With most of the acts on the Coachella marquee, you knew what you were going to get. The White Stripes and Blur were going to play songs from their new albums, the Hives were going to make all sorts of pseudo-cocky pronouncements on stage, Iggy Pop & the Stooges would try and relive old glory, and Underworld were going to make their crowd very sweaty very quickly. But what was going to be the modus operandi of the main headliners, the Beastie Boys?
26 Apr 2003: Coachella Music and Arts Festival Indio, California
The acclaimed and beloved New York City hip-hop trio has been very quiet since the 1998 release and tour for Hello Nasty. While they’ve been toiling away at a new record, the only new material to emerge in five years has been a pair of new songs on a 1999 best-of set, and the anti-war, Internet-only track “In a World Gone Mad”. At the Coachella Music Festival—the American equivalent of Britain’s Glastonbury and Reading festivals, held in the desert 20 minutes north of Palm Springs—would the Beasties finally throw us a few sneaks at their recent studio experimentations? Would they punk out, like they did during the Ill Communication and Lollapalooza tours of the mid-‘90s? Would they return to playing songs from their raucous, yet groundbreaking 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill?
The answer to all of these questions—not really. For one, the Beastie Boys’ hour-long set on April 26 was by and large geared toward old favorites, save the inclusion of “In a World Gone Mad” and one other politically-charged newbie. Second, there was no band—just three MCs (MCA, Mike D. and Ad-Rock) and one DJ (turntablist virtuoso and frequent show-stealer Mix Master Mike). And, if you were waiting to hear the Ill bawdiness that got the band first noticed back in the Nintendo era, you were disappointed. Save a teasing verse from “Brass Monkey” inserted into “Root Down”, the band concentrated on their ‘90s work, probably because the misogynist attitude displayed by their former selves runs antithetical to the enlightened and Buddhism-inspired demeanor the boys have exuded for the past decade.
In fact, the well-behaved Beasties 2.0 expected their crowd to follow suit. Early in the performance, the trio was setting ground rules for the voluminous crowd, which included no moshing or crowd surfing. Granted, the Coachella crowd is a naturally mellow assortment of people, but you could hear groans as soon as they realized the show was being childproofed.
Those groans turned into flat-out boos as soon as MCA (Adam Yauch) stepped up on the soapbox and ripped the ol’ U.S. of A. a new one, saying, “The reality is, the U.S. is acting like a bully.” This made even the liberals in the crowd nervous, as some of the audience raised their middle fingers toward the stage. Not ready to give up, MCA added that the war in Iraq wasn’t making this country any safer. Fewer booed. Feeling perhaps he was on a roll, MCA also remarked about the rightful role of the U.N. in the rebuilding process. Even fewer protested. During the last half of the show, the boys had dazzled the crowd so much, MCA tore into George W. and the crowd screamed in approval. That said, it was hard to tell if people were leaving because they wanted to beat traffic, or had heard enough hip-hop politicking.
Their loss. Thanks to a clear sound system (that might’ve been helpful at the festival’s sonically challenged Sahara tent), the act delivered their rhymes with an articulate fierceness, as smooth and direct as they’ve ever been. And even in the live setting—a place they’ve avoided for the past four-and-a-half years, save a charity show in Vegas the night before—the Beasties once again showed how they remain one of the best harmonizing acts of pop music. In fact, the Boys’ performance was virtually flawless, except for Ad-Rock’s lyrical fumbling during “Body Movin’”.
While the three MCs commanded the microphones, Mix Master Mike was putting on his own performance behind them. He would layer the instrumentals spinning on one turntable with an entirely different track on the other, in an impressive demonstration of live remixing. During one song, you could hear Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot’s 2002 hit, “Work It”; during another, the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”. This isn’t exactly a foreign concept to DJs in bands, but for Mix Master Mike, it was doubly impressive because of the evening desert winds wrecking havoc at the ones and twos. Someone with the event should’ve warned the turntablist; in 2001, British DJ Paul Oakenfold struggled with his main stage set because of the same problem. At one point, Mike was set to start a song, only to watch the vinyl needed to initiate the rappers fly right off the turntable and onto the floor. The performers looked as if they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The crowd, however, was clearly entertained, and when you’re playing in front of 10,000-plus discerning music fans at the most admired pop festival in the country, it’s captivating your audience—not precise musicianship—that makes you the talk of the locker rooms, school cafeterias and water coolers come Monday.
Despite the public service announcements and interruptions from Mother Nature, the Beasties did just that, releasing all their remaining energy with the climactic, digitized delirium of “Intergalactic”. And here’s where we forgive the band for their safe, unrevealing set list. After a long day of discovering your new favorite bands, sometimes you want to end with something familiar, something that served as a discovery back in the day itself. People primarily go to concerts to experience in the most intimate of ways their favorite artist—and, most importantly, their favorite songs. A weekend at Coachella might mean taking in 100 or songs you’ve never heard before, by artists both beloved and emerging. But come time to hit the road, it’s the tune still playing in your head that informs your memory of the show from then on.
For this writer, that enduring song wasn’t a Blur hit, or the last house anthem Roger Sanchez dropped, or even one of Idlewild’s melodic yet mercurial noise offerings. No, it was “So What’cha Want”—which is exactly what everyone wanted from the still-reliable three MCs and one DJ.