The Genius of the Beastie Boys in 10 Music Videos

The tale of three New York MCs told through the videos that made them unforgettable

Beastie Boys - Intergalactic

Unless you’re talking about pop music, the music video as we knew it is all but dead as an art form. We can debate the precise reason behind that demise — MTV’s decline into reality television, the democratization of technology, or TikTok dance crazes — but I think we can all agree that some artists have always been just too original, compelling, and visually interesting to be only heard and not seen.

Like Michael Jackson, Madonna, or Kurt Cobain, the Beastie Boys trio of Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA demanded to be seen from the beginning. As a young Rick Rubin once boasted, “The only reason we haven’t done a video yet is because as soon as we do, they’re going to have to change it from MTV to Beastie TV.” When those videos did begin rolling in, the result was always more than just a commercial for the latest single or album. Beastie Boys music videos have always acted as a time capsule not only for a generation’s scenes, fashions, and fads but for the growth and evolution of a unique friendship between three one-time wannabe MCs.

It’s fitting, then, that the likely final, and definitive, stamp on the group’s career will be a documentary hosted by surviving members Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond (R.I.P. Adam Yauch) and directed by longtime collaborator Spike Jonze. It’s a story that deserves to be told as boldly and vibrantly as it was lived. In honor of Beastie Boys Story dropping this week, we took a look back at the genius of the group through 10 classic music videos.

Now, let the beat … drrrrooooooopp …

“(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” from Licensed to Ill (1986)

Director: Adam Dubin and Ric Menello

Beastie Boys did a lot more than crash a friendly, little get-together in this ode to pranks, pies, and partying. They further propped up a still burgeoning MTV network, set the stage for their diamond-selling debut, Licensed to Ill, and hammered home the punk-next-door personas that would haunt them in the years to come. Rock, D, and MCA would perpetuate these characters onstage, in late-night TV spots, and even in future promotions like the “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” video (also directed by Dubin and Menello), where the three would crash not a party but a rock show. No, the look hasn’t aged well (though it’s leap years ahead of “She’s on It”), but there’s also a juvenile charm here that would stick with the Boys, even as they began a string of releases that would both prove their sophistication as musicians and change hip-hop forever. Anyway, kick it!

To the Mustaches!: Hell, other than MCA’s five-o’clock shadow, there’s barely a chin pube to be found on these baby-faced Beasties. As for the wardrobe, Mike D clearly did his homework and gets an A if the goal is b-boy wannabe. As for MCA and Ad-Rock, their looks scream more Arthur Fonzarelli and pizza delivery boy in a B-porno production, respectively.

“Shadrach” from Paul’s Boutique (1989)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

While Licensed to Ill made the Beasties household hoodlums, it also pigeonholed them as the same frat-boy types they used to mock. Eager to disassociate themselves from that image, they left Def Jam, took some time off, and created Paul’s Boutique, a masterpiece both in scope of sampling and in multi-layering production. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s second single, “Shadrach”, received a music video that captured both the raw energy of the Beasties and the new sophistication they brought as artists and producers. Directed by Nathanial Hörnblowér (aka MCA), the video, consisting of individually painted frames, pops like a sidewalk chalk drawing come to life, showing clear inspiration from past New York art movements. Never again would the Beasties be mistaken for buffoons.

To the Mustaches!: Wardrobe and makeup time here were minimal unless you were one of the Klasky Csupo animation artists painting the video one frame at a time.

“So What’cha Want” from Check Your Head (1992)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

By the time Check Your Head came out, the Beasties had already kicked in establishment doors and changed the rules of the game. However, that didn’t mean their rapping hands weren’t near the pulse of the world around them. The album and songs like “So What’cha Want” went lighter on the samples and saw the trio return to playing their own instruments. Between the brash, slowed-down punk sound, Pacific Northwest locale and attire, and photo-negative skies and visions of apocalyptic-level natural disasters, the band proved they were more Seattle than Seattle at a time when the Emerald City was far more popular music-wise than the Big Apple.

To the Mustaches!: Those beanies and flannel didn’t come from the 5 boroughs … maybe the Knicks ringed tee.

“Time for Livin'” from Check Your Head (1992)

Director: Spike Jonze

One of the reasons Spike Jonze was such a draw as a music video director in the mid-’90s were his roots in the skate scene. He had cut his future Oscar-winning teeth on photographing and filming skateboarders. And while Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA seemed content not to lace up here, no doubt a lot of Beastie fans felt seen or found the band through the skate scene. Skateboarding footage tethered to live shots of the former punk band covering Sly and the Family Stone’s “Time for Livin'” in full (they had sampled Sly on “Shadrach”) made for a dynamic duo of trick boarding and thrashing. It’s yet another way the Beastie Boys spoke to multiple scenes, and the collaboration with Jonze would lead to the band’s finest moment on video a couple years later.

To the Mustaches!: It wasn’t exactly a stretch turning the Beasties’ daily wardrobe of baggy pants, t-shirts, and sneakers into skating gear.

“Sabotage” from Ill Communication (1994)

Director: Spike Jonze

Certain music videos are markers — absolute capsules — for their time. More than that, they not only capture a time but offer viewers the very thing needed at that moment. Ironically, the Beasties’ quintessential ’90s video riffed on old cop shows from the ’70s. But in a year where the alternative rock bubble seemed ready to burst and Kurt Cobain, a few short months later, would take his own life, there’s something so necessarily silly about three Jewish rappers, dressed and coiffed as stereotypical ’70s cops, in high-speed pursuit of car-exploding action — all set to a brilliant, abrasive slice of rap-rock about being pissed off at studio producer Mario Caldato, Jr. It may not go down as Spike Jonze’s finest work, but it’ll make the highlight reel for sure.

To the Mustaches!: The wigs, the ‘staches, the shades, the ties … this is the dream haul that sends us back to thrift stores again and again.

Click ahead for more Beastie Boys genius…

“Intergalatic” from Hello Nasty (1998)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

“Sabotage” saw Beastie Boys at the forefront of MTV culture and alternative rock. By the time the group returned in 1998 with Hello Nasty and the robotic-sounding “Intergalactic”, both the mainstream and the band had shifted once more. While nu metal and rap rock — something Beastie Boys arguably helped pioneer — began dominating the airwaves, the Beasties brought in Mix Master Mike to help literally spin them in new directions. As a result, this silly tale from space — equal parts Godzilla and Power Rangers — felt like a homecoming from another planet. It features the fab three famously shifting gears and speeds as they rap into their signature low-shot cam atop a track sampling sci-fi fare as bizarre as the Resonator from From Beyond and the theme song from The Toxic Avenger. The whole package somehow felt ahead of its time, like an homage, and out of this world — simultaneously. That’s actually a pretty good way to describe Beastie Boys.

To the Mustaches!: It’s not quite clear why our heroes are dressed as Japanese street construction workers … when in Japan, I guess.

“An Open Letter to NYC” from To the 5 Boroughs (2004)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

Six years later, the Beasties returned with To the 5 Boroughs. A lot had happened in the interim. Mike D had broken his hand, which led to the cancelation of the band’s co-headlining tour with Rage Against the Machine, each member had tackled side projects, and the group had dipped into more political waters, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. With all three “Boys” now hovering around the 40-year-old mark, it wasn’t surprising that 5 Boroughs, a reference to their home city right there in the title, found a more mature trio with more room than usual for reflection. The group have long credited NYC, its culture, and its people as their major influence, and that’s made abundantly clear in the black-and-white, MCA-produced video for “An Open Letter to NYC”.  It’s an unabashed, reference-loaded love letter to the diversity, unity, and resolve of their hometown in a time when New Yorkers, like themselves, were still healing.

To the Mustaches!: Hoodies, shades, and sideways hats — suitable for their bikes and boards, which seemed to shrink the 5 boroughs just enough for the Beasties to wrap their arms around it.

“Off the Grid” from The Mix-Up (2007)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

Most know that Beastie Boys actually began as Michael Diamond’s hardcore punk band The Young Aborigines in 1978. Departures and the arrivals of Adam Yauch and later Adam Horovitz resulted in a name change and the eventual shift to hip-hop about five years later. Still, the Beasties have rarely been given enough credit for their musical abilities and, probably more importantly, their ears as musicians. So, while 2007’s The Mix-Up — an album consisting entirely of instrumentals — might have seemed like a production goof failing to include the band’s vocals, it actually allowed them a chance to sit back and enjoy being musicians first and MCs second for one of the few times across three decades. In the video for the fittingly titled “Off the Grid”, the well-dressed band knock out a building groove like professional set musicians. They’re totally in their element while being out of their element.

To the Mustaches!: What can we say? These boys clean up nice.

“Make Some Noise” from Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)

Director: Nathanial Hörnblowér

Here’s where the story gets sad, of course. 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is indeed missing its Part One. The double-album project was originally planned to come out in two parts, the first in 2009. However, when Adam Yauch received his parotid cancer diagnosis, the band delayed the first installment. Eventually, Yauch’s passing led the group to scrap the double-album concept altogether. However, the singles from Part Two did allow for some of the band’s silliest music video antics. In MCA’s video for “Make Some Noise”, we find the trio emerging from the party they crashed in “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” — only Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D have been replaced by Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogan, respectively. The three party on through the streets of NYC until their future selves — played by Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly — show up in a DeLorean. (In the expanded version, the actual Beastie Boys appear as cops and arrest both groups.) It’s a star-studded, remarkable bit of silliness at a time when fans — and no doubt the band — could’ve used some.

To the Mustaches!: Hey, 2011 … 1986 wants its wardrobe back!

“Too Many Rappers” ft. Nas from Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)

Director: Roman Coppola

Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away in May 2012. Since then, Ad-Rock and Mike D, though disbanded as a hip-hop group, have kept the band and Yauch’s memory alive by making appearances together, penning an award-winning band bio, and partnering with old friend Spike Jonze on this week’s documentary. One other bit o’ media that’s emerged since Yauch’s passing is a 2015 music video for the Hot Sauce Committee Part Two single “Too Many Rappers”, featuring fellow New Yorker Nas. Though never given an official release, the video eventually leaked and has since been approved by the band. It’s a simple video spliced with concert footage showing both the chill and hyperactive sides of the three MCs as they do what they do best. It’s a fitting music video farewell to the group, made all the more poignant by the awareness in an MCA verse: “Yo, I been in the game since before you was born/ I might still be MCing even after you’re gone/ Strange thought, I know, but my skills still grow/ The ’80s, the ’90s, 2000s, and so/ On and on until the crack of dawn/ Until the year 3000 and beyond/ Stay up all night, and I MC and never die/ Cause death is the cousin of sleep.”

To the Mustaches!: Shades, button-downs, and a good bit of salt and pepper. These cats were meant to age cool. Fuck cancer.