"DEAR NEW York, I hope you're doing well / I know a lot's happened and you've been through hell . . . "
That's the salutation on "An Open Letter to NYC," one of the key tracks on "To the 5 Boroughs," the Beastie Boys' first album since 1998's ""Hello Nasty." It's a love letter, of course, as is the cover art, a Matteo Pericoli pen-and-ink skyline sketch in which the twin towers still loom large; like the song, the sketch unfolds, across 14 panels. It's a big city.
"Brownstones, water towers, trees, skyscrapers / Writers, prize fighters and Wall Street traders / We come together on the subway cars / Diversity unified, whoever you are . . . "
It's a feel-good romp through the five boroughs, resolving in the chorus: "Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten / From the Battery to the top of Manhattan / Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin / Black, white, New York, you make it happen . . . "
So, Mike Diamond, have the Beastie Boys heard from the Chamber of Commerce or the tourism office about augmenting the "I Love New York" campaign?
"We haven't received that e-mail yet," says the rapper, known as Mike D. "Maybe they could at least play it in the back of taxicabs or something.
"The Yankees are headed into the playoffs, and we haven't got the e-mail about throwing out the first pitch, either," he adds, sounding terribly disappointed.
At the moment, Mike D and the other Beasties, Adrock (Adam Horovitz) and MCA (Adam Yauch), are traversing the borough of Manhattan on their way from their Oscilloscope studio on Canal Street (once the location set for the mid-'70s television show "Barney Miller") to the VH1 studios in Times Square, where they'll be filming the inaugural "Hip Hop Honors."
"It's Manhattan on a Saturday, which means there should be no traffic going uptown," says Mike D, even as the noises of car horns, police sirens and construction equipment filter loudly through the car windows and suggest otherwise.
The VH1 celebration will pay tribute to such groundbreaking hip-hop artists as the Sugar Hill Gang, KRS-One, Tupac Shakur, DJ Hollywood, Public Enemy, Rock Steady Crew and Run DMC. The music and influence of each honoree will be acknowledged through performances featuring classic artists in collaboration with contemporary emcees ("I guess we're a little of both," says Mike D). The Beasties will do the honors for their old Def Jam label mates, Run-DMC, as well as perform something from the new album. Others on the program include Ice-T, Kid Rock, Fat Joe and Grandmaster Flash. "Hip Hop Honors" airs Tuesday; but before that, on Friday, the Beastie Boys perform at the Patriot Center as part of their first concert tour in six years.
"To the 5 Boroughs" isn't just a love letter to New York, it's also a love letter to old-school hip-hop. Compared with "Hello Nasty," or the instrument-laden "Ill Communication" and "Check Your Head" (and forget comparisons to their thick-as-brick "Paul's Boutique"), the new album is a sparse affair built on break beats, drum loops, samples, scratches and keyboards. And it's loaded with homages: "Triple Trouble" uses the rhythm track to Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," while LL Cool J and Chuck D are sampled on "3 the Hard Way" and "Rhyme the Rhyme Well," respectively.
"Growing up in New York City and hip-hop are two inseparable things, two things that are totally intertwined in our lives," Mike D says. Of course, it wasn't what the Beastie Boys started with in 1981. That would be hard-core punk of the kind made at Yauch's 17th birthday party, where MCA, Mike D and others now gone first played together. Remember the 1982 EP "Pollywog Stew"? Didn't think so, though "Open Letter to NYC" is built upon a chopped-up sample of the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer."
By 1982, Ad Rock was in, as was rap, via "Cooky Puss." "Rock Hard/Beastie Groove," produced by Rick Rubin, would become Def Jam's second single. The Beasties' first full-length album, 1986's "Licensed to Ill," became the first rap album to hit No. 1, thanks to the anthemic "(You've Got to) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" Still their only Top 10 single, it helped "Licensed to Ill" become the first rap record to sell 10 million copies.
"To the 5 Boroughs," released in late June after almost two years of preparation and recording, has moved a million copies. It's also surprised a few folks, including some Beastie Boys fans thrown off by the fact that about a third of its tracks have a decided political bent, including some very strong commentary on President Bush.
"It just sort of evolved that way," says Mike D. "We didn't sit down and make a conscious decision or have a set agenda as to what we wanted to achieve with the record. We'd all walk into the studio in Lower Manhattan each day to meet up and play each other music that we had been working on individually on our computers at home. We'd say, 'Okay, I like this, I like that,' and choose the stuff that we all liked the best. Then we just started playing that stuff over and over, break out the pens and notebooks and just sit there in the room together. That's how the lyric process begins, and that's when the different lyrical themes started to come out.
"And when we'd meet up in the studio every morning and have the front page of the New York Times staring at us, we felt it would be ingenuine not to comment on some of those things or to let people know how we felt. It wasn't until much later on into the record, when we had a bunch of songs together, that we started to talk about the balance we wanted to go for. A lot of songs we made were just fun, real expressions of appreciation and joy and love of music, party songs, whatever category you want to put them in." (Pop culture references continue to abound. The Beasties include footnotes and asides within the printed lyrics.) "And obviously there are songs that are more serious," Mike D says.
That something new was afoot shouldn't have been a total surprise. After all, before the war in Iraq started last year, the Beastie Boys took time out from working on the album to record the antiwar song "In a World Gone Mad," which they then distributed free over the Internet (a move later followed by John Mellencamp, Lenny Kravitz and R.E.M).
According to Mike D, " 'In a World Gone Mad' was something that we made very quickly. It was very specific, topical and timely, and we realized that there would have been no point waiting until our album came out to put that out. That would have been silly," as perhaps was the suggestion to President Bush that "you and Saddam should kick it like back in the day / With the cocaine and Courvoisier."
And fans were certainly aware that a decade ago, the Beastie Boys had started the Milarepa Fund, dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of native Tibetans, leading to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts.
Still, says Mike D, there was some significant backlash from fans who wanted the Beastie Boys to only fight for the right to party, and leave it to Public Enemy to fight the powers that be. "A lot of people said we had no business speaking on this stuff. 'What are they saying? They're unknowledgeable!' That was fine. I'm just happy to see some reaction, some commentary and thoughts provoked by the whole thing."
You can get a taste of the mixed reactions on the BeastieBoys.com discussion boards. Or read about the fuss in current cover stories in Mean magazine (headline: "The Beastie Boys Fight the Right") and URB (headline: "Beastie Boys: Don't Vote for George Bush!").
"Our stance is pretty clear on that one," Mike D admits.
In "It Takes Time to Build," the trio notes "maybe it's time we impeach Tex and the military muscle that he wants to flex," adding "we got a president we didn't elect / The Kyoto treaty [on global warming] he decided to neglect." Later, they add, "Why you hating people that you never met? / Didn't your mama teach you show some respect?"
Which is why, Mike D explains, the Beastie Boys are, like so many other bands, working hard at registering young voters.
"As a lifetime voter, this is by far, exponentially, of much greater consequence than any presidential election I can remember. The stakes are unbelievably high.
"I remember in the spring, before the record came out, we were in Europe doing a promotional trip and back then, journalists were asking, 'Are you alone? Will other artists start speaking out and trying to get people to register to vote and effect change in the next election?' We all predictably said yes, but we didn't really anticipate the number of artists and the efforts that are being made."
Elsewhere on the new album, "Right Right Now Now" addresses the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and expanding gun control at home, while "All Lifestyles" attempts to redress hip-hop's intolerance of homosexuality. Mike D is surprised that it has received very little reaction.
"It's either a good thing or a bad thing," he suggests. "It's a good thing if people are more accepting and it's not an issue, or a bad thing if it's so taboo journalists and musicians alike don't want to go there in terms of dialogue or discussion. It's hard to really tell which is which."
Significantly, "To the 5 Boroughs" ends with an upbeat empowerment track, "We Got The."
"Eyes on the prize and never wane /Take the bull by the reins /If you want it, be the change /Like Gandhi and MLK/ Wait up, got to change the system /Need knowledge, power and wisdom / Same way I rock this microphone /Speak up, just let it be known."
The chorus is a pretty good PSA for civic duty, as well: "Who got the power to make a difference? / Who got the power to make a change? / We got the, we got the, we got the . . . "
BEASTIE BOYS -- Appearing Friday at the Patriot Center with Talib Kweli. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Beastie Boys, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)