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.
He has taken these sabbaticals before. In 1987, after their album Licensed to Ill became Capitol Records’ fastest-selling debut of all time, the Beasties moved to L.A. Yauch returned to New York in 1992, after “drifting for many years”—living on friends’ couches and snowboarding in Utah. In the late nineties, he essentially worked full time on organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. (And no, he doesn’t agree with Sharon Stone that the China earthquake was karma for the country’s treatment of Tibet: “Chengdu is right on the border of Tibet. Even if that wasn’t the case, I feel that karma is a complicated thing. Especially when you think about the school that collapsed, it’s hard to think that those children—certainly not in this lifetime—had much to do with what’s going on in Tibet.”)
In the meantime, the music business has also changed. Gunnin’ includes new Beastie tracks, and a mix of seventies R&B and funk, but there won’t be a soundtrack for sale. “The music industry is having so much trouble right now that nobody really wanted to pay for the clearances,” he says.
The Beasties’ last two albums were an old-school hip-hop tribute to NYC (To the 5 Boroughs) and an instrumental album (The Mix-Up). Where else is there to go? Might it be inappropriate for him to be a 50-year-old Beastie Boy? “I’ve thought about that,” he says. “But so far I feel like our music has managed to adapt to who we are at that time. If I listen to the different records, even though there are a lot of lyrics I wouldn’t necessarily write now, I can still kind of laugh at them and say, ‘That’s what I felt like at the time, and it’s funny that it’s on that record. I’m a father now, and I might not say that.’ As long as our music can adapt—that’s probably the best scenario.”
And even if he’s banned sneakers at work, his job still ain’t a job.
Gunnin For That #1 Spot
Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot
Directed by Adam Yauch.
Oscilloscope Pictures. PG-13.