Mix Master Mike powers Beastie Boys
by Seth Rogovoy

(WORCESTER, Mass., October 13, 2004) – Alternately praised as genre-crossing innovators and condemned as cultural pirates, the Beastie Boys have indisputably been one of the most critically and commercially successful bands of the last quarter century. Whether to modify that statement to call them a rock band or a hip-hop band – or as one posing as the other – is left for those whose purpose in life is to draw just such minute, semantic and ultimately unprofitable distinctions.

As for the rest of us, as the New York-based trio of three MCs and one DJ proved on Tuesday night at the Centrum, the Beasties are a whole lot of fun, and even a little thought-provoking. They touched all bases, rapping bratty and political, silly and spiritual, and rocking hard and funky. They appeared in several of their guises, including as a hardcore-punk band -- in a nod to their roots in the early-‘80s downtown rock scene -- for the concert-closing version of “Sabotage” (dedicated to “the future former president, George W. Bush”), as a cheesy soul-lounge band replete with white tuxedos and strings of tiki lights (in a joke that went on far too long), and, of course, in their best-known personas as facile rappers who bounce sentences, phrases and words off each other with the grace and agility of pro ball players setting picks and passing under the hoop.

The Beasties are on record as wanting their current tour to have the feel of an old-fashioned “pageant,” and they did what they could to extend the boundaries of the typical arena show and inject an air of vaudeville, far beyond the usual evocation of call-and-response chants along the lines of “Is Worcester in the house?”

The evening’s entertainment began with an authentic Las Vegas canine act, replete with dogs walking tightropes, doing backflips, going down a sliding pond, climbing ladders, and jumping through hoops – putting the “beast” into Beastie Boys, if you will. The dogs were followed by Talib Kweli, a much-touted, New York-based rapper who was once a partner of rap superstar Mos Def. Much is made of the “insightful, well-crafted lyrics and passionate delivery” of this son of university professors, to quote one press release, but anyone who wasn’t already familiar with Kweli’s lyrics might as well have skipped his set, because other than the names “Mos Def” and “Kanye West,” the latter a rap superstar who was one of Kweli’s early producers, almost none of his words could be understood.

This was only slightly less of a problem with the Beastie Boys themselves, and it made the group’s 100-minute set something of a disappointment, as their ingenious wordplay got lost for the most part in the echoey mix. Fortunately, the Beasties offered plenty else for a concertgoer to focus on, including clever video accompaniment, non-stop dancing bordering on parody, the constant element of surprise (if you blinked, you missed them appearing somewhere in the arena other than on stage), and most of all, the amazing talents of DJ Mix Master Mike.

If anyone can convince a skeptic that turntablism is actually a musical art form, it’s Mike, as other than on the handful of live numbers the Beastie Boys played, he laid down the entire instrumental soundtrack to the group’s rap numbers by flipping and scratching records on two turntables. Without him, Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA – the three Beastie MCs – would just be a bunch of guys shouting nonsense. Mix Master Mike gives it rhythm, structure, contrast – he turns it into music.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 14, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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