Pollywog Crew, L.A.’s only Beastie Boys tribute band, will bring some ‘(Brass) Monkey’ business to Venice Art Crawl
By Michael Aushenker
“What’s the time? It’s time to get iiiilllll!”
Three MCs and one DJ intend to bring it back to 1986 when Pollywog Crew, L.A.’s only ongoing Beastie Boys tribute band, play Windward Circle on Thursday, June 20, as part of the Venice Art Crawl.
Cey Adams, a Beastie Boys bud since their teen years whose artwork graced albums such as 1998’s “Hello Nasty,” told The Argonaut, “I’ve seen a couple Beastie Boys cover bands, but these guys are the closest thing to sounding like them. I was really moved by that.”
Like many Beastie fans, Pollywog’s Dino Carillo remembers where he was on May 4, 2012, when Adam “MCA” Yauch, eldest of the New York rappers (which also included Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D.” Diamond), passed away from cancer at 47, mere days after Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
“I was in the middle of work and I saw a headline online,” Carillo recalled. “It felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me. It was a landslide of thoughts (followed by) the reality that I’ll never get to see or hear the three of them perform or record new music again.”
Carillo’s buddy, musician Jeff Davis, was also devastated. Just the year before, he had lost his stepfather to cancer. Three months later, Davis (“Jeff-D”) and Carillo (“D-Rock”) joined forces with Jay Lepito (“MCJ”) and their DJ Hurricane/Mix Master Mike surrogate, Luis Roble (DJ LuMan), debuting Pollywog Crew at a Halloween show (dressed as the characters from Beastie’s “Sabotage” video). The Valley-based crew began gigging around Los Angeles: Paladino’s in Tarzana, the Sunset Strip’s Whiskey a Go Go, and Santa Monica’s Smashbox Studios.
“Everyone in our group is influenced by the Beastie Boys,” said Carillo, who cites the album “Paul’s Boutique” and 1990s output “Check Your Head” and “Ill Communication” as his personal favorites. “We don’t stay true to any albums at all.”
For Generations X and Y, the somber 2012 end to Yauch’s epic battle with cancer gave many pause. In their heyday, following their propulsive debut “Licensed to Ill” in 1986, the cartoony, beer-spewing teenaged Beastie Boys – fueled on raunchy, smartass lyrics praising White Castle and name-checking Abe Vigoda, Phyllis Diller and Bullwinkle Moose – became a notorious musical act, on a par with England’s Sex Pistols a decade earlier.
Def Jam Records’ Caucasian response to rap group Run-DMC, the Beasties shook up the establishment and the Bible Belt with antics including concerts boasting thong-clad girls in cages and a giant hydraulic phallus, terrorizing musicians Robert Palmer and Janet Jackson on awards shows, and originally titling their major label debut with a homophobic slur. With the global success of their second single, the anthemic “Fight for Your Right (to Party),” Beastie Boys brought African-American rap music to the ‘burbs, detonating an anarchic rock-rap hybrid album that put this Jewish-American rap outfit in the history books as the first rap artists ever to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 (“Licensed” topped the charts for four weeks and eventually sold more than 10 million units).
In 1989, they released “Paul’s Boutique,” the sample-dense hip hop masterpiece nobody bought at the time. The expensive-to-produce “Paul’s” presented a more nocturnal, layered sound, infused with a cornucopia of funk, electro-funk and disco riffs that swapped out the metallic Led Zeppelin and AC/DC bites from their minimalist debut for James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone. “Paul’s” was a slow burn, over time becoming a revered apogee of hip-hop artistry.
With their commercial success peaking during “Licensed’s” reign, Beastie Boys “matured” by the mid-‘90s into trendsetting hipsters. Both their personalities and their musical style went through changes as they rejected the obnoxious political incorrectness of their youth and revived the practice of playing live instruments from their early punk days. Whereas they once thumbed their nose at authority and suggested obscene uses for a whiffle ball bat, they now publicly recanted for the misogyny and homophobia, championing women’s rights and getting politically active, including supporting causes such as the Free Tibet movement.
Their albums became veritable genre mix tapes, alternating the rap with rock, jazz and lounge cuts. Beastie Boys somehow morphed into a cutting-edge alternative band with a smaller yet solid following, staying relevant through their last studio album, 2011’s “Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2,” on which the lead single’s video (directed by Yauch) featured actors such as Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Elijah Cook, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi and Ted Danson.
Curiously, Pollywog Crew borrow their name from their heroes’ pre-“Licensed” tween hardcore EP, 1982’s “Poly Wog Stew.”
“It wasn’t taken very seriously by the punk community,” Carillo said of the EP. “It just always stuck in my mind.”
For Davis, the eclectic “Check Your Head” was his gateway album at age 12. “I heard ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Pass the Mic’ and I was blown away,” he recalled. “It made me want to be a musician.”
In March, the Crew and Venice artist Sunny Bak, who photographed Beastie’s World’s Fair image for “Licensed’s” interior, collaborated at Sherman Oaks’ Basement 818, where Bak displayed her 1980s Beastie Boys images.
“The Pollywog Crew came to my attention after MCA’s death (as) fans and friends were realizing that we wouldn’t see the Beastie Boys perform live again,” Bak said. “But when I heard them and closed my eyes, their performance… warmed my heart.”
“I was so moved,” Adams said after first hearing Pollywog Crew. “I had to walk out of the room.”
Although they perform “Licensed”-era hits “Fight for Your Right” and “Brass Monkey,” Pollywog does not emulate the boorish 1980s Beasties. Per the reformed Beasties’ enlightened views, they refuse to play the more sexist early songs that even the Beasties themselves avoided in later concerts.
“A lot of people ask us to play ‘Girls,’” said Carillo of one song they’ve banished.
Operating as a rap group, Pollywog Crew do not perform instrument-driven 1990s cuts, instead delivering the hookiest rap songs off each album: “Paul’s’” “Shake Your Rump” and “Shadrach,” “Hello Nasty’s” “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin,” and “Check It Out” and “Triple Trouble” off of 2004’s “To The Five Boroughs.”
“Like Madonna, the Beastie Boys were able to reinvent themselves,” Carillo said. “Every album doesn’t sound like the album before it. They were white guys being themselves. They weren’t trying to be black. They were effortlessly cool.”
Davis lives in Atwater Village, walking distance from G-Son Studios, the recording facility the Beasties built in the early ‘90s where they based their Grand Royale label and put out their Grand Royale ‘zine. One of Davis’ favorite tracks is from that period – the late Yauch’s solo turn “Bodhisattva Vow,” “Ill Communication’s” penultimate track; a redemption song for past sins laid out over Asian chanting. (Yauch became a Buddhist by the mid-1990s and married a Tibetan activist.) When Davis read the lyrics, he realized that only Yauch could have crafted such a rap song with this type of conviction.
The short time Pollywog has paid tribute to their favorite musicians has become somewhat of an odyssey for the quartet. Bak has “taken them under her wing,” Carillo said, recently bringing the boys to Largo in West Hollywood to see performer Bridget Everett, whose friend, Beastie Boy Horovitz, backed her on bass.
Post-show, Bak and Adams introduced them to their hero, who responded, “Oh, you’re the ones I’ve been hearing about…”
“That was the apex,” Davis said of the encounter. “He’s my favorite Beastie Boy.”
According to Davis, their next step is to introduce their own original raps into their set list. But for now, Pollywog Crew promise a fun show of pure Beastiemania June 20, including a steady flow of “Pollywog Juice.” So Beastie fans, please note: this is a “BYOBM” kind of party (“Bring your own Brass Monkey”).
Pollywog Crew will perform at 8:30 p.m. June 20 at 1500 Main St., Venice (next door to Hama Sushi). Information, Polywogcrew.com.