Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is widely regarded as one of the greatest rap songs of the 1990s. And it spawned one of the decade’s most iconic videos too. But it took nearly a quarter of a century for the group to reveal exactly what the track is really about. Here’s a look at the story behind the Ill Communication classic.
The original Beastie Boys line-up of John Berry, Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Kate Schellenbach first came together in New York in 1981. The group started out as a hardcore punk outfit supporting the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Reagan Youth. They began to make waves with Polly Wog Stew, their first E.P., which hit the shelves in 1982.
Beastie Boys underwent a couple of major lineup changes over the next few years. Mike Horovitz joined the band in 1982 to replace the departed Berry, while two years later Schellenbach also decided to quit. The group chose to remain as a trio and soon after reinvented themselves as a hip-hop act using the stage names Mike D (Diamond), Ad-Rock (Horovitz) and MCA (Yauch).
After enjoying underground success with the Cooky Puss E.P., Beastie Boys began working with Def Jam Recordings co-founder Rick Rubin. In 1985 they appeared as the opening act on the North American leg of Madonna’s The Virgin Tour and joined Run-DMC on the Raising Hell tour. The trio then achieved their first Billboard hit with “Hold It Now, Hit It.”
Beastie Boys became true superstars when they released their first studio effort in 1986. You see, License to Ill became the first ever hip-hop album to top the U.S. charts and by shifting nine million copies was the genre’s biggest-selling L.P. of the decade, too. It also spawned a Top 10 single on both sides of the Atlantic, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).”
However, the album’s accompanying tour caused huge controversy from start to finish. The use of a large inflatable penis and female cage dancers saw the band accused of sexism. And a 1987 gig in Liverpool spawned a riot just ten minutes in, resulting in Ad-Rock being arrested and charged with assault.
Mike D’s unique sense of style during this period inadvertently caused problems too. The rapper became famous for sporting chain-link necklaces attached with the Volkswagen emblem. As a result, a surge in the thieving of the vehicle’s emblems occurred thanks to the army of fans who wanted to copy their hero.
After leaving Def Jam for Capitol Records in acrimonious circumstances, the trio released sophomore Paul’s Boutique in 1989. The record was considered a commercial disappointment at the time, peaking at a relatively lowly No.14 on the Billboard 200. However, it fared much better critically, and thanks to its pioneering use of samples is now widely regarded as a hip-hop classic.
Beastie Boys’ 1992 third L.P. was recorded in the group’s own California studio and issued via their own label, Grand Royal. Unlike its sample-heavy predecessor, Check Your Head was a more organic-sounding affair, which experimented with jazz and funk, while also throwing a nod to the band’s hardcore punk beginnings. The record peaked at No.10 in the U.S. and spawned the hit “So What’cha Want.”
Beastie Boys also signed their former bandmate Kate Schellenbach to their Grand Royal label as a member of Luscious Jackson. Other artists on their roster included Aussie singer-songwriter Ben Lee and John Lennon’s son Sean. The trio also published Grand Royal Magazine throughout the middle and later 1990s before selling the label in 2001.
The group scored their second U.S. number one album in 1994 with Ill Communication and became an MTV staple once again with its breakout hit, “Sabotage.” That same year, they headlined Lollapalooza and staged three gigs to raise funds for the Milarepa Fund. This was an organization designed to bolster awareness of the human rights issues affecting Tibet.
Featuring turntablist Mix Master Mike, the group’s 1998 album Hello Nasty sold nearly 700,000 copies in its first week to top the Billboard 200. That same year, they received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV VMAs. Hello Nasty later picked up Best Alternative Music Album at the Grammys, while lead single “Intergalactic” won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Beastie Boys became one of the first major artists to release MP3 downloads via their website with live recordings from their Hello Nasty tour. At the turn of the century they released a double-disc compilation and announced numerous shows with Busta Rhymes and Rage Against the Machine. However, they were forced to cancel the tour when Mike D seriously hurt himself while bike riding.
After various solo projects, Beastie Boys returned to the scene in 2003 with a protest song about the Iraq War. They also performed in Taiwan for the first time to stage the 20th Tibetan Freedom Concert and served as headliners at Coachella. In 2004 they took their tally of U.S. number one albums to four with the self-produced To the 5 Boroughs.
In 2007 the group released the entirely instrumental album The Mix-Up and performed at Wembley Stadium as part of Live Earth’s U.K. leg. The group then recruited the likes of Santigold and Nas to appear on eighth L.P. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. They then made what would be their final live appearance as a trio at the 2009 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
Indeed, shortly after, MCA revealed that doctors had discovered a lymph node and parotid gland tumor that was cancerous. The band subsequently canceled all live dates and the release of their new record. The much-delayed Hot Sauce Committee Part Two eventually arrived in 2011, the same year the trio were confirmed as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
MCA passed away from cancer in May 2012 at the age of just 47. Mike D later confirmed that although he and Ad-Rock would undoubtedly have had MCA’s blessing to record new music under the Beastie Boys name, they wouldn’t be doing so. Just two years later, founding member John Berry died of complications from frontotemporal dementia.
By the time Beastie Boys officially disbanded, they had shifted an astonishing 50 million records across the globe. And with no fewer than seven platinum-selling LPs to their name, they remain America’s biggest-selling rap group ever. They have also been cited as a major influence on everyone from nu-metallers Limp Bizkit to British indie veterans Blur.
Breakthrough hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” might have performed better on the U.S. Hot 100. And “Intergalactic” may have given them a Grammy Award. But many fans still regard 1994 single “Sabotage” as the finest track that Beastie Boys had to offer during their enduring career.
Indeed, the lead single from Ill Communication featured in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time poll in 2004. It was also ranked at #39 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Tracks of the ‘90s chart. But it also has an attention-grabbing video directed by future Oscar winner Spike Jonze.
Indeed, inspired by classic crime TV shows including Starsky and Hutch, The Streets of San Francisco and Hawaii Five-O, the promo became a staple of MTV for years. In the video, the trio pretend to be stars of their very own 1970s cop series also titled Sabotage. And each member is given both a character and made-up actor name.
Ad-Rock plays Vic Colfari, a.k.a. Bobby the Rookie. and Mike D appears as Alesandro Alegre, a.k.a. The Chief. MCA gets to take on two roles, Sir Stewart Wallace, who guests as himself, and Nathan Wind, a.k.a. Cochese. The main cast is rounded out by DJ Hurricane, who plays Fred Kelly, a.k.a. Bunny.
Jonze was forced to cut several parts of the video to make it MTV friendly. Indeed, the scenes involving a man falling off a bridge, another being thrown out of a vehicle and a knife fight were all removed from the final edit. However, the uncut version later became available.
The “Sabotage” promo received five nominations at the MTV VMAs in 1994 including Video of the Year. However, it failed to win a single category, losing out to either R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” or Aerosmith’s “Cryin’.” Mike D interrupted Michael Stipe’s acceptance speech for Best Direction to complain about the lack of recognition.
However, MTV did later make amends for their multiple snubs 15 years later. Indeed, the network awarded “Sabotage” the inaugural Best Video (That Should Have Won a Moonman) at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. And both the video and the song have continued to penetrate pop culture since its release.
Indeed, Danny Boyle admits in the Trainspotting DVD commentary that the “Sabotage” promo inspired his 1996 cult classic’s starting credits. Nearly two decades on, animated web series Homestar Runner saw Bubs dress up as Nathan Wind, a.k.a. Cochese, for a Halloween special. And in 2017 mash-up artist Mylo the Cat recreated the video using clips from Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird.
The song itself has been covered by artists as varied as legendary jam band Phish, hardcore punk outfit Cancer Bats and Finnish country group Steve ‘N’ Seagulls. It was famously used in The People v O.J. Simpson’s pivotal Bronco chase sequence. And it’s also featured prominently in episodes of Family Guy and How I Met Your Mother.
In 1999 Beastie Boys began performing the track for the 25th anniversary special of comic institution Saturday Night Live. However, just 15 seconds in, legendary singer-songwriter Elvis Costello gatecrashed the group’s rendition of their 1994 hit. The two acts then joined forces on “Radio, Radio,” the song that Costello had also deliberately “sabotaged” during an SNL appearance in 1977.
But perhaps the most impressive use of “Sabotage” in the pop culture landscape appears courtesy of the Star Trek franchise. In 2009’s big screen reboot, a young Kirk is seen listening to the track on his car stereo. This was one of the rare occasions that the sci-fi series employed music it had licensed in one of its productions.
And the Star Trek connection doesn’t end there. Seven years later, “Sabotage” featured heavily in a key scene from hit sequel Star Trek Beyond. Indeed, the classic track was played by Kirk, now a fully grown adult, and the rest of his colleagues to help thwart an extraterrestrial invasion on a Federation starbase.
But what is “Sabotage” the song actually about? Well, in 2018 the two surviving Beastie Boys revealed all in an eponymous memoir, which was also given the audiobook treatment. Best known for his long-running stint on Saturday Night Live, comedian and actor Tim Meadows narrated the chapter that revealed that the Ill Communication standout was inspired by an irritating recording engineer.
In Beastie Boys Book, Ad-Rock and Mike D reveal that engineer Mario Caldato Jr. often became agitated by the group’s lack of direction during the recording of their 1994 LP. “We were totally indecisive about what, when, why and how to complete songs,” Meadows reads in the audiobook version. “Mario was getting frustrated.”
He continues, “That’s a really calm way of saying that he would blow a fuse and get p—ed off at us and scream that we just needed to finish something, anything, a song. He would push awful instrumental tracks we made just to have something moving toward completion.” And Caldato’s conduct eventually had the desired effect.
Indeed, fed up with Caldato’s attitude, the group decided to get their revenge in song. Ad-Rock recalls in the book that the screaming technique on “Sabotage” was a direct response to their engineer. He writes, “I decided it would be funny to write a song about how Mario was holding us all down, how he was trying to mess it all up, sabotaging our great works of art.”
However, like most tracks on Ill Communication, the recording of “Sabotage” still wasn’t particularly straightforward. Indeed, the group worked on several different iterations of the track before settling on the final edit. This included a more hip-hop-focused version based on a scratched sample of rapper turned Academy Award-nominated actress Queen Latifah.
The Beastie Boys Book ended nearly 25 years of speculation about “Sabotage”’s meaning. Some fans had believed that the anarchic anthem was a form of protest song against organized religion. Others had argued that the trio’s habit of scuffling with photographers had inspired them to write an anti-paparazzi track.
Caldato first began working with Beastie Boys on 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. He later contributed to the albums Check Your Head and Hello Nasty, and the group namechecked him in songs such as “Root Down,” “Intergalactic” and “Sure Shot.” He also served as the trio’s sound mixer during several world tours.
Caldato also teamed up with Ad-Rock to co-produce two albums for D.F.L., a hardcore punk outfit signed to the Grand Royal label. And a year after the release of Ill Communication, he produced The Hurra, the debut album from regular Beastie Boys cohort DJ Hurricane. The Brazilian-American has since scooped three Latin Grammys for his work with Marisa Monte, Vanessa da Mata and Seu Jorge.
In 2013 Caldato gave a lengthy interview to Sound on Sound. In it, he revealed that “Sabotage” had nearly had a different title. Indeed, the owner of the studio in which it was recorded had been so enthusiastic on hearing the song for the first time that the trio initially decided to name it in his honor. And so “Sabotage” was originally known as “Chris Rock.”
And although he might not have known he was the inspiration at the time, Caldato revealed that he had been impressed by Ad-Rock’s intensity. He said, “He nailed it in one or two takes and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s it! You did it!’ It was perfect. He had done his homework and he was screaming it with the exact amount of energy and attitude needed.”