It’s been 22 years since Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys made their drunk-shout rap anthem “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” bragging about how “My job’s ain’t a job—it’s a damn good time / City to city—I’m running my rhymes / On location—touring around the nation / Beastie Boys always on vacation.”
He’s 43 now, graying, married, raising a 9-year-old girl in Soho, and doing his best to at least play at what it’s like to have a grown-up job. The Oscilloscope Laboratories offices in Tribeca, global headquarters to the Beastie brand, have a sign that says LAB DRESS CODE: 1) LAB COATS 2) SLACKS (NO JEANS) 3) SHOES (NO SNEAKERS). Once the executive suite for Benjamin Moore Paints, the space is all dark wood, glass partitions, and antique transoms—everything’s meticulously retro, as you might expect from an urban aesthete like Yauch. He’s in a tan-and-blue-striped Penguin shirt, caramel-colored corduroy jeans, and tan suede boots with complicated soles cut into diagonal wedges. It’s hard to see him riding a giant inflatable penis onstage these days.
Yauch’s new documentary, Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, tells the story of eight high-school athletes competing in an all-star exhibition game at the famed Rucker Park courts on 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. A friend Yauch plays basketball with was organizing the event and asked him to coach. Yauch didn’t know anything about coaching, but his friend’s enthusiasm convinced him it was a film. “I liked the idea that these kids are still in high school, they weren’t known,” he says. His voice is slightly hoarse—quiet, measured, friendly, but a bit coiled; he sounds like someone you can picture sitting on a porch and yelling at some damn kids. But he is—or has been—those kids, so the effect is slightly disconcerting. “The age was interesting—it’s a transitional age of people going from being kids to being adults, and these guys are on this fast track to being superstars, household names.”
The movie is a glimpse at semi-superhuman kids of diverse economic backgrounds (one player is a nephew of Beach Boy Mike Love; another lost both his parents and is trying to play his way out of Baltimore; several are top prospects in the next NBA draft), whom Yauch follows from their hometowns to the city. It’s also a look at the commodification of high-school sports, with the pressures of sponsorships and the big-time. Since Rucker is where Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Dr. J once played, the film is freighted with quasi-mystical nostalgic symbolism for a guy like Yauch, who admits, “I think I sort of am guilty of idealizing the seventies in a lot of ways.” It’s also whirl of images, music, and raucous color commentary. “A lot of this film moves with the music,” he says. “It makes the interviews or the information more palatable.”
Yauch grew up in Brooklyn and went to school in then semi-abandoned Tribeca, smoking pot, going to hear music at the Mudd Club and Tier 3, and drunkenly riding shopping carts around the area’s now-posh streets. He was in junior high when he made his first movie, an animation of Othello tiles moving around the board in patterns and changing colors. He bought an early video camera in 1985 and has accumulated so much Beasties footage he says he can’t contemplate actually editing it all into anything. Later, he directed a number of the band’s videos under his alias, Nathaniel Hornblower. In its self-consciously retro feel, Gunnin’ continues Yauch and the Beasties’ seventies fixation, which began with the trio dressing up in vintage Adidas track suits for early promo photos and continued through the mustachioed-cop look of their “Shadrack” and “Sabotage” videos of the nineties. He also directed 2006’s Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That! a concert video filmed by fans.
He founded Oscilloscope’s film division earlier this year, with former ThinkFilm executive David Fenkel, as a production and distribution company: “In the film industry, you see a lot of people who are trying to pick up films they think are marketable and just figure out how to make them work,” he says. “A lot of times you hear people say, ‘That’s a great film, I loved it, but it’s not marketable.’ That’s the film Oscilloscope is picking up. So what if it’s not marketable? If you feel good when you’re watching it, there’s got to be a way.” He’d like his next movie to be a narrative he’ll co-write, with a budget that guarantees independence.
Even as we sit here on the office’s well-worn gray Eames-knockoff couches, which look like they’ve withstood some jumping, or at least aggressive sitting, the Beastie Boys are recording in the studio across the hall. They owe Capitol two more albums. This year was supposed to be set aside for recording the next one, but Yauch got sidetracked by the documentary.