It's impossible not to look at our lives and wonder what could have been if we chose this path instead of this other one, and apparently even multi-millionaire music moguls aren't immune to some wishful thinking.
In a new interview with VladTV, Russell Simmons reflects on the Beastie Boys departure from Def Jam early in their career, claiming that while they certainly enjoyed massive success off Simmons' label (50 million albums sold worldwide), if they had stayed they could have been the biggest hip-hop act of all-time, even bigger than Eminem.
My initial reaction is that saying the Beastie Boys could have been massive mainstream stars is like saying water could be dry if it would just stop being wet.
Setting aside the fact that Simmons oh-so-conveniently didn't mention that the Beasties also left Def Jam because they weren't getting paid - "They ripped us off and it sucks" - it's also obvious that they were deeply uncomfortable with the labels attempts to cash in on their popularity. They were punk kids at heart, not pop idols. That's why Paul's Boutique, their next album after the 10-times platinum Licensed to Ill, was so strange and inaccessible to the average listener. They were determined to prove they weren't the shallow meatheads a lot of people though they were after "Fight For Your Right," a determination that continued throughout their career.
On the other hand, maybe Simmons is right. Maybe if they had stuck with Rick Rubin, Rubin would have been able to help them find that balance that would have meant a huge string of big hits while still maintaining their artistic integrity. In other words, maybe Rubin could have been to the Beasties what Dr. Dre was to Eminem, someone who was somehow able to channel this seemingly uncontrollable (and sometimes self-destructive) creative energy into music that still has massive mainstream appeal.
If nothing else, it makes me appreciate just how extraordinary the Beastie Boys were. They were right there at the door of the kind of fame most couldn't turn away from and they very deliberately went left. But instead of leaving Def Jam, the label that broke them, killing their careers, it helped them achieve the kind of long-term success on their terms that's even rarer than a diamond album. I don't know if even Eminem has had a career like that; and if he has, it's come at a heavy cost that nearly killed him.
As easily as Def Jam could have made them even bigger stars, Def Jam could have also neutered them, sapped them of their creative spirit. Can you imagine the look on Russell's face when the Beasties told him their next single after the runaway success of Licensed to Ill was going to be "Shake Your Rump"? So no, while it's tempting to play "what if?", in this case everything worked out as it should have.
Correction: In a previous edit of this article I referred to the passing of Ad-Rock, when indeed it was Adam Yauch (MCA) from the Beastie Boys who died. I just flat out got mixed up writing and made a mistake, my apologies for any confusion.