When Karl Denson's Tiny Universe planned the first of their Beastie Boys tribute shows back in April, it was just supposed to be a fun little jazz-infused experiment for his band, as well as a dance party for everyone else.
Then we all lost Beastie Boy Adam "MCA" Yauch a week before the first tribute in San Francisco. The world was mourning MCA, but Denson and company weren't about to let what they'd lost make them forget what they had.
"We get a little somber moment every once in a while where we have to remember what we're commemorating, but we really try to focus on his life and not on his death," Denson says.
Denson rolls his Beasties show into Boulder and Denver this week with a little help from his buddies in reggae-punk outfit Slightly Stoopid. Denson batted around the idea with Slightly Stoopid sax player DeLa, trumpet player C-Money and percussionist Oguer "OG" Ocon last summer. They were all Beasties fans and all felt they could pull off a tribute similar to the Rolling Stones tribute shows Denson's band played earlier this year, when it performed the Sticky Fingers album in its entirety.
It's something Denson's been wanting to do since listening to the Beasties' two instrumental albums — 1996's The In Sound From the Way Out! And 2007's The Mix-Up. Their boogaloo and early funk sounds matched up well with Tiny Universe, while tracks like "Pow" seemed like they would translate well to either Tiny Universe or Denson's original jazz/funk project The Greyboy Allstars. That sound gave rise to the jazz-influenced samples of hip-hop's golden era during the late '80s and early '90s.
"Around about 1989 and 1990 when bands like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest came out, that was about the times changing and starting to move in my direction, because they were starting to take jazz samples instead of rock samples," says Denson, who first paired with DJ Greyboy in 1993. "When I heard that, and DJ Greyboy heard it the same way, we kind of knew it was our chance to step in with more of a jazz take on things."
Denson and his bandmates stick to live instruments for their versions of Beastie Boys material, which makes covering songs like the nearly all-sample "Paul Revere" a tough task. Keyboardist David Veith's synthesizer and Chris Stillwell's bass stand in for a Roland 808 drum machine, while guitarist DJ Williams basically beatboxes the song's trademark backwards high-hat drumming.
"When we actually dug into it as a band, it worked surprisingly well," Denson says. "It comes off as really organic."
It also showcases a musical growth and complexity that few could have imagined from the Beasties or MCA during their early Licensed To Ill days. It wasn't until Denson heard "Hey Ladies" from Paul's Boutique that he got the sense they were the real deal and that anything was possible from then on.
"Up until that point, it was black people playing hip-hop and then you had these white kids from Brooklyn coming out and becoming one of the most influential hip-hop bands of all time," Denson says. "That was their calling card: They just legitimized anybody who wanted to do something good, but they did it well."