Beastie Boys, Yokohama Arena, 1999

This is a review I wrote about a Beastie Boys concert at Yokohama Arena in 1999 for the Japan Times.

Sean Lennon opened the Beastie Boys concert at Yokohama Arena on February 6 with a 30-minute set that was sharper than the one I saw him play last September. The band appears to have honed its songs to a finer edge over the past several months. What’s more, Sean seemed amazingly focused for someone playing to such a huge audience. He thanked everyone for coming out to see “the Sean Lennon experience,” and playfully exhorted them to buy his T-shirts and paraphernalia in the lobby between sets, and, of course, to purchase his CD if they hadn’t already. “You’ll be the coolest kid in Japan.” He also graciously thanked the Beasties for asking him to open for them, adding that “they started my career.”

Actually, all the Beasties did was give Sean a recording contract. For all intents and purposes, his “career” started when one of John Lennon’s sperm entered Yoko Ono’s ovum. But it’s obvious that he’s learned about the work of contemporary pop very well — and quickly, too. And for that, he should thank the Beasties, who not only perfected the notion of careerism in indie rock but made it respectable.

Their latest album, Hello Nasty, is a full return to the smartass hip-hop that made them stars in 1986. After forming their own record label, Grand Royal, in the early 90s, they seemed to be aiming from some kind of misguided integrity by playing their own instruments, exploring afro-funk forms, and jettisoning their self-created image as middle class white morons who watch too much TV. The seriousness was understandable, even if the music was unexceptional. In the process they launched a magazine (mostly about themselves) and a line of clothing, while Adam Yauch (MCA) established the Milarepa Foundation, which is dedicated to non-violent action and freedom for Tibet.

Hello Nasty, then, is a return to what they do best, which is rapping and rhyming in three-part cadences to formidable break-beats that, regardless of their source, mimic the hardcore punk that the Beasties cut their teeth on when they were undergrads at NYU in the early 80s. But maturity being what it is, they no longer feature underwear-clad female dancers on stage, nor do they bray stoopidly about fighting for their right to party. They still bray and, thankfully, crack wise, but now it’s about family and friends and “filthy cash” and the Bodhisattva. If it doesn’t sound like hip-hop, well, maybe it isn’t in the strictest sense. Can you name another rap act that, thirteen years down the line, is not only still on the top of their game but selling out stadiums? Run-DM who?

So though it probably wasn’t, it could have been the Beasties’ themselves who decided on the heavy arena security detail and the pre-concert announcements in Japanese and English about how the show would be stopped if the crowd got out of hand. The ads had promised “the biggest dance floor in Japan,” but considering the kind of music the Beasties play, the only dancing one could expect would be of the slamming variety, and with the patrons on the floor divided into compact “blocks,” mosh pits weren’t going to form without a struggle.

But struggle they did. After some introductory scratching and elbow pumping by the band’s DJ, Mix Master Mike, the Beasties, dressed in matching red jumpsuits, took the stage for “Super Disco Breakin'” and the entire arena literally jumped. “Money makin’, money money makin’, Manhattan super disco breakin'” goes the self-consciously old school chorus. The three Boys immediately staked out their personal territories on stage: King Ad Rock stage right, wriggling and sliding spasmodically whenever his turn on the mic came; the taller Mike D stamping and flailing in hardcore simplicity; and MCA, the band’s benign Buddhist, taking up the rear, hand in pocket, a sure sign of somebody who doesn’t dance.

Since the songs are short, contain little if any melody, and rarely stray from the same tempo, the trio was forced to break the monotony every so often by changing stylistic gears. After 20 minutes of deluxe raps, Ad Rock and MCA donned guitar and bass respectively, a drummer appeared, and the group played a brief set of hardcore tunes that was every bit as monotonous as the hip-hop, but less fun since hardcore is, by definition, incomprehensible, at least in concert. Mike D, who did all the singing, if you can call it that, looked perfectly at home.

He didn’t hang around for the next interval of funky instrumentals, which saw the arrival of a keyboard player and two percussionists. This ensemble did a pretty good job of filtering old War motifs through its Downtown sensibility, but the crowd didn’t come for that kind of thing. Even if Carlos Santana had walked out on stage for a solo I doubt if anyone in the house would have paid any mind. Most of the people in the seated sections stayed in their seats.

The flava returned on “Remote Control,” which, with its booming guitar line and bona fide harmony chorus, proved to be the first genuine highlight of the evening. The crowd woke up and leaped all over one another as they were meant to. The Beasties held on to the momentum with “The Move,” an ode to the curious primacy of listening to dance music on headphones. “I love it when you spaz out all alone,” Ad Rock spritzed, and they did. And so did he.

This pattern — a set of rabid hip-hop followed by a set of catatonic hardcore followed by a set of chill-out latiny funk — was repeated until the end of the ninety-minute show. And for once, I realized, critics and fans agree. Hip-hop was the only component that got the crowd jumping, and the dedication to old school is why so many magazines named Hello Nasty one of the best albums of the year.

But, again, some will beg to differ, not so much because they think white guys can’t rap, but because once you reach communal and commercial Nirvana, as the Beasties have, you lose the edge that gives hip-hop its street appeal. Crews are one thing, foundations are another.

And these people do have a point. Almost every Beasties song contains the line “We be rockin’ to the break of dawn,” but the last thing Ad Rock said to audience before they played their single encore at 7:30 PM was, “Sorry, but we really do have to leave.” The Beastie Boys may not always be hard, but they’re certainly real.

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