The Beastie Boys passed the mic on Sunday for the first time in two years while also passing along a message of worldwide peace and justice to their fans.
Before a sold-out Hammerstein Ballroom crowd that had been jonesing for a B-Boys fix since 1999’s Tibetan Freedom Concert, their last public performance, MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D performed tunes mostly from their last two albums – Hello Nasty (1998) and Ill Communication (1994) – at the first of two benefit shows raising money for those affected by September’s World Trade Center disaster.
The aim of the New Yorkers Against Violence concerts – a second is scheduled for Monday (October 29) – is to kindle support for peaceful resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East, some of which have spurred the terrorist attacks. Without coming off as preachy, the Boys, chiefly MCA, and guest speaker Benjamin R. Barber – a University of Maryland professor and author of Jihad Vs. McWorld – encouraged discussion of global justice and urged personal awareness and involvement, while leaving the audience members to make their own decisions on the conflict so long as they were informed.
“[Although we’re taking military action], this is also a civic and democratic struggle,” Barber said. “Besides bringing the terrorists to justice, we need to take on [and examine] the climate that creates terrorism.” Economic globalization, he said, benefits the privileged few while imposing suffering on others, which results in injustices that have triggered ill will toward the U.S. and other Western nations. Barber also contended that, for the long-term good of all, other nations should share in the prosperity of the West.
The crowd took in Barber’s words politely with sporadic showings of support, much the same way as they patiently waited through performances by MC/poet Saul Williams, post-hardcore amalgam Rival Schools, downtown hipster-hoppers Cibo Matto, Pakistani Qawwali singer Rahat Fatah Ali Khan and the B-52’s, whose kitsch-crammed performance was awkwardly out of place and went mostly ignored.
The Beastie Boys’ closing set was the only act that sparked more than a courteous smattering of cheers from the audience. Fans were all fists in the air during favorites “So What’cha Want” and “Pass the Mic,” both from 1992’s Check Your Head, and “Root Down” and “Sure Shot,” from Ill Communication. Mix Master Mike, who accompanied the trio on the turntables (positioned, of course, “up on the drum risers”), dazzled with nimble steel-wheel stunts. While the lyrics were familiar to most, evidenced by the venue-wide sing-along, the jagged beats and scratching flourishes Mike used as backing music were so disorienting – starting on the beat then breaking free from it with a frenzy, only to somehow return in place without missing a step – that he even lost the Boys, forcing them to start the song again from the beginning.
New York punks the Strokes, in their first hometown performance since March, played a handful of songs, including “Last Nite,” “Barely Legal” and the title track of their debut album, Is This It (2001). Backlit by black lights, the group pulled off near-perfect renditions of its studio work while barely moving about the stage. Instead, the Strokes relied on Julian Casablancas’ Lou Reed-like vocal melodies to drive the songs through their brilliant simplicity.
Between sets, MCA and Ad-Rock introduced speakers from the charities benefiting from concert proceeds: the New York Women’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping low-income women, and the New York Association for New Americans Inc., a group that helps refugees and immigrants rebuild their lives, families and communities. Both nonprofits have established September 11 funds.
Monday night’s concert will have a decidedly more hip-hop slant, with scheduled performances from Afrika Bambaataa, Mos Def and the Roots as well as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beastie Boys.