their 1989 sophomore effort Paul’s Boutique. Though it is now heralded as a masterpiece, it was initially a commercial disappointment and consequently thrust the band, most of whom had relocated to Los Angeles, out of the spotlight. Prior to their second album the Beastie Boys were superstars, but they not only lost their glow but, even worse, appeared kitschy to their mass audience as the funked out dance track "Hey Ladies" was their only single to chart. For many, the last images they had of the band were them dressed up in garish 1970s gear, emulating both Saturday Night Live more than rising rap crew.
Several other visuals were crafted in support of the record, but it was “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” that proved predictive and revelatory. Directed by Yauch himself, it’s a lo-fi pastiche that mixes candid footage with clips from action sports videos, and it even shows Yauch skating on the streets of Los Angeles. In between the surf, skate, and snowboarding tricks are footage of the band recording the track, driving around stoned wearing costumes, a confused kitten, and generally staying loose without the frat bro layer. In a sense, the song and video are the secret sauce that created the loose, free blueprint that allowed their subsequent effort, Check Your Head, to hit so hard.
When the project's lead single “Pass the Mic” was released in 1992, it was a lowkey announcement that Beastie Boys were back for the first time. They hadn’t lost the irreverence of their early "Cookie Puss"-era, there was a nod to their punk past with a Bad Brains sample and production that was both sparse and dense at the same time, as well as wealth of skate clips/B-roll in between the vocal deliveries for the video, including footage shot at the ramp they erected at their G Son studio while recording the album. During the tail end of the track they even announce that they’re going to “rock this joint in an old school way,” which was more than a stylistic declaration but the announcement of a cultural zeitgeist.
Though the group was simply wearing the clothes they had always worn, albeit without the B-Boy bravado and accoutrement, what happened in that seven-ish year stretch was that 1980s clothing had become vintage. So rather than looking slightly out of date, they stepped it up by pairing newly vintage parkas, denim, and trainers with newer yet classic workwear, specifically Carhartt and West Coast-centric Ben Davis, as well as peppering in sunglasses, beanies, and even simple Champion hoodies (which had yet to become a thing). The Beastie Boys were not only fresh, but coyly self-referential. It might be an oversell to say it was the birth of modern retro-vintage, but then again, maybe not. In fact, the only thing that really wasn’t emulated to a degree in the wake of Check Your Head was MCA’s oversized snowboarding boots, so expect those to pop off in 2020.
With imagery shot by iconic music and skate photographer Glen E. Friedman and typography designed by Eric Haze, the cover of Check Your Head was also a visual mash up that spoke not only to the band themselves but what was happening in culture – hip-hop had become a part of mainstream America as well as the soundtrack of street skating, which was the industry defining voice at the time. Haze had also designed a promotional skateboard for Vision for the band that never made it past the prototype stage back in the Licensed to Ill days, which has since become a collectors grail. Check Your Head’s cover – a subtle take on Minor Threat’s final 7” Salad Days, also shot by Friedman – and music not only became one of the most important examples of punk, funk, hip-hop, rock, and psych music blending together into a new form, but even the clothes the band is wearing on the cover spoke to the audience. Remember, this is 1992, in the thick of an era where hair metal clichés and the B-Boy looks of the 1980s were being phased out. Grunge was starting to boom, rock stars dressing like their audience was a new thing, and even though gold ropes and chains were still in the mix, rappers in 1992 were far from dressing in the club looks of their forefathers. Here were the Beasties; wearing beanies, Ben Davis, and deadstock sneakers, well before brands knew what models to retro, let alone retro anything at all.
After a string of successful singles, the Beastie Boys made a meaningful connection while working on a promo video for "Time For Livin’." Even though the under two-minute hardcore punk track wasn’t a proper single, it was edited and featured “out of focus” live footage shot by a young skate photographer, videographer, and writer “put on by Yauch,” named Spike Jonze, who they had previously met in 1991 while he worked at the short lived magazine Dirt. Jonze fused the black-and-white and color performance footage with raw skate footage taken from Plan B’s "Questionable" video. Heralded as a superteam, Questionable was the most innovative skate video released at the time and featured three Beasties tracks during pro Mike Carroll’s part.
“I got an advanced copy of the album from Lance Dawes at Slap Magazine,” Carroll told Highsnobiety when we discussed the video. “When it came time for the video we used the music from that advanced copy – I didn’t think anything of it, because the album wasn’t even out yet. So yeah, we didn’t get the rights and the album didn’t even come out for two weeks after Questionable. It’s pretty fucked up. [laughs] We were recently on a Lakai trip in Japan and Tony Hawk actually asked us if we got permission to use those Beasties tracks. Years ago he was snowboarding with MCA and Tony asked him if Plan B had gotten permission. MCA told him we didn’t but said it didn’t matter because he thought the video was ‘sick,’ well… he used some other words, but getting that sign off was all that mattered."
Hailing from the Bay Area, Carroll (who would win Thrasher’s coveted Skater of the Year award two years after the video) was one of the leaders of San Francisco’s E.M.B. crew that was setting all the technical and style trends in skating in the early '90s. Even though he was sponsored by Vans at the time, Carroll specifically had a penchant for deadstock Puma and adidas, as well as Ben Davis and beanies, making him almost appear as if he was somehow an associate with the group.
“I’ve always tried to figure out how it all started [the retro craze],” Carroll says. “It was going on before Check Your Head but that album – the cover, the videos, especially 'So What'cha Want,' that whole style is where it started for me, really set it off. Stop dressing like a goofy boy and get back to normal. When I first started skating I had Puma Clydes, then I saw Cab [Steve Caballero] wearing them, then a few years later this was happening. I got a pair again at a place in SF called Famous Footwear, but when we traveled to England on a Plan B tour I must have bought 10 pairs of shoes because we couldn’t get those old shoes in the US. There was a store in SF called Kaplan’s that would sometimes have Campuses or Shelltoes, but I don’t think I ever even got any there. Later on Nick Tershay [Diamond Supply Co.] met Paul Shier [Pro skater and current team manager for adidas Skateboarding] and he’d start sending shoes to him, and for me too.”
Oddly enough, Girl Skateboards, the brand Carroll formed with Jonze, Rick Howard, and Megan Baltimore in 1993, would not only release Beastie Boys decks (including a recent capsule collection), but released a video directed by Jonze in 1994 titled "Goldfish," which featured skits that mirror and the famous "Sabotage" video Jonze had directed just a few weeks before. Much like their video for "Hey Ladies," Jonze channeled the specific, genre satire that was central and symbolic of the group, but with much more success, nailing the references and tone perfectly. To add another layer, in 1993 Jonze was at a party with the Beastie Boys when Howard mentioned his idea to start what would later become Girl to Jonze. As he told the Nine Club, Jonze – knowing that Mike D was an investor in the original XLarge store and brand – wrangled everyone together and convinced them to distribute the conceptual brand via XLarge.
Back to the Ben Davis for a minute. In the Beastie Boys Book, Diamond elaborates on his role as an investor in the original XLarge store in Los Angeles. He mentions the having the idea of a brick-and-mortar store that would not only carry difficult to seek out workwear but also deadstock sneakers, crediting founders Eli Bonerz and Adam Silverman with actualizing it. Originally opened in Los Feliz, on Vermont Street, Los Angeles in 1991, the store instantly clicked with skaters, hip-hop, and graffiti heads alike, even employing several skaters such as former Menace pro Billy Valdez. Not only did it start to become an underground culture enclave, but it was the go-to spot for out of town heads to cop gear. As pro skaters and musicians traveled back East or to wherever they called home, they were returning with clothes and sneakers that weren’t on the average racks, as well as X-Large gear that was initially only available at the store.
In 2012, Girl and sister brand Chocolate released Pretty Sweet, a full-length video directed by Jonze and Ty Evans which featured Carroll, Alex Olson, Rick McCrank, and Brian Anderson, skating (fittingly) to “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.” Both Olson and Anderson have recently become fashion icons themselves. The video’s New York premiere was attended by Diamond, Leo Fitzpatrick, Michael Rapport and Kanye West who reportedly commented after the viewing that, “That shit was stylistically dope.”
Looking back specifically to the era of Check Your Head and its documentation in the Beastie Boys Book, the transformation of both the band and youth culture as a whole is striking and surprisingly understated in other monographs and media. If you experienced it, the impact was massive; so obvious that it’s just part of your DNA. At a time when a live performance was a more momentous experience, when photographs and media of artists was still rather sparse, seeing the Beastie Boys on MTV Sports skating the G Son ramp or watching them discuss vintage clothing and their perspective on fashion during a House of Style segment was a validation of underground movements from the people invested in it. While they may not be the “definitive” skate band, the Beastie Boys, through their videos, Grand Royal magazine, as well as diverse opening act choices, acted as gatekeepers – the older guys who made you the perfect mixtape and hipped you to other worlds. Whether it was skateboarding, soul, funk, rap, punk, graffiti, or fashion, they offered the perfect mix to a global audience, feeding a creative boom that pushed the ethos and aesthetics of streetwear, skateboarding, and music forward for generations.
This story received invaluable assistance from Girl Skateboards - Beastie fans can cop their collaborative capsule collection here.
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