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“The Beastie Boys’ ‘An Open Letter to NYC’: A Song Admirable Simply for the Obvious Extent to Which it Could Have Been Cheesy”

The Beastie Boys’ 1998 album Hello Nasty was a sprawling heap of beautiful, genre-shifting nonsense that garnered the group two Grammy awards. Then, the world, both in music and at large, went into a mania-inducing string of tizzies, from the Columbine shooting, to the emergence of Eminem, to the propagation of file sharing, to Woodstock ’99, to 9/11, to the war in Iraq, and on and on. How’s that for something stealing your sunshine?

There was this joke, then, that the Beastie Boys had vanished off the face of the earth, brought to a classic head in the video for the lead single off their next album, 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, which is the subject of my post here. As the screenplay dictated, the group’s six-year break from cutting an album was explained by their having been captured by Sasquatch, and there was a great bit with the burgeoning rap giant Kanye West getting interviewed about the phenomenon: “I didn’t realize there was a Sasquatch.”

The joke worked, by and large, but at the same time, in the midst of all the toils and calamities that were going on in the world, it’s easy to see why they would have wanted to take a break from recording for a while and just take stock of what was going on. I mean, you never know: you could cut a track complaining about Donald Trump being a money-hoarding miser and the next day see him founding a non-profit for kids with cancer. I’m not saying that would happen but the world was like that: it tended to change on a dime, with these unthinkable atrocities, at that.

The Beastie Boys were fervently anti-war and To the 5 Boroughs, with its release date of June ’04 (approximately 15 months into the war), was an album for denizenship within the war machine. The world in current events had to an extent leveled off, conservative Americans had united in favor of flag-hugging nationalism and liberals had voiced their compunction with the operation as liberals do. 

But it was time, finally, six years after Hello Nasty, to start letting the full, discursive tapestries unfurl on the subject of America’s bellicose expeditions. At the end, there were plenty of albums that piled up containing anti-war messages, from Green Day’s American Idiot, to The Roots’ The Tipping Point, to Anti-Flag’s The Terror State, Bad Religion’s The Empire Strikes First, The Suicide Machines’ War Profiteering is Killing Us All, and so on. To the 5 Boroughs buddied up to this list itself, not with exclusively political content but rather, as was the trend at least in hip-hop, sporadic references to the arguably tyrannical behavior on the part of the president. The most pronounced example was “It Takes Time to Build”; with MCA barking “We got a president we didn’t elect [1] / The Kyoto Treaty he decided to neglect / And still the U.S. just wants to flex / Keep doin’ that what we gonna break our necks” and Ad-Rock dishing the charmingly puerile plaint of “Didn’t your mama teach you show some respect? / Why not open your mind for a sec?” 

So the Beastie Boys had made their political views known, on what could really be allotted to just one track, similar to what The Roots did on The Tipping Point with the excellent “Guns Are Drawn” [2]. But To the 5 Boroughs was not slated to be a totally political album. Actually, I remember reading this one preview of the LP in early ’04 that had this diagram of their songwriting strategy. The diagram outlined three “islands,” metaphorically speaking, that the group had conceived, for song topics: there was the political, the rap battling and the “goofy,” with I think the majority album creating more of a mesh between old school battles and goofiness. 

Track 12, “An Open Letter to NYC,” is a cut that I guess would fall under the “political,” although instead of addressing the president and the growing war effort, it mourns for the group’s hometown of New York City and the tragic September 11, 2001 destruction of the two buildings of the World Trade Center. 

The Beastie Boys are an act that I think we all know takes a certain amount of criticism, for various reasons. In their early days, lots of people thought they shouldn’t have been doing rap because they were white. Initially sexist, offensive brats getting kicked out of fast food joints, they went full circle, in a sense, issuing conscious, humanistic rhetoric like that in “Root down” and “Song for the Man,” each of which serves to offer a semantic arena for protection of women against disprespect and abuse. 

Each of these songs is really pretty good but at the same time at this point, the group would catching static for different reasons: of being soft, of not being “hood” or “street” enough.

My point is that I honestly think “An Open Letter to NYC” is legitimate hip-hop music. It’s notable, obviously, as well, in that I don’t think any other rap entity, not even any of the Wu-Tang emcees, issued such a high-profile eulogy for pre-9/11 New York, one that can effectively play as a complete summary of the city’s existence. And I don’t mean to say that the group actually highlighted every single characteristic of the entire city, obviously, but there is an element of the dynamically sordid within the lyrics that creates a clear sense of authentic urbanness. 

That is to say, it’s a song that very well could have been “cheesy,” seeing as its apparent mission statement carries the blank simplicity of just writing a love song to New York in the wake of a tragedy. And sure, there’s benevolent, optimistic rhetoric, like “Since 9/11 we’re still livin’ / And lovin’ like we’ve been given” and “Dear New York this is the love letter / To you and how you brought us together”. But the balance and the edge are ensured authoritatively with Dionysian nuggets like “I remember when the Deuce was all porno flicks” and, most astoundingly, Mike D’s inimitable part in the second verse of “Stopped off at Bleeker Bob’s got thrown out / Sneakin’ in at 4 a.m. after goin’ out / You didn’t rob me at the park at Diana Ross / But everybody started lootin’ when the lights went off”. Here’s D’s voice both inflects and annunciates in a way I’ve never heard him before, almost like he was possessed with this spirit of hip-hop’s roots and founding DNA, which of course, would have such a New York accent in and of themselves. 

But the Beastie Boys knew their audience and knew it wasn’t old ladies crocheting blankets in a carpeted living room. And sure, it was college kids, it was white high school kids and it was women, but it was also New Yorkers, like the dude in “All Lifestyles” that Mike D cites as asking “When you coming out with that new CD?” Nobody would mistake the group for “gangsters,” but still, on “An Open Letter to NYC,” they completed a snapshot of a city that, though still damaged, still oozed and bled with the uncontrollable humanness that probably caused Inspectah Deck to refer to it as “The Rotten Apple” as proximally as 1999, on the stupendous Uncontrolled Substance album. On To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys gave us just enough seedy New York smoke to make sure we didn’t want, or need, any more, and in this way it is the conclusive and ultimate portrait of the Capital of the World [3] and its biological condition right within this time of disaster and revelation. 

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[1] This refers to the final electoral college vote count have never been officially concluded, but rather expedited by the Supreme Court, hence “appointing” George W. Bush president, rather than electing him. 

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[2] It could probably be argued that “Somebody’s Gotta Do it” was also directed at the imperial brutality on the part of the president but it’s not as explicit in that song. 

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[3] Some people in cliched habit refer to New York City as “The Capital of the World” (I don’t have a personal opinion on whether it is or not). 

75 thoughts on ““The Beastie Boys’ ‘An Open Letter to NYC’: A Song Admirable Simply for the Obvious Extent to Which it Could Have Been Cheesy”

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