Ad-Rock Opens Up About The Beastie Boys’ Bitter Split From Def Jam
Last month Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond published The Beastie Boys Book. The memoir of the band chronicles 35 years of music-making, friendship, and being part of multiple cultural melting pots in Downtown New York City, Los Angeles, and places and spaces in between.
A highlight in the text deals with the Beasties’ exit from Def Jam Records. The group released Licensed To Ill on Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s label in 1986. It has since been certified diamond, selling more than 10 million copies. While the Beasties artistically evolved out of that release’s imagery of beer-swilling, cat-calling disruptions, little has been said about the reason for the departure. The Beastie Boys Book addresses that specifically. Chapter 49, “The Fallout” gets to the crux of what happened in the mid-1980s that would ultimately send the group to become an act at Capitol Records for the next 15 years.
“When we started, we were just a band—friends in a band. We never thought of having a producer, or manager, or record label. [We] never really thought about the future of things in general. Then Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons] came along, and they had big ideas,” says Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz in the audio book companion to the chapter he penned. “Things seemed to be going great, so we just rolled with it all. Going on tour, opening for Madonna, and then Run-D.M.C., it was like a dream that we didn’t even know existed for us that had come true. We’d become a big group of friends having ridiculous fun, making music, playing shows, traveling, and getting paid money to not actually have a job. But at a certain point, Rick and Russell started coming up with ideas and making decisions for us.”
Ad-Rock discusses the trio’s biggest hit, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” The song began as a trio made by the Punk Rock band, mocking the Hair Metal anthems of the mid-1980s. It was among the demo recordings that the act made while stacking tracks in late 1985. Rick Rubin, who had signed the group, DJ’d for them during early appearances, and more, re-produced the song unbeknownst to the trio. Ad-Rock describes the new version, which later made the album, as “clean and full.” Rubin re-played MCA’s guitar line from the original. “That sort of thing happened a lot on that record,” says Horovitz. He says that Rubin also decided the LP’s artwork (recently re-purposed for Eminem’s Kamikaze). “We were too busy living the high life to pay attention. Big mistake. Kids, when someone’s making decisions for you, you can also bet that they’ve decided to take what’s yours,” cautions Adam Horovitz.
Like Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J in Krush Groove, a film was in development for the Beasties following their success. That also played a large role in the eventual parting of wats. Ad-Rock details, “[MCA] and our friend Tom Cushman wrote a script. Rick was going to direct and Russell was going to produce. The movie was called Scared Stupid.” Ad-Rock calls the premise a drunken haunted house party. “In retrospect I am so happy that we didn’t end up making it. But that’s besides the point. One night a few weeks later, Rick and I were outside Blanche’s [Tavern], a bar on Avenue A that all us kids used to hang out at. We were talking about the movie. Rick made a quick comment about splits; he was saying that Beastie Boys would get 10%, and him and Russell would get 90%. This for real happened.”
That business proposition escalated tensions. “For me that was the point at which things really started to unravel. [Adam] Yauch was already really kind of pissed and disillusioned with Rick ’cause of the studio stuff. Yauch was into engineering and learning about how to get certain sounds through amps and speakers and microphones and stuff. So Rick taking over as ‘producer’ and not including him was not cool with him. Neither was the notion that Rick was the video/movie director, and ideas guy, ’cause Yauch was also into film and making videos. At some point Yauch quit the band, sorta.” Ad-Rock says that he and Mike D were not aware of MCA’s short-lived 1987 exit from the group. “He told me about this conversation he had with Russell in ’87. It was after like 12 straight months of touring. He was sick of it, done, sh*t got old fast. He felt disconnected from his family, his friends, and himself. He was sick of being the drunk guy at the party.” Reportedly, Russell Simmons urged MCA to keep the party going, and act like his brand, even if he was not intoxicated or enjoying the party. “That was enough for Yauch. So he told Russell that he quit. He never actually told me or Mike [D], so neither of us had any idea that we weren’t a band anymore.”
Ad-Rock says that following the band’s extensive ’87 touring, he went to Los Angeles, California to be with a girlfriend. Meanwhile, MCA focused on another band, Brooklyn (also featuring his script co-author Tom Cushman). Mike D did the same with his Flophouse Society Orchestra collective.
Despite the hiatus—one that nearly led them to call it quits, the band alleges that Def Jam continued to withhold earnings. “During all of this madness we stopped being paid royalties on [Licensed To Ill]. We made money from paying shows—big shows, Madison Square Garden shows, but zero dollars for the multi-platinum smash hit Licensed To Ill, the f*cking record that a group of friends made together, had intense and real fun making together. And now, for whatever reason, one of the friends—the one who is half-owner of the record label, decides that the other three should not receive their earnings for the sales of that record. They did not f*cking pay us—Rick and Russell, our friends, Def Jam.”
Ad-Rock opens up about his personal history with Def Jam. “We’d been there with them from the beginning. I was there in the studio with Rick when T La Rock recorded ‘It’s Yours.’ I was there in the studio with Rick when The Junkyard Band recorded ‘Sardines.’ I made the beat for LL Cool J’s first single for Def Jam, ‘I Need A Beat.'”
Ad-Rock got a credit on the song, while the track is “reduced by Rick Rubin.” A remixed version appeared on LL’s 1985 full-length debut, Radio.
In a 1985 Video Music Box interview, available at AFH TV, LL Cool J describes his earliest days on Def Jam. “I been rhyming since I was nine years old. When I was 11, my grandfather bought me a whole lot of [musical] equipment, about $2,000 worth. So what I did was, I evolved slowly. It was like a process—evolution. I started off as a young rapper, not doing anything. I went and wrote lyrics—a lot of lyrics. Then I started sending tapes in to every record company. I went to a record store, and I got all the Rap records. I took the addresses off of the Rap records and sent a tape to every record company that was [making] Rap at that time. Finally, [Def Jam Records’] Rick Rubin called me back; here I am [talking to] Video Music Box.”
During the recent promotion of the book, Ad-Rock told LL’s Rock The Bells Radio show (and its superstar host) that he was in fact the plug. “[After T-La Rock’s ‘It’s Yours’], Some kids started sending demos in. There was just an address on the record itself. And it was actually — I’m sure nobody knew that he lived in a college dorm room. And so he would get all these tapes [mailed to the NYU dorm room], and there was a box of tapes. And instead of being at [high] school, I would cut school and go to Rick’s dorm, and I’d hang out…I would listen to the tapes, and I heard this one from this kid named LL Cool J…and it was really good. You were rapping. I was like ‘This guy’s really — this kid’s really good. You should meet this kid,’” Ad-Rock reportedly told Rick Rubin, who reached back to the teenager from Queens, New York. “And so, Rick listened to it, and then somehow contacted you.” Thus, Ad-Rock was a critical cog in Def Jam’s first album-maker.
In the band memoir, Ad-Rock continues, “We felt that Def Jam’s success was success for us, and vice versa. ‘Cause we were all friends. So what happened? Allegedly Rick and/or Russell said that we were in breach of our contract ’cause we hadn’t started recording our second album for Def Jam yet. I mean, Russell was our manager as well as the owner of the record label. If he wanted us to record a new record by a certain date, he shouldn’t have had us on tour during said date, right? Why not just have a conversation about it? Or an argument? Or whatever friends are supposed to do with each other to figure things out. But basically, money was what it was all about. How sad is that? We were all making a sh*t-load of money, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t good enough. We never even got the chance to have creative differences; things just spun out of control. ”
According to the biography, Russell Simmons was not above age-old record industry tactics. “Allegedly, Russell threatened to put a record of unreleased songs of ours [and] call it White House and have somebody remix them to theme of this hot new sound called House music. For reals? The whole thing was just a real big bummer ’cause we were friends and things could’ve gone a different way—not that I regret what all happened next. I don’t. ‘Cause walking away from those dudes was actually the best thing to happen to us as a band and as friends, it’s just—I don’t know—sad.” He continues, “We really didn’t run into them much during the next few years. When we did, it was in a crowd of people in a party or something—not the time or place to have a serious conversation. So time passed, and in the way that it does, it eased tensions, and after a while, the fallout didn’t really matter; we’d moved on.”
Rick Rubin participates in the audio readings of The Beastie Boys Book, which also feature LL Cool J, MC Serch, Rosie Perez, John C. Reilly, Jon Stewart, Steve Buscemi, and others.
Other highlights in the book include a section on MC Serch’s beef with the Beasties, Q-Tip’s recording of “Get It Together,” as well as the band’s unique friendship and collaborative history with Biz Markie.
#BonusBeat: Mike D and Ad-Rock speak to Vice News about changing the perceptions of how the Beastie Boys treated women, Russell Simmons’ rape allegations, and cultural appropriation: