Style History: The Beastie Boys
A look at the undeniably ill, often-overlooked fashion of the best-selling hip-hop group of all time.
Image via Complex Original
Everyone already knows about the Beastie Boys’ indelible musical legacy. They’re Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, the best-selling hip-hop group of all time—and they played a vital, irreplaceable role in helping hip-hop cross over to the mainstream. But the Beasties had an equally undeniable, if often overlooked, impact on fashion and style as well.
Over the group’s 30-year run, they evolved from punk to hip-hop to skater to suits, setting the stage for the mashed-up street wear culture that we still obsess over today. Along the way, they predicted, or helped jump-start, dozens of microtrends, from hood-ornament necklaces to ‘70s revivalism to snarky hipster gear. Mike D even helped found X-Large, one of the first and most influential streetwear brands. Here, we track the trio’s two-decade sartorial journey, talking to the following Beastie experts and associates along the way:
- Cey Adams: Legendary graphic designer and long-time friend of the Beasties. Created the cover art for the group’s debut single, “Cookypuss,” and several T-shirts and posters over the years
- Eli Bonerz: Co-founder of X-Large
- Glen E. Friedman: Iconic photographer who captured many of the group’s most enduring images, including the cover art for Check Your Head
- Alan Light: Author of 2006 book The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys
- Ricky Powell: Photographer, downtown legend, and so-called “fourth Beastie Boy,” who was a close friend and behind-the-scenes lensman for the group for over a decade
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How About Some Hardcore?
Shoot the Gift
Where: The Kitchen, New York City
Notable Styles: Lumberjack vests and hat; Nike warm-up jacket; Santa hat
Still finding themselves after the addition of Ad-Rock around 1983, the Beasties' proto-styles hint at the playful looks to come in later years. Fittingly, their debut single, "Cooky Puss," contained recordings of prank calls to a local Carvel.
"They were just really trying to have fun; they didn't take it seriously," Adams, who met the band around this time, says of their emerging style. "They were really trying to do something that was unique for themselves."
Pass the Mic
The New Style
B-Boy Makin' With the Freak-Freak
Ch-Check It Out
Where: "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" video
Notable Styles: Leather jacket; Tanktop; Five o'clock shadow
While Adrock went for bratty proto-hipster and Mike D was an exaggerated B-boy parody, MCA had a rough, bad-boy image.
"Yauch was always the guy who was more rock 'n' roll, with the leather jacket and jeans, then later with the long beard and hair," Adams says. "Yauch loved his classic Schott leather jacket-he wore it into the ground."
Where: "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" video
Notable Styles: Stuyvesant High School T-shirt; Fila T-shirt; Drunken rage
The Beasties' early individual styles were immortalized in the video for blockbuster single "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," which helped lead their 1987 debut album, Licensed to Ill, to over 9 million sales in the U.S. alone.
"Their style here started as a joke, and then the joke took over," Light says. "The characters that they were spoofing were what they started to turn into."
Where: "Hey Ladies" video
Notable Styles: Polyester suits; Platform shoes; Feathered fedora
After Licensed to Ill exploded, the Beasties felt pigeonholed, victims of their own success. "They just wanted to try something different and step away from License to Ill," Adams says.
Just a few years before the 1970s revival took off the following decade (see Dazed and Confused), the Beasties found their left turn by drawing inspiration from the era for the video for "Hey Ladies," the first single from influential second album Paul's Boutique, which they recorded in L.A.
"They rented this crazy old house near Mulhollland Drive. The original owner had all this crazy old '70s leisure wear, and they started raiding the closets," Light says. "It was this fetishization and reclamation of the outer limits of the '70s, with the music, the stuff they were sampling, the movies they were quoting, and the stuff that they were wearing."
Three the Hard Way
Posse in Effect
Where: "So Whatcha Want" video
Notable Styles: Skullies; Oversize plaid shirts; Vintage logo T-shirts
With Pharell, Lupe, Odd Future and Lil Wayne kick-pushing their way through rap video sets, it's easy to forget that hip hop and skateboarding used to be two separate, closed-off worlds. The Beasties, long ensconced in skate culture-MCA in particular-were undoubtedly the first to bridge this gap.
"They formulated this alliance between hip hop kids and skate kids and created a different kind of street culture," Light says. "The plaid shirts, the cholo influence, the skullies-there was a West Coast skate influence in what they were doing, but they wore it in a way that still made sense in hip hop.
Get it Together
Where: "Sabotage" video
Notable Styles: Wrinkled suits; Short-sleeve button-downs; Epic moustaches; Guns
After the serious visuals of Check Your Head, the Beasties reconnected with their satirical sartorial sense with the ingenious video for "Sabotage," the lead single from Ill Communication. From the nonstop irony to the moustaches to the vintage film look, the clip wouldn't look out of place in 2013 Williamsburg.
"The same ironic mustaches have not gone away since then," Light says. "They got there first."
Where: MTV Video Music Awards, Radio City Music Hall, New York
Notable Styles: Lederhosen; Fake goatee; Swiss mountaineer swag
The jokes continued later that year, when MCA dressed up as "Nathaniel Hornblower," his Swiss director pseudonym, and pulled a Kanye in response to "Sabotage" losing to R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" for Best Direction at the VMAs.
"They're pranksters," Friedman says. "Everything they do is a big, happy, silly joke. Except when they do their art and make their records—then they get serious."