The new Beastie Boys Story documentary has just been released on Apple TV — I would’ve gone to one of the iMax screenings, but those are obviously cancelled. In many ways the movie is not particularly new material. It’s essentially Mike D and Ad-Rock reading aloud onstage from their 2018 book, mixed with video clips, but the Beastie Boys have a talent for making anything they do an event. Of their first five albums (1986’s Licensed to Ill through 1998’s Hello Nasty), four of them hit number one on the Billboard album charts.
I was too young — or not alive — for those first records. And I was aware of but not a fan yet for 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs. But then I discovered Paul’s Boutique and was blown away — gun to my head, it’s my number one album of all-time. By 2007 I was obsessed, so for me the first Beastie Boys release that could really be considered an event was also probably their most minor: 2007’s all-instrumental record, The Mix-Up.
When The Mix-Up was released, Beastie Boys were already well known for playing their own instruments. They famously started as a punk band before they began rapping, and picked up their instruments again for 1992’s Check Your Head. The initial reason was so they could make their own beats and avoid sampling issues, but it also allowed them to make hardcore punk again and to continue to expand their sound — from peaceful acoustic tracks to Beck-like genre-bending exercises. Even in that broad scope, the all-instrumental tracks exist in their own lane, functioning more like funky interludes than their customary standalone hits — I frequently hear “Groove Holmes” used on NPR shows.
The best classification for The Mix-Up might be library music — 70’s funk and soul that would soundtrack movies and TV shows. There’s a loose, garage-y sound, but the songs have enough structure and direction to be more than beats to rap over. Before the record mmm…dropped, Mike D described The Mix-Up as different from their past instrumental work — much of which was gathered on the compilation The In Sound from Way Out. It would be a “post-punk instrumental album,” and he cited influences such as Public Image Ltd and Gang of Four. The angular, dubby style can be heard on a few songs, such as “The Gala Event” and “The Rat Cage.” Other songs — “Suco De Tangerina”, “Electric Worm” — have more of a Clash flavor to them. However, the predominant sound of the record is funk, from the easygoing “Freaky Hijiki” to the more structured “B For My Name.” It’s a little less Booker T. and a bit more Medeski Martin and Wood — it’s no wonder the website JamBase was such a fan of the sound.
Despite the new look, the record still comes off as distinctively Beastie Boys, a sound that only they could make. As Ad-Rock joked, “I don’t think we’re really talented enough to actually copy somebody else.” And the gang is great throughout. MCA, who’s always clearly been the most talented instrumentalist — it’s his bass that drives “Sabotage” — guides the songs. Mike D’s drumming is sharp and straightforward. And Ad-Rock is a perfect example of how being a good musician is more about choices than technical ability, with his simple but effective fuzzed-out leads or scratchy wah-wah rhythms. The Mix-Up eschew overdubs and studio trickery, with the sound fleshed out by longtime collaborator Money Mark on keyboards and percussionist and touring member Alfredo Ortiz.
As a unit, The Mix-Up is the sound of a band getting comfortable in their proverbial elder statesman years, doing whatever they want and having a good time. They wore suits and ties to the recording studio, and invited fans to do the same during a tour that alternated between crowd-pleasing set lists full of hits, and smaller, instrumental-oriented shows for the diehard fans.
That sense of friends goofing off and following their own path is what has led to the Beastie Boys enduring popularity. The Mix-Up may not have as much broad appeal, but it still has the sense of fun that pervades all their records. It’s solid background music, but it also rewards more attentive listening — don’t sleep on it.