"Ch-Check It Out": The Beastie Boys Style History
"Ch-Check It Out": The Beastie Boys Style History
- Words Tristen Harwood
- Date August 19, 2019
In 1981, the Beastie Boys were a mediocre New York hardcore band, in a place and time that gave rise to much more revered east coast hardcore bands like Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Reagan Youth and the genre-warping Bad Brains, naming just a few. Five years later, the Beastie Boys, Adam ”Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yaunch (1964–2012) and Michael “Mike D” Diamond would go on to release the first ever hip-hop LP to top the Billboard album chart, with Licensed to Ill (1986).
The Beastie Boys’ sartorial history is a style coming of age story. Around the time of the group’s first album, they were obnoxious, punk blow-overs, styling themselves as the white Run-DMC, but as their music matured and took stylistic turns, so did their outfits. Beastie Boys would eventually go on to be influential in the evolution of hip-hop, streetwear and sneaker culture.
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The pre-License to Ill, Beastie Boys’ look was a classic punk-hardcore style. They had close-cropped hair, wore beat-up Dr. Martens—giving the punk aesthetic a distinctly American twist, Mike D had Red Wings in place of Dr. Martens—slim Levi’s, bomber jackets and jersey sweaters. These garments were all intended to signify working-class roots, although the Beastie Boys weren’t exactly from working-class backgrounds themselves, and is less ‘cut-up’ and directly antagonistic than the punk style exemplified by the Sex Pistols and the Seditionaries label in the 1970s.
In addition to style, chance and race play a role in the Beastie Boys’ success. They were in New York in the 1980s, surrounded by the hip-hop scene, in 1983 they decided to record a hip-hop track “Cooky Puss” based on a prank call they made to Carvel Ice Cream, followed by an EP of the same title. The venture into hip-hop worked for the group and “Cooky Pussy” became a hit in the New York underground club scene. Quickly they transitioned from hardcore to hip-hop, hiring then DJ Rick Rubin (co-founder of Def Jam Recordings) and playing hip-hop shows.
Race had an undeniable role in the mainstream success of the Beastie Boys’ sophomoric first album. After years of commercial and critical dismissal of hip-hop as being “too black” for a mainstream audience it was three white guys that achieved mass success with a hip-hop album. When License to Ill came out the Beastie Boys were just obnoxious enough for parents to dislike—with tracks like the 1986’s “Fight for Your Right”, which undoubtedly played to the youth—but they were still easy enough for to write off as three white guys goofing around.
During the License to Ill period, the Beastie Boys styled themselves and their music on “new school” hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC. The incorporation of guitar-driven rock, samples and shouted vocals in hip-hop was derivative; Run–DMC had already released their classic “King of Rock”, and their clothing choices simply mimicked Run-DMC.
The Beastie Boys replaced Run-DMC’s brand of choice, adidas, with Puma, wearing matching B-Boy style Puma tracksuits, rocking Puma Clydes and custom graffiti-style caps designed by Cey Adams of Def Jam. Eminent fashion critic André Leon Talley, remarked that this Beastie Boys look “is an appropriation of the hood”. As with much of the Beastie Boys’ early performative styling, this style bears the question: Are the Beastie Boys parodying themselves or just appropriating the established hip-hop aesthetic?
The answer is both. There is parody in their early outfits, a sense that the self-styled goof-offs are trying too hard to be serious about it all. They brought the ironic stylings of punk fashion into hip-hop… with just enough irony. Through the late-1980s, Mike D wore a massive Volkswagen hood ornament on a thick gold chain. A parody of fellow rappers wearing massive luxury (auto or otherwise) logos, the juxtaposition of ostentation against a pedestrian brand (Volkswagen literally translates “Peoples’ Car”) is fitting for the group.
However, they realised that the B-Boy look wasn’t going to work for them. Speaking to NPR, Mike D stated why they had to drop of the tracksuits. “We realized we had to find our own thing. We love rap music but we had to find our own thing within that, if we were actually going to do it.” “We're not going to be Run-DMC. It's just not going to happen,” Ad-Rock added.
After License to Ill, their style progressed, some of the hip-hop signifiers were retained, but counterpoised with punk and prep garments. Ad-Rock adopted this particular prep look (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off), with the addition of a three-finger ring and a beeper. Through this period, Ad-Rock often dressed in blue Levi’s, throwback gym T-shirts, baseball and trucker caps. MCA’s look was proto-grunge—a combination of leather jackets over hoodies, light wash denim, plaid shirts and track pants. The group seemed to discard Puma momentarily in this period, choosing instead adidas classics like Superstars and Gazelles.
The late-1980s was a proto-period for the streetwear scene we know today, so style references were often more localized and personal. In many ways, the Beastie Boys’ (now-retro) mash-up of different subcultural styles can most obviously be seen in the modern day work of work blended, sometimes ironic, work of Martine Rose and Vetements.
The Beastie Boys’ ditched Rick Rubin as their producer and Def Jam, signing to Capitol Records for their more experimental second album Paul’s Boutique (1989). The album draws on an extensive range of samples, departing from the simple rock-heavy beats Rubin produced on License to Ill. While the lyrical content of the album is still relatively juvenile, the left-field samples and the vocal dynamics of the group make Paul’s Boutique a more solid album than their debut.
Paul’s Boutique gave the Beastie Boys another opportunity to experiment with their style. In the video for the album single “Hey Ladies”, they perform in stereotypical 1970’s disco outfits including: platform leather boots, polyester suits, flared trousers, floral print wide-collar shirts and a lime green feathered fedora. Obviously not the group’s everyday wear, this look signals how Beastie Boys use style performatively, adding an additional layer to their musical identity.
Around the same time Beastie Boys released their third album, Check Your Head (1992), Mike D invested in X-Large, one of the first major streetwear brands. The album uses fewer samples and throws back to the Beastie Boys’ roots as a hardcore band, introducing instrumental contributions from all three members. This formula was further developed with Ill Communication (1994), their fourth album. Ill Communication shows unprecedented musical self-confidence, blending hip-hop, funk and hardcore. The proto-rap rock track “Sabotage” was the first single, mixing rock instrumentation, scratching and distorted bass riffs with lead vocals by Ad-Rock. “Get it Together”, featuring Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, is much more typical of mid-1990s east coast hip-hop, with the four MCs trading verses.
X-Large was a natural fit for the Beastie Boys, as the brand combined everyday elements of workwear with big logos, a hip-hop ethos and a penchant for sneakers; the branded blended all of these influences in a way that the Beastie Boys had been doing throughout their career. The group embraced, and was embraced, by streetwear culture, often rocking baggy branded and band shirts, X-Large caps and T-shirts, baggy jeans and adidas Gazelles and Puma Clydes. In this regard, like they did with hip-hop, Beastie Boys played a major role in introducing streetwear to a mainstream audience.
Ill Communication was followed by Beastie Boys’ Grammy award-winning Hello Nasty (1998). Although there is much debate to be had amongst fans and critics, Ad-Rock says that he feels Hello Nasty is their “best record.” As the first album that DMC DJ world champion Mix Master Mike appeared on, as well as the inclusion of classic tracks like “Intergalactic”—he has a decent argument. The music video for “Intergalactic” is itself a classic Beastie Boys style moment, with the group wearing hazmat-like suits around various locations in Tokyo as Kaiju monsters wreak cartoonish havoc on the city.
By 2004, when Beastie Boys released To The 5 Boroughs, they were legendary musicians and streetwear style icons. After a six-year album hiatus and over 20 years in the game, some might have expected To The 5 Boroughs to be a dried-up comeback attempt—it was anything but. Lyrically, it is the Beastie Boys most thoughtful and mature album, but the music retains a youthful energetic spirit, with just the right dousing of nostalgia to keep the “old heads” in tow.
By the 2000s, their style had become less performative and ironic, save performance outfits like suits, which made them look like dejected Blues Brothers impersonators—proving they still had humor. This style was especially prevalent during The Mix-Up-era, with the group setting a strict dress code that included provisions like: "Must wear clip-on tie or some kind of sash or neck scarf." Offstage they had a strong streetwear aesthetic, getting rid of the ironic accoutrements in exchange for garments like simple short-sleeve shirts, branded X-Large and Bape T-shirts, straight leg jeans and upgraded sneakers, like Nike Rifts.
Stussy celebrated the Beastie Boys influence on streetwear in 2007 with limited-edition T-shirts featuring classic photos of the group shot by Josh Cheuse. Bape collaborated with the Beastie Boys and Mike Mills in 2011 to release a T-shirt and a set of action figures immortalising the group. There was also the 2005, unreleased Beastie Boys adidas Superstar (in a New York Mets-themed colorway) that the brand produced especially for the group.
Since the passing of MCA in 2012, the two remaining members of Beastie Boys, Ad-Rock and Mike D no longer make new music In the 33 years since their first album, the Beastie Boys’ style evolution has mapped the group’s trajectory from under-the-radar to mass appeal—shifting from tracksuits and streetwear to conceptual designs and collaborations with globally recognized brands. Not bad for a group of misfit white rock-rappers from New York City.