The Band Before… looks at the bands your NME favourites were in prior to hitting success. This week, we delve into the Beastie Boys’ early days as hardcore punks The Young Aborigines…
When the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch died in May 2012, it marked the end for one of the loudest, most white-knuckle rap wrecking crews to have lived: a trio of white Jewish NY wide-boys who blew the doors off the idea that hip-hop is reserved solely for any one kind of class or background. But before all that, it was hardcore punk that obsessed the late emcee and band mates Mike D and Ad-Rock. Before the Beasties, they were punk miscreants The Young Aborigines.
“We were for lack of a better word a jam band. Just a band whacking off basically,” remembered guitarist John Berry in a documentary interview last year, ‘Beastie Boys: The Early Years’. Mike D, then plain old Michael Diamond, was just 15 years old when he started the group with Berry, mimicking the cranked power chords of bands like Black Flag, Misfits, Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains. Completed by high school friend Jeremy Shatan on bass and percussionist Kate Schellenbach (later of alt rockers Luscious Jackson), the group would often play two shows in one night at grimy venues on the burgeoning New York thrash hardcore scene like Studio 171A, recording bootlegs to pass on to friends and other bands. “We were pretty scrappy. In a good way. Very punk. If someone played Young Aborigines and said, ‘Some of those guys went on to be the Beasties’, you’d be like, ‘You’re shitting me, right?’”
After meeting at a Bad Brains show at CBGBs in ’79 (the punk heroes would later inspire the Beasties name, too: “We wanted to have the same initials,” they told MTV), Mike D invited Adam Yauch to replace Shatan when the founding bassist’s school work began to get in the way of rehearsals, taking up bass duties on tracks like ‘Asshole!’. “Mike played drums at first in Young Aborigines but got his first taste of being a frontman on ‘Asshole!’” Shatan told a Beasties fan site in 2009. “His singing was mainly consisted of shouting “Asshole!” and insulting each member of the band in turn. It was a good way to blow off steam… I actually think the experience of singing that song did lead into Michael being the front man for the Beasties.”
Other songs in their catalogue of snotty, sneering 90-second blasts of attitude included ‘Riot Fight’, from a 1982 ‘New York Thrash’ compilation cassette compiling the best of the city’s thriving punk scene, featuring guitars that rattled like machine guns, and ‘Egg Raid on Mojo’, about the teens getting rejected from a club and returning to lob eggs at the bouncer. “Here we were, this group of young teenagers running around New York City that went to punk rock shows too early, listened to music too loud, spent too much time playing music together,” remembered Mike D in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech last year.
When John Berry’s crystal meth habit spiraled, Diamond and Yauch brought in a fan who’d been turning up at their shows, Adam Horovitz, to take his place, also changing their name to Beastie Boys to record an EP, ‘Polly Wog Stew’. Soon they discovered rap, obsessing over Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash records like they did Bad Brains 12”s years earlier, and a transition began. But, despite going on as a trio to conquer hip-hop, the Beastie Boys never truly left punk behind, dropping hardcore guitars into classic tracks like ‘Sabotage’, referencing their old band on ‘92 single ‘Skills to Pay the Bills’ (“I’m the Young Aboriginal, continued evolution of an individual”) and even returning to the genre in 1995 with low key EP ‘Aglio e Olio’. In 2007, before being diagnosed with cancer, Yauch produced Bad Brain’s ‘Build a Nation’ (“an amazing experience,” he said at the time) while in July 2013, Mike D recorded a 10-minute punk track for a Kenzo fashion show.