Some bands think the best thing about cross-country touring is that it's a good opportunity to discover America. But as Mike D tells it, what he and his fellow Beastie Boys most look forward to about a road trip is the chance to discover America's record stores.
"To us the bonus in touring is definitely record shopping," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Davenport, Iowa. "The bummer is getting to cities and not having enough time to go record shopping. Actually, we were in Boulder yesterday, and it's weird. Denver and Boulder are good record buying cities. I don't know why. But I scored a bunch there, so that was cool.
"But it's not like I'd hoped," he adds. "I had this idea in my head before we went on tour, that I was going to score every record I've ever been looking for -- from Sun Ra to Don Cherry to James Brown to Rufus Thomas. I thought, 'It's all out there, and I'm going to find it all for 99 cents.'
"Then you walk into these record stores, and the guys there are looking at me like, 'Well, this German collector just came in this week, and bought it all.'
"I don't know, man. I was a little let down."
That the Beasties -- Mike D (born Michael Diamond), MCA (Adam Yauch) and Adrock (Adam Horovitz) -- are ardent record collectors shouldn't come as a surprise, really. These guys, remember, are old-school rappers, and came up in a scene where the best DJs made a point of finding breaks and beats no one else knew about. As such, the Boys' albums are full of unexpected musical references, from the Led Zeppelin drum beat (swiped from "When the Levee Breaks") that drives "Rhymin' & Stealin'," to the quote from the Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" dropped in the middle of "Hey Ladies."
"To me, the whole thing with the roots of rap music was when the DJ had to supply all the music for the group with two turntables," explains D. "And the whole criteria of what that DJ would use had nothing to do with what type of band made a record. He might be taking a beat from the Eagles, or it could be a groove from Dennis Coffey, or something from Stanley Turrentine.
"Who the artist is was an irrelevance. It was just [a matter of] taking the best two bars of a record and going back and forth between that. Or cutting in two bars of another record that works with it."
What aficionados like Mike D particularly prize on old records are the breakdowns, the between-verse fills and flourishes that seem to bring the groove to a boil. A classic example would be the part after the chorus in "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly & the Family Stone, where the bass drops out and the drums and guitar take over, markedly intensifying the beat. Most listeners barely notice such moments, but for guys like Mike D, they're pure gold.
"A lot of rock bands these days don't realize the importance of the breakdown," he adds. "That's what it's about. The dynamics of that breakdown is what stops it from being just, 'Da da da da,' you know? That's the thing that makes everything else kick."
And now that the Beasties themselves are playing live on the road -- Mike D is the drummer, MCA the bassist and Adrock the guitarist -- they apply the same philosophy to their instrumental workouts.
"Even with doing live music, we still want to go at it like from the DJ's point of view," says D. "We can do it when we're jamming -- take the best two bars or the best 30 seconds here, and go with it."
It helps, of course, that there's still some work for the DJ even when the Beasties are handling the instrumental duties. "We mix it up," says D. "We do the straight rap stuff with DJ Hurricane, and then we do the band-arranged stuff, where Adrock plays guitar, Yauch plays bass, I'm playing drums.
"So we've got the three of us, we've got DJ Hurricane, and we've got Money Mark Nishita playing keyboards, and our percussion player, Juanito [Vazquez]. Then sometimes I go up front, and then we have this other guy, AWOL, he plays drums.
"We do pretty much every possible team configuration. And Hurricane keeps DJ'ing pretty much through the whole show, throwing stuff in when we're playing other stuff."
It's quite an ambitious mix, but it works even better than the Beasties expected. That's why the group is considering cutting a live EP at some point during the tour.
"Now that we're in this flow of things, and playing as a band every night, there's a lot of stuff that we're capable of that were only ideas on the last record," says D. "Things that we just couldn't have accomplished, you know?
"So we're going back and forth between the idea of doing some kind of live EP thing, and the idea of doing an EP that's half live, half new studio stuff."
In the meantime, there's always record shopping. "The amazing thing about music is that however many thousands of records I've got now, I know that there are still thousands more that I haven't even begun to discover," says D. "That's the miracle of the whole thing. It's not like you can run through it all. You can't."
THE BEASTIE BOYS
What: The Beastie Boys, with the Rollins Band, L7 and House of Pain.
When: Tonight at 7.
What: The Beastie Boys, with Sonic Youth and Lusciously Jackson
When: Tomorrow night at 7.
Tickets: $18.50; tonight's show sold out.
Where: Michael's Eighth Ave., Eighth Avenue and Greyburn Drive, Dundalk.
Call: (410) 766-7474 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.