Brooklyn: The Beastie Boys and Bad Brains supergroup that was too good to last
“That photo tells the story. It should be your cover picture.”
At home in New York, Darryl Jenifer is glancing at a photo of the band he and three friends played in during the late 80s. He looks at the four punks with their Adidas Ewing kicks on, breaking down the profile of each member from left to right: “That’s Tom, acting like he’s scratching his head and got his finger out with this weird look on his face, like ‘get outta here’. Yauch is sitting there with his Bates Motel sweatshirt like ‘fuck, I’m in this rock band.’ Doug is sitting there with his Wayfarer glasses on and his fuckin’ 80s rock ‘n’ roll shirt, baseball cap. And that’s me over there with my Rastaman lil’ sweatpants, tucked in and shit, fixing my dreads.” He laughs. “It was very real, kid.”
The photo, Jenifer says, is the only one of the group together onstage, taken before their only live show. They were a short-lived project, but from the sound of his voice, he still holds those memories in high regard. This could be the story of any group of friends that come together to play music then go their separate ways – and it is. But two of those friends were responsible for some of the most important American music of the 80s. The dude in the Rastaman sweatpants played bass in Bad Brains, the Bates Motel sweatshirt was worn by a Beastie Boy, and the band was called Brooklyn.
“I’ve got some people that I’d like you to meet. We’re gonna jam.”Adam Yauch
It’s 1987 and Doug Thompson, aka Doug E Beans, has just joined a band. A 20-year-old growing up in New York hardcore’s golden era, he had auditioned to fill in for the recently vacated drummer in Murphy’s Law. Thompson didn’t really know much about the band’s “partycore” sound, being more partial to the NY scene’s heavier acts: Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, that type of thing. Nonetheless, he aced the audition and a week later was on a plane to Seattle to play support to the Beastie Boys, then touring Licensed To Ill and arguably the most notorious group in the world.
In 2015, Thompson is chuckling to himself as he recalls Beastiemania spreading from city to city, colleges to arenas, Joan Rivers to newspaper front pages and beyond. For just over three months, the members of Murphy’s Law witnessed their hosts garnering controversy and attention wherever they went. Often, Thompson would barely notice where they were playing, the tour’s itinerary constantly shifting because of the chaos it brought. Soon enough, Beastiemania began to take its toll, with the increased police scrutiny, press attention and lack of privacy. On a typical night, the tour crew went bowling and ended up shutting down the alley. “Chaos,” Thompson says, “like 600 people there trying to watch them bowl.” The scrappy punk band originally formed for its bassist’s 17th birthday party were the biggest thing going, and behind the scenes, they were frayed over conflicts with record label Def Jam, lack of creative credit and the small matter of approximately $2 million worth of royalties that were yet to be paid. Close to the brink, the Beastie Boys needed a break.
As the Licensed tour came to a close, Yauch approached Thompson to jam on some music he was putting together. Thompson left the Beastie with the number to his mother’s house and departed for a Murphy’s Law tour, the band playing to a fraction of the arena crowds they had been entertaining. Two months passed and out of the blue, Yauch called Mrs Thompson’s house: “I’ve got some people that I’d like you to meet. We’re gonna jam.”
“I always hoped that one day, maybe, we’d get it back together” Darryl Jenifer
It’s 1981 and Bad Brains have just arrived in New York. Having achieved the mission of selling out venues in their Washington DC stomping grounds, the former jazz fusion group were settling into the Lower East Side and the New York scene, gigging at sweatboxes that they and their NYHC peers would make legendary: Studio 171A, Avenue 151, CBGBs. Not long after their arrival, they headlined Max’s Kansas City, former hangout spot for Warhol and the artists from the New York School; their support was the Beastie Boys, playing their fourth or so show. Between this experience and regular appearances at Bad Brains shows, Yauch became friends with bassist Darryl Jenifer.
While the earliest four-member incarnation of the Beasties built up their experience, Jenifer and his bandmates (singer HR, drummer Earl Hudson and guitarist Dr. Know) were becoming A Very Big Deal. In 1982, their self-titled debut was released on cassette, turning them into the crownholders of the Lower East Side: cooler, more eclectic and faster than anyone else. The next year brought on the Rock for Light album; a year after that, half the group split to form reggae group Human Rights. Two years later, coerced by SST Records and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, they reunited to cut their masterpiece, I Against I.
Then, they split again, the momentum raised from I Against I cut in half. “The problems we had was through regular human dysfunction,” Jenifer says over the phone from his New York apartment. He assures me that Bad Brains have never truly broken up, (“We’re always together, like a unit, like a gang”) but the downtime from the band left him free to run into Yauch.
The Beasties were exhausted, and dealing with their exhaustion in different ways. Ad-Rock moved out to Los Angeles to potentially kickstart an acting career. Aside from playing in a local jazz band once a week, Mike D planned to spend an entire year taking mushrooms with the Beasties’ road manager. Meanwhile, Yauch was tinkering about with Tom Cushman – a long-time friend and fellow casualty of Beastiemania – and a Roland TR-808.
Jenifer was impressed by the songs Yauch and Cushman played for him: imbued with a classic rock edge, driven by the power of the almighty riff, tracked over a drum machine. On top of it all, Yauch was pushing himself to sing, his throat sounding sore as he pushed his characteristic croak as hard as he could. From a practical standpoint, the band they were forming needed a strong hand on the low end. On the other point, who wouldn’t recruit their favourite musician? Before his friend could even ask him, Jenifer was on board as the bassist.
“It just felt like I needed to be doing that,” he explains. Jenifer was a fan of the project’s creative direction, having held a candle for traditional rock ’n’ roll sonics long before his time keeping the low-end on punk and hardcore songs. He was the type of punk that loved ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ the same way he loved The Damned: “This was during a time that trying to play grassroots rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t really popular, everyone was still on their little eclectic bits and punk and all that shit.” With the Beasties, Yauch had sampled Zeppelin. Judging from the chunky rock worship of the home recordings, it was due time to have a shot at being Zeppelin.
At Top Cat rehearsal studios, a nervous Thompson walked into a studio only to come face-to-face with Jenifer. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m Darryl’ – like, I know who you are!” Thompson says laughing, as much an NYHC fanboy as his band leader. Over the coming months, the four members – Yauch on guitar and lead vocals, Cushman on guitars, Jenifer on bass and Thompson on drums – traded rehearsal spaces and instruments, all of the high quality that Yauch’s newly-acquired stardom pointed towards. Somewhere amidst the debauchery and frustration of the Licensed to Ill tour, Yauch had gathered a large number of instruments. With Brooklyn, he was putting them to use.
Thompson was impressed with how the music they were making was the opposite of what License to Ill achieved. However, Yauch was “self-conscious about how he sang” and was taking vocal lessons, a sure sign that he took his duties as frontman seriously. Close company made those efforts easier, with the support of Cushman on backing vocals “helping to boost Yauch”. Despite life edging in sideways through intermittent Bad Brains meetings, Murphy’s Law writing sessions and the Beastie Boys’ ongoing legal battles with Def Jam, Brooklyn rehearsals were akin to a man-cave with four young men drinking lots of beer, playing unpretentious rock music as loud as possible, then heading out to party.
However, singing still made the frontman nervous, especially when coupled with how different the music was to the party jams that gave him fame. The same man who rapped about “rag-tagg[ing] girlies back at the hotel” on ‘The New Style’ was crooning sad goodbyes over acoustic guitars, trying to execute counter-melodies alongside Cushman and showcasing existential angst by croaking, “Have all my friends gone crazy or is it just me? / I’m not quite sure who to ask…”
As protective an environment as the Brooklyn sessions were, Yauch was burned out from the sudden and drastic changes to his lifestyle. One September evening, following a practice, the band swung by the San Gennaro feast in Little Italy. Carefree and still growing out of being troublemaker kids, they began to throw darts at balloons on display and accidentally gathered attention, not helped by a nearby Beasties poster. “The guy on the microphone said, ‘Hey, the Beastie Boys are here throwing darts!’ And people would just surround him,” shares Thompson, a sigh escaping him. It would take more than time off for Beastiemania to die easily.
The frustrations of the non-Brooklyn side of his life manifested in different ways. One evening following a band practice, Cushman watched Yauch fire a gun in the direction of a passing car. “I remember it swerving and [we] started booking, fucking running as fast as I can to get back to his apartment,” Cushman told Spin in 1998. “Finally we get in the door and we’re quiet for a moment. I was like, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
‘I Don’t Know’ was not just the name of a song in Brooklyn’s small repertoire, but a statement of intent, of owning up to bonafide uncertainty. It would evolve into something else, but before any of that, there was the bassline. In the liner notes to the Beasties’ 1999 Anthology, Yauch said that the bassline for ‘I Don’t Know’ was something he would tinker with on his bass guitar back in 1980; by itself it wasn’t much, but when put through a Super Fuzz pedal, it was acid bubbling through the amp. It didn’t fit in any songs though, so the idea was put into storage.
Seven years later, Yauch was recording songs onto an 8-track when Cushman reminded him of that same damn bass line he had played since he was 16. The Super Fuzz was located and the two friends began to construct a song around the acid sounds, with screeches of guitar feedback swimming in the air, Yauch’s yelps reverberating into unintelligence and the TR-808 metronome keeping everything in place, lest riff worship overpower the entire song. It was a sketch, one that Jenifer would help fill out.
“I rocked those basslines for him,” he says adamantly. “A good part of those basslines are Yauch’s ideas, but then I took it in more of a bassman type way.” The full band version was vocally murkier – almost proto-shoegaze – but bigger, heavier and altogether harder with the help of a full band. Jenifer rocked the fat bassline the best he could, surpassing what his friend had created, and all without the use of a pedal. “I didn’t like pedals and shit,” he says, laughing animatedly when we discuss whether or not Yauch tracked a fuzz tone over it.
‘I Don’t Know’ is the best song on Brooklyn’s demo. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it would outlive Brooklyn – the 16-year-old punk’s first bassline hadn’t fulfilled its destiny yet.
Steven Blush, author of the 2001 tome American Hardcore: A Tribal History, owns a copy of Brooklyn’s demo, recorded onto a blank Maxell XLII-S 90 cassette with a flagging sticker attached to the front. As an avid participator in the New York hardcore scene, he kept himself informed on the band’s development and noticed there was one area of New York where Beastiemania was lying dormant: the NYHC scene that had birthed the Beasties. The Beasties belonged to hip-hop, while the Brains were leaders of hardcore.
“Basically, the Bad Brains could do no wrong. Any direction that they were moving in, it was the Brains from the start,” he says over the phone from his apartment. The way Blush tells it, the Brooklyn demo represented two things in the city: first of all, the next step from the I Against I’s “big sound” to a new era of Bad Brains. Secondly, the first generation of American Hardcore bands were splintering off into new sonic directions, changing the sound of American cities along with it. Experimentation was rife, thrash metal’s intensity was abuzz and the once-insular indie scene was expanding at a rate that matched hardcore’s. In this environment, Brooklyn’s riff-heavy throwback rock was somehow perfect.
The demo cassette was of further importance than its pedigree: it represented the end of American hardcore’s first wave and nodded towards an interesting future. Yauch believed steadfastly in the Brooklyn sound, shopping the demo around various labels (including the Beasties’ eventual home, Capitol) and according to Blush, spending $20,000 out of his own pocket.
While the future of both Beastie Boys and Bad Brains looked momentarily uncertain, press outlets picked up on Brooklyn, with a piece in the August 1988 edition of Spin reckoning their arrival. Eventually, the band held their live debut that October with a free show at East Village nightclub The World. It would be the band’s only show, and opinions of it are disparate. Jenifer recalls it as a disjointed effort – “a normal first show” – and describes it as sparsely attended, despite Dave Gilmour (taking a break from playing Madison Square Garden with Pink Floyd) dropping by to watch. Thompson recalls it as a packed room, mostly full of industry contacts, and recalls Cushman’s amazement that members of the audience knew the songs already. They had one photograph taken of them together on stage – the black and white photo above – and ducked out of playing live shows, focusing on getting an album together, record deal or no record deal. Then, the album simply never happened.
For all the proclamations of being ahead of the curve with their rock ’n roll revival, Brooklyn existed as an escape for its members – the man-cave built on riffs, beers and partying. Eventually, reality had to take precedence: the Beasties reconvened to record Paul’s Boutique in Los Angeles, Bad Brains reunited to work on 1989’s Quickness, Murphy’s Law continued their never-ending tour cycle and Cushman rumbled around the NY underground, playing in bands and managing cult bookstores. Brooklyn ceased to be. “The same way it came in, it went out,” laments Jenifer. “Just sorta dissolved.”
While he acknowledges that outside responsibilities played their role in the band never reaching their true potential, Jenifer believes that Yauch’s insecurity over his vocals was also a factor. “Somebody at a label may have said something to him,” he tells me, audibly annoyed, “but they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
In the Spin article, Yauch talked about his happiness to be back playing rock music alongside a gathering of his favourite musicians. “I felt kinda honoured,” Thompson says, his slightly stunned voice hinting that the initial daze of Beastiemania has never really left him. “I dunno… I just got along with the guy, I guess I’m easy to work with.” While Thompson remains modest about his efforts and Jenifer, Cushman was more knowledgeable of his prodigious talents as a guitarist. “Mildly arrogant,” Jenifer says with a laugh. He was able to back it up, though. “The same way I feel about Jimmy Page,” attests Jenifer, “is the same way I feel about Tom Cushman, man I swear.”
Despite playing an important part in the overall Beasties mythology as the original writer of ‘Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ in its early pop-metal incarnation and being immortalised in the lyrics to Paul’s Boutique single ‘Hello Ladies’, Cushman is the enigma of the Brooklyn project. Post-Brooklyn, he played guitar in indie-rock outfit Honus Wagner, releasing a 7” in 1991 and gigging intermittently throughout the following decades. He also managed the Brooklyn branch of a Project Hope thrift shop. Unfortunately, many references to his name online relate to him being charged in a case related to the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a hearing last year, Cushman’s lawyer stated that the ex-guitarist lost his job following what they are calling a “false arrest”; in turn, Project Hope have denied any access or knowledge of Cushman working for them, stating via email that he “never existed here”.
Jenifer hasn’t seen his former bandmate in over a decade, despite trying to find him on Facebook, but wishes him well. “If you get a hold of him, tell him I miss him, I love his guitar work and say what’s up, kid.”
Long after Brooklyn dissipated, 16-year-old Yauch’s bassline resurfaced. While in pre-production for 1992’s alt-crossover and commercial comeback Check Your Head, the Beasties had returned to their instruments of choice. Yauch dragged the Super Fuzz pedal out and had a go at building a song around the bassline once again, fusing elements of Brooklyn’s ‘I Don’t Know’ with a funkier, less aggro vibe. The lyrics and vocals became the responsibility of Adam Horovitz.
In Beasties lore, the song that largely defines Yauch’s storied evolution from troubled, troubling youth to creative zen master is ‘Sure Shot’, with its much-quoted rejoinder to past misogyny: “I wanna say something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through.” Just as important is ‘Gratitude’, where Yauch sheds the doubt and angst of the Brooklyn original and moves to share his personal growth with his long-time friend. “His lyrics became simple ideas about love and non-violence,” Horovitz told Rolling Stone in 2012, noting his bandmate’s struggle to lyrically communicate those ideas. “I wrote the lyrics for the song and Adam was like, ‘I really like that’. It made me happy and proud that I had made him happy.”
‘Gratitude’ was a song that took over a decade to reach its final form, and the end result registered as a surprise for the former members of Brooklyn. Thompson (having since left Murphy’s Law and become the owner of a bistro) was unaware, having signed a contract that left Cushman and Yauch with publishing and writing credits for ‘I Don’t Know’/’Gratitude’. He remains nonchalant by the lack of publishing, shrugging: “It’s his song, so…” Jenifer takes umbrage with the perceived importance of publishing for his and Thompson’s efforts (“It wasn’t like we were in Led Zeppelin together, like ‘Where’s my cut?'”) but lightens up when discussing hearing ‘Gratitude’ for the first time. “I remember going [excited voice] ‘Oh shit, that’s the shit we used to play in Brooklyn! I used to play that bassline first before it became a Beastie Boys song!’”
Brooklyn’s finest moment became a hit song and a key moment in the Beastie Boys’ evolution, but its four members never reignited the flame. Jenifer would begin to talk to Yauch about the demo – perhaps to see if it could be officially on his Grand Royal label – but Yauch remained insecure about his early vocal performances, long after singing on Beasties records. “I caught him keeping those tapes underground for a long-ass time,” admits Jenifer. “Every time I used to talk to him about it, he would start going, ‘Yo D, shut up!’ He didn’t really wanna deal with that. I would laugh, ‘I hear you, kid’.”
Thompson shared conversations with Jenifer about reuniting someday, and imagined that Jenifer shared such thoughts with Yauch. “I always hoped that one day, maybe, we’d get it back together,” he admits. Regardless, further Brooklyn jams would never come to fruition once Yauch passed away from cancer in 2012. “I really was saddened by [his death] because I realised that was never going to happen again. It was really just four guys that really loved to play music and I’m really sad it ended.”
As my phone conversation with Thompson winds up, he notes that “Darryl loved Yauch”. It’s evident speaking to Jenifer, who speaks reverentially of his friend and collaborator. In an Entertainment Weekly interview around the time of Bad Brains’ 2007 album Build A Nation, Jenifer is asked by none other than Yauch about his influences as a musician, to which he answers: Brooklyn.
“I think Brooklyn was his reason to make music with his hero,” says Blush, underlining the importance of the band’s friendship. With just under 30 years as a highly-circulated musical rarity, the Brooklyn demo stands as a testament to friendship, the same way that the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains were through all their flaws. “It’s totally real, there’s no bullshit here,” Blush continues. “Brooklyn was made from people who believe in music, the underground and their art. You can’t get better than that.”
Top colour photograph: Dorothy Law/Spin. Live photographs: Greg Phillips.