Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and members of Slightly Stoopid in March set out on a limited tour of Beastie Boys-themed shows. They donned gold chains and Adidas jumpsuits, to mimic the rap legends’ classic “Licensed to Ill” era ’80s style. They put together party-friendly arrangements of Beasties classics like “Sabotage,” “Intergalactic” and “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” powered by Denson’s virtuosic saxophone playing.
Predictably, the idea churned up some downright epic shows for the bands and their California audiences.
When Denson and his band began playing these shows, the Beastie Boys still existed. As far as any of us could imagine, they would continue to exist for years to come. Of course, that’s not the case now, after cancer took MCA (Adam Yauch) in May.
But for lots of us who love the Beastie Boys, his death is all the more reason to celebrate their music and join Denson and Slightly Stoopid when they bring their Beasties tribute to Belly Up Aspen on Sunday, June 24.
“It’s a little strange having him die in the middle of this,” says Denson. “We hadn’t been thinking about it in the sense of a tribute. It was just fun party music at first. It’s a little bittersweet.”
The idea for the Beasties shows was spawned last summer, when Denson toured with Slightly Stoopid. Both bands are known for throwing in some funky covers during their live sets, and they’re all Beasties fans. So, after that tour, Denson signed up Kyle, OG and DeLa from Slightly Stoopid for a run of Beastie-themed shows.
“It was a perfect fit because Kyle is a punk rocker and OG is just absolutely out of his mind,” Denson laughs.
Adapting the Beasties’ sample-heavy sound to live instruments proved challenging, Denson says, but anybody who’s heard the funhouse tricks he can do with a saxophone can trust he pulls it off.
To replicate the reverse drum machine effect on “Paul Revere,” for instance, they’re combining synthesizers with old-fashioned mouth-to-mic beat-boxing.
The innovations that MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D brought to hip-hop have gotten a lot of well-deserved ink over the last few months, along with MCA’s astounding growth from beer-swilling “Licensed to Ill” lout to devout Buddhist and humanitarian.
For a generation — or two generations — of fans, his death gave us a taste of why the Baby Boomers were so bummed when Jerry Garcia died.
I learned MCA died from a text message reading something like, “MCA died. Our first big concert!” followed by a whole bunch more.
That big concert was on the “Hello Nasty” tour in 1998, in New Jersey, that summer where it seemed to me that “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin’” were the soundtrack to every high school keg party and road trip on planet Earth. I remember the date of that show approaching, and having the feeling that seeing it would be the most important event in my life — being legitimately nervous to see my favorite band in the flesh.
The Beasties had been in the background for what seemed like my whole life. My first clear memory of them is of me performing “Paul Revere” at my first-grade talent show, after training and coaxing from my high school-age older brothers (it was a Catholic school, and I can’t imagine the bit about doing the sheriff’s daughter with a Wiffle ball bat went over well).
So the idea that MCA is gone and the Beastie Boys as we knew them are done has been slowly settling in. But thankfully, it’s easy to stay in denial when you can still throw on “Paul’s Boutique” and “Check Your Head” and hear them at their most vital. And the majority of their material is so goofy and undeniably fun that it’s impossible to get all misty-eyed and maudlin about it.
Seeing the stuff live again, with a man like Denson at the helm and knuckleheads like the Slightly Stoopid guys at his side, on a Sunday night, seems like a more fitting celebration than most any I can imagine for Aspen.
MCA’s passing has brought a lot of attention to the shows — I know I’m not alone in listening to a lot of Beasties these days — but Denson says he’s hanging it up after just a few more outings with this material. So get out there and fight for your right to party … for MCA.