Like any respectable 8 year old growing up in the 80s, I was introduced to new music the same way I was introduced to leggings, the side pony and turquoise eyeliner: On the bus ride to and from school. Parents and neighbors policed us at home, of course, and teachers laid the hammer behind those hallowed educational doors, but the bus? Ohhhhh, the bus! That lumbering yellow bohemoth was the blissfully disreguarded and unenforced middle ground; a sort of purgatory of freedom where kids were left virtually unattended to make out, pass notes and curse with abandon.
Cultural anthropologists will tell you that there is a hierarchy to the madness of the school bus. Equal parts ranking by age and social status, liberally seasoned with the kids that, regardless of age, no one wants to fuck with, it was Raffi in the front and Master of Puppets in the back with everything from U2 to Bon Jovi in between. But regardless of social status, and despite any unfortunate wardrobe choices, EVERYONE sported a set of foam covered headphones connected to a Sony Walkman. And in those Walkmen, tooling round and round on those magical notched wheels, were the mythical precursors to the playlist, the fabled MIXTAPES.***
Having no older siblings to show me the Tao of fitting in, I’d been relegated to the first third of the bus seats. The BACK of the first third, mind you, but the first third nonetheless. It would be a few years before I’d learn the art of social camouflage, but in third grade, I’d only just begun that journey, and most of my knowledge of conformity came from furtive eavesdropping and sly, sidelong glances.
Living in the new section of our development, my stop was one of the last on the bus route which fact afforded me the opportunity to move back a few seats as the bus driver expelled crowds of children along her route. I’d been performing this very ritual of social climbing on a cold day just before Christmas break when my moon boot (yeah, you know it) crunched on a cheap piece of plastic. I looked down into a gritty puddle of melted slush and discovered a cracked plastic case complete with contents. GOLD! A mixtape. Thrilling at my find, I read the handwritten liner: BEASTIE BOYS: LICENSED TO ILL.
And just like that, my musical world shifted.
That tape turned out to be the entire album, copied not from the radio, but from the album itself, most likely on a dual-deck stereo. It would be the first album I’d listen to over and over until I knew all the words. Before Tiffany, before the Joshua Tree before The Black Album and Dookie and Ten, there was Licensed to Ill. I knew all the words to “Paul Revere” almost before the words on the spelling test given the next week. It was “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” that would introduce me to Led Zeppelin when my father dragged me downstairs to pull out the record that that they’d sampled (or, ‘stolen’ as Dad said) “When The Levee Breaks” from.
I was hooked. Every consecutive Beastie’s album connected itself to an era in my life. Paul’s Boutique came out as I headed into Junior High, Check Your Head as I passed through the doors of high school. It was under the guise of listening to “the new Beasties” (Ill Communication) that I first “hung out” with a boy I had a crush on without making a total ass of myself. We sat in my room for an hour laughing and drinking soda while I played it cool and lip-synched all the words to “Get it Together”. My first-ever solo road trip took me to Boonville, NY to visit a friend over the summer after our freshman year of college and we spent the weekend bouncing around and learning all the words to “Intergalactic” off of Hello Nasty.
The Beastie Boys have followed me further than any other band or group, and so, it was a blow to the gut today as text after text poured in telling me that MCA had died. It seemed only fitting to share a story or two about how the music he helped to create by the group he helped to found has linked itself to my life in so many ways.
Requiescat in Pace.
***In case there is doubt, mixtape is ONE WORD. Mixtape connotes a cassette that a child of the 80s put into her “boombox” at home while she laid down next to it, finger poised over the record button, ready for her favorite song to come on the Top 40 station. One makes mixtapes for friends, and, as a ritual of courtship, for that boy from whom a kiss is pined after. MIXED TAPE is not, and never will be, the preferred nomenclature.