March 30, 2006
The hip-hop party group gets political in fan-shot concert film.
You've probably never thought about what the music of the Beastie Boys and grandma's kugel have in common. Both artistic endeavors call for a recipe with a whole cup of spunk, a teaspoon of social and cultural justice and more than a pinch of love mixed in for the perfect consistency. With a new live concert movie, "Awesome: I F****** Shot That," coming out in theatres in Los Angeles today, the once seemingly party-driven, white hip-hop group from New York has learned to wear all their outfits well, from their early days as prankster punk rockers standing on top of their Bronx soap box, to their time as hip-hoppin' haters of war and injustice standing on top of the prestigious stage at Madison Square Garden.
When Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horovitz (Adrock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D) took to the streets of Manhattan in 1986 as the punk-rap Beastie Boys, they had no idea their debut album "License to Ill" would be a hit, let alone the cause of a religious furor. Yauch, now 41, recalls surprise at the press' discussion of their Jewish heritage, "The second we went over to England to tour, our religion definitely became the focus. When we read stuff like, 'Three Jews Do This,' we were completely shocked. We didn't even notice that all three of us were Jewish because generally New Yorkers don't seem to marry themselves to their backgrounds too much. When you get a couple of generations away from the old country, it is easy to lose track of your heritage."
In fact, only Yauch's mother was brought up in a Jewish household; Yauch had a more secular upbringing and, in recent years, has discovered a love for the Buddhist faith. Although he doesn't consider himself a JUBU, a term coined by Rodger Kamenetz in his 1997 book, "A Jew in the Lotus," Yauch says, "I think I had some curiosity about the conflict of reincarnation and the concept of karma, so I did some reading to find some plausible answers out there. The idea of nonreligous people, that we are born and die and then disappear doesn't completely make sense to me. The belief that our consciousness would appear and then just disappear doesn't seem any more realistic than the idea of reincarnation, so I was a little bit curious and started studying until it all made sense."
After meeting the Dalai Lama, whom Yauch refers to as a "humorous, warm man" and after witnessing the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Beastie Boys party-hearty, tongue-in-cheek lyrical antics took a turn for the more serious subjects of social change. The shift has never been more clear than when watching "Awesome." The movie is full of songs from their latest album, "To the Five Boroughs," which catalogs the melting pot feeling of living in New York:
"Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten
From the Battery to the top of Manhattan
Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin
Black, White, New York, you make it happen."
They also declare themselves as Jews, giving the middle finger to the Ku Klux Klan in the decibel-breaking number "Right Right Now Now."
Initially, Yauch worried about their audience's reaction to their shift from being the forerunners of party-themed anthems to encouraging their fans to think carefully about what is going on in the world around them.
"I finally got to the point where I just wanted to say what I wanted to say, and I didn't really care who was going to be offended," Yauch remembers. "Some people say, 'just play us music'; some like the new focus; so you end up losing a couple of fans and gaining a few others. That's how it is."
But if the crowd's cheerful reaction to their dedication of their song "Sabotage" to President Bush in the film is any indication of their fans' willingness to think amid the hypnotic break-beats of the Beastie Boys' solid gold hits, then who knows what other social and politically charged attempts the group will make before they call it quits.
The 90-minute film was directed by Yauch, using his pseudonym, Nathaniel Hörnblowér, with help from the 50 cameras that were given out to audience members to record the group's sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden in 2004. Yauch has directed many of the group's videos from the early days of "So What'cha Want" and "Pass the Mic," to the newer hits, "Intergalactic" and "Ch-Check It Out." The experience of the movie leaves the viewer with sensory overload from the pulsing beats of the music, coupled with the synchronized visual editing spectacles and the "old school" green-and-yellow track suits and powder-blue tuxedos the Beasties wear (which are in themselves, a visual spectacle). And just when you are convinced you have no more body parts that are susceptible to the shifting sounds, these three Jewish hip-hop stars from New York scream from the stage, "Thank you very much New York, we love you." And they mean it.
Karla S. Blume is an arts writer living in Los Angeles.