I realised, just recently, that I needed to include Mike D (or Michael Diamond) of the Beastie Boys in these files. There might not be many people out there that think of him as one of the world’s greatest drummers – but for me he was formative, crucial; super important.
It comes from being the right age, I think, to discover the Beastie Boys. I was pre-teen. They were naughty, but we didn’t catch on to the misogyny – and just as well. The first two albums in particular are troubled by that, but at the time me and a couple of mates just thought they were funny, corny rhymes. I also loved spotting the great sampled grooves – James Brown and The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan…all sorts of things. Then we’d go on to find even more…horror movie soundtracks and kitsch 70s things. Latin-jazz too. Just anything and everything.
So the use of drumming – within samples – was cool enough.
But then the Beastie Boys came back with Check Your Head and this was the real start of the Mike D worship. Now he was on drums (he wasn’t even the group’s original drummer, that honour goes to Kate Schellenbach (who would go on to Luscious Jackson) but by seeing and hearing him as the drummer of the group – I already loved his vocals, his writing, his rhymes, his timing – I attributed a lot of the great drum tracks (samples) to his taste and choosing. Now that might not be the case, it could have been any of the others in the group, but it’s certainly fair to think of this guy as one of the key drum thinkers within the group; beatmaker/tastemaker.
Check Your Head was profound. It arrive when the rap wars were still creating “Rap is crap” slogans and people – who didn’t really have a clue – would tell you that these rap-is-crap players weren’t really musicians. That they couldn’t be talented. Talent is there in the writing and singing and phrasing and point of view in so much of rap/hip-hop’s greatest moments. And the Beasties had already proved a lot to me. And to many others of course. But this was next-level stuff – here they were playing the grooves, playing a soulful, stomped-out, sloppy, wonderful, tight-but-loose version of jazz and funk. And there was punk in there too. The Beasties’ embracing of and understanding of the melding of punk and rap music was always a key element too.
So then came Ill Communication – and if anything that was my favourite. Well, my favourite Beasties album is always the one I’m listening to, whatever it is. Whichever. But Ill Communication might be Mike D’s finest drum moment, or moments. The key instrumental tracks from these two albums were extracted for The In Sound From Way Out – and that was always a great, great trick. You could sell that people sure they hated the Beasties Boys or rap in general. And I did – both informally (to friends and family) and in my roles in music stores over the years. A great in-store player, a great recommendation.
Through all this I realise how important Mike D’s drumming has been for me.
Whether driving hard into a groove, and riding it long. Or laying back – casual-like, all drawled funk.
I think what I got from it was that it was okay to try. That anyone could have a go – and that listening to lots of music (which he obviously did) could help inform your playing. I know that at various times, when I’ve been on the ball, that’s worked for me.
So Mike D deserves his place in this list. His sound is brilliant. Just right for the band. And with a joy, an energy to it that’s palpable; that’s perfect for this group and those records and his sound.
I love that.
I miss the Beastie Boys. I go back to their records from time to time. I know most of them inside out. But I still have a sadness that death cut this group short. There’s an integrity to them just stepping down, honouring the legacy of MCA.
When I go back to those records I think of how great drum grooves – whether borrowed/stolen or supplied by Mike D – are at the heart and head of the sound.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page