Get It Together: On Mourning Adam Yauch
May 16, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
I’m not sure who had the ball when George Clinton passed by in a golf cart. It could’ve been Mike D. It could’ve been Yauch. I just remember standing there astonished, watching George quietly scoot by in his Mothership mini, while my defensive assignment broke to the basket and scored. The Beastie Boys were playing some intrasquad hoops in a parking lot behind the Atlanta Amphitheater, a Lollapalooza stop during the summer of 1994. A portable basketball goal had been traveling with them, providing a transitional arc and some adrenaline for the stage. I don’t even remember who was on my team. I just know that I was playing with a bunch of guys once falsely accused of throwing pies at kids in wheelchairs.
Yauch evidently hadn’t given up his outside shot for Buddhism. Adam Horovitz dribbled with an Archibaldian low center of gravity, while Mike D crashed about with his Kurt Rambis hustle. Keyboard player/carpenter Money Mark spent much of the game in midair. I spent much of the game looking for my fadeaway. In my defense, I was firing into the sun on a freshly reconstructed knee, ligament grafted, no brace. If I had reinjured it that day, I would’ve told anyone with a working set of ears that I’d blown out my knee playing basketball with the Beastie Boys—that I was treeing out of my mind until George Clinton put a golf cart on me.
I was later told that George was rushing to the Parliament bus to resolve some eyeball situation involving stuck glitter. My memory has his eye twitching like Herbert Lom at the end of Pink Panther Strikes Again, but I could be mistaken. Yauch had been lamenting that George was only given a forty-five minute set, about a song’s worth in Parliament-Funkadelic time. “We should be opening for them,” he told me. “It would probably take George Clinton all of forty-five minutes just to break a sweat.”
I first met Yauch that spring when interviewing him for a San Francisco hip-hop zine called The Bomb. He’d given me passes to the southeastern leg of the tour in Raleigh, Charlotte, and a couple of dates in Atlanta. The least I could do was justify my backstage laminate by effectively demonstrating that I still had my turnaround baby jump hook from high school, back when Licensed To Ill was released and the idea of sampling “Sweet Leaf” seemed like the most mind-boggling technological innovation of the twentieth century. That year, I saw the Beastie Boys sitting by the side of the stage at the Charlotte Coliseum, drinking beer, watching LL perform, and by most accounts, having it pretty good.
I wonder how it matched up with the backstage area at Lollapalooza, nearly a decade later. There was Outkast, one album into their own legend, and Qtip, maybe three into his. The girls in cages that once accompanied the Beasties on tour had been replaced by Tibetan monks in garnet robes and clunky shoes.
On learning that Yauch had passed away, I walked around Brooklyn assuming every woman, egg man, child, and pet to be thinking the same thing: I wondered which track their brains were playing. (“High Plains Drifter” over here—I always liked the way Yauch said radar detector.) Over the weekend, I read every eulogy/tribute/famous-rapper tweet possible, because I like it when rappers quote rappers and turn into fans. (Traditionally, this profession doesn’t encourage you to jock anyone but yourself.) In this grief, those of us who grew up with hip-hop needed that sort of thing. I also found solace in seeing the words penis balloon and Buddhism sharing the same obituary.
I realized we weren’t just mourning Adam Yauch. As many would agree, we’ve been mourning our memories. Mourning an adolescence that seemed to get over on fifteen years of adulthood, from Def Jam to Grand Royal. Mourning how a record once could finish your thought, and how much that thought would cost once the lawyers realized it belonged to someone else. (The Beasties were sued for copyright infringement the day before Yauch passed.) Mourning all the goofball references and the passing of those references. Mourning the brilliantly lame Dick Butkus joke. Mourning “Got more ___ than ___ got ___.” Mourning my tattered “Live at the Fever T-shirt” that I saw Adrock wearing in the woods in the video for “So Watcha Want.” (Might as well mourn the “Live at the Disco Fever” twelve-inch and the famous Bronx hip-hop club itself, while we’re at it.) Mourning magazines that came with cardboard Miami booty jeeps in the center. Mourning once being able to write ten thousand words on South Florida Bass for said magazine and being sent to cover strip clubs in Atlanta with Lil’ Jon while Yauch was in India with the Dalai Lama. Mourning the file cabinet and Yauch’s two-foot bong chucked out of a three-story window by Grand Royal editor Bob Mack. Mourning all the memory loss from all those times spent, er, “listening,” to Check Your Head. Mourning all the woofers blown from the 808 low end of “Hello Brooklyn.” Mourning how we felt when the video for “Intergalactic,” which was directed by Yauch, reminded us of coming home from school to watch Ultraman kick the crap out of a giant radioactive artichoke. Mourning a time when you never considered how one day you’d be mourning the Beastie Boys. Mourning can be a pretty narcissistic act, it turns out.
At a recent talk at MIT, I played a clip from “Intergalactic” as tribute. Sitting on the front row was a retired Bell Labs engineer who helped develop the clangy robotic voice technology used in the song. Rather than cover his ears, he leaned forward so he could hear “another dimension another dimension” on continuous loop—his first interaction with the Beastie Boys in his hundred-and-five years on earth. When I first started writing about rap twenty years ago, the writing itself was an afterthought, just a way to re-create all these histories I couldn’t experience myself—since, unlike Yauch, I wasn’t there to see the Fat Boys perform live at Pizza-A-Go-Go. The closest I could get was running up phone bills, talking hip-hop with people in foreign lands (e.g., New York and Los Angeles), only to be disconnected by Southern Bell in the process. I was living in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the rap group Seventh Tribe, in an apartment across from the Circus restaurant. I slept on their carpet, ate their Corn Pops, and held a temporary day job as assistant sergeant-at-arms for the state legislature’s Emergency Session on Crime. (Responsibilities: holding doors for red-faced senators and just staying awake.) The phone interview with Yauch took place after work, though it was less an interview than a retrospective of the unenlightened dumb shit I did in high school.
In 1987, someone—most likely my older brother—misinformed me that “Brass Monkey” was 151-proof Ronrico rum, not beer and orange juice. It seemed like the right thing to do when you’re cranking the Skinny Boys in a Mustang SVO. Yauch, despite having given up flammable liquor long ago, had to agree. I also told him that we’d discovered stereo panning when sitting on a couch, football highlights on mute, listening to Paul’s Boutique and noticing a Ping-Pong ball passing in and out of our brains, unmolested. I imagine Yauch had collected a mess of these types of stories over the years (as you are now), but he good-naturedly took ownership. He talked Bodhisattva and how the Real Roxanne once sat in his lap. He commended Horovitz’s idea to record Too Short doing a bowling instructional and release it on a seven-inch. Too Short, Yauch explained, enjoys getting drunk and bowling—this, a highlight of professional journalism for me.
We kept in touch after the interview. He had a friend from Columbia Records send me an advance cassette of Nas’s Illmatic, effectively making my summer, before I even got to that basketball court in Atlanta. After that, I was under the impression that I was supposed to become friends with everyone I interviewed, if not shoot thirty-foot air balls with them.
The most serious I’d seen the Beasties that day was when they were on the court. After George Clinton drove by, nictitating, we continued fouling out at sunset, our shadows making lanky, clown-shoe exaggerations of us. We would probably have kept playing had their manager not interrupted and said it was time to go on—like, now. I could already hear the sound of their DJ, Hurricane, rubbing records onstage, as the Beastie Boys started running in the direction of the amphitheater’s rear stage entrance. Not knowing what to do with myself, I filed in with them, jogging between the tour buses, en route to watching the show from the side of the stage and having it pretty good, Mike D behind me, saying they had something special tonight (I’d been hounding them for “Boomin’ Granny”), and Yauch up ahead, prolonging the day, and Too Short, somewhere else, bowling drunk.
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is now out in paperback.
Special thanks to Peter Relic.