Back in the summer of 1992, I wasn’t really concerned with the Beastie Boys’ legacy. I wasn’t aware of the seismic shift they had undergone with Check Your Head or the to-the-brink-and-back journey they’d taken just to make the album. Instead, I was focused on getting my Dickies to sag just so and tracking down a pom-pom beanie like MCA wore on the album’s cover. So deep was my Beastie-mania that I was willing to wear a knit cap and khakis in July. In Florida.
And I wasn’t alone (at least not in my high school). Because in 1992, everyone I knew lived and breathed the Beastie Boys, and their fantastically rattling comeback album Check Your Head. Of course, at the time, none of us really knew it was a comeback album; we just thought it was the coolest thing we’d ever heard — a fuzzy, funky think that sounded like nothing else on the radio — and, by proxy, the Beasties were the coolest guys on the planet (or, at least, the coolest guys in suburban Orlando). They dressed like skaters, they were obsessed with the ABA and creaky badasses like Richard Holmes and the Ohio Players, and they channeled the swagger of everyone from Columbo to Dolemite. They were, whether they knew it or not, the underground railroad of hip. If you wanted to know what was cool, and you wanted to know before anyone else, you went to the Beastie Boys.
It’s only years later that I realize that prescient coolness is what has made the Beastie Boys what they are today: a band whose career rivals any other. They have been together in their current incarnation for nearly 30 years and have released a slew of albums, the overwhelming majority of which are very good (their latest, The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, is due May 3), but it’s not their longevity or their back catalog that have earned them respect; it’s their unerring ability to continuously reinvent themselves, seemingly at will, and without ever getting snagged the way so many of their contemporaries have.
In 1986, with License to Ill, they were party-hearty terrors. On 1989′s epochal Paul’s Boutique, they were stony sample-meisters. Check Your Head saw them zigging at a time when others were zagging; rather than join the debate over just how the ’90s would sound, they decided to head back to the ’70s (Head remains a decidedly lo-fi thing to this day). Sure, 1994′s Ill Communication was in the same vein, but there also emerged a newfound consciousness, one they’d explore more fully with their series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts. In ’98, with Hello Nasty (and the accompanying “Intergalactic” video), they got a jump on the Kid Robot “designer toy” fetish that broke through to the mainstream late in the 2000s. And on 2004′s To the 5 Boroughs, they returned to their hip-hop roots and celebrated the city in which they live (though, to be honest, the less said about this album the better).
In between all that, they released EPs that saw them dabble in hardcore punk and jazzy instrumentals (to name just a few), but never once did anyone bring up the question of authenticity. And there’s a reason for that — the same reason they’ve become the revered act they are today. No matter how they reimagined themselves, it always came from the same place: the heart. There is an unquestionable authenticity to everything the Beastie Boys do, because they’re not doing it to be contrary or successful; they’re doing it because it’s what they want to do.
And it’s only now that people seem to realize just how influential that authenticity really is. At midnight Wednesday — on MTV2, mtvU, VH1 Classic and Palladia — they’ll premiere “Fight for Your Right Revisited,” a short film/ career retrospective that includes plenty of nods to their past — it tells the wholly imagined story of what happened after 1987′s legendary “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” video — but also features cameos by a whole lot of “f— it, let’s do something funny” actors like Will Ferrell and Danny McBride, who were 19 and 11, respectively, when the original video premiered and probably couldn’t help but have been influenced by its sublimely stoopid sentiments, not to mention everything that came after.
So, in a lot of ways, Ferrell and McBride are a lot like you or I. They were drawn to the Beastie Boys because they sensed in them something revelatory and real, and they stuck around because neither of those things ever changed. Of course, leave it to the Beasties to turn the convention of career retrospection on its ear. Rather than release some deluxe edition of License, they’ve instead made an incredibly insular short film that rewrites history with each frame. It’s deceptively brilliant, really. And the same can be said for the B-Boys themselves. Without really trying, they’ve fashioned the kind of anti-career that many aspire to, yet few ever attain. And no matter where they go from here, you’ll know it’ll be someplace else entirely. Even if they’re just doing it for themselves.
Don’t miss “Fight for Your Right Revisisted” on Wednesday at midnight on MTV2, mtvU, VH1 Classic and Palladia.