Capone Passes the Mic and the Rock to Adam Yauch for the Beastie Boy's Streetball Doc GUNNIN' FOR THAT #1 SPOT!
Published at: July 7, 2008, 1:13 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. And I fucking interviewed Adam "MCA" Yauch of the Beastie Boys. How fucking cool is that?!! I think that's all I need to say. Oh wait. The reason for our conversation is that Adam has a documentary out called GUNNIN' FOR THAT #1 SPOT, which looks at the growing phenomenon of elite high school basketball, in general, and a specific game set up at Rucker Park in Harlem, a holy place for up-and-coming basketball players to go to hone their street ball skills and where seasoned pros sometimes return to remind themselves what the game is really about. The film spends time getting to know eight such players and concludes with an actual showcase game that is essentially just one, non-stop highlights reel. Even when a player screws up, it looks pretty cool.
Yauch has been the primary director of most of the Beastie Boys music videos (usually under the name Nathaniel Hörnblowér) and he assembled the band's 2006 concert film AWESOME, I FUCKIN' SHOT THAT! And for the record, the Criterion-released video anthology for the Beastie Boys is the single greatest music video collection ever assembled. Adam is also a very vocal activist, primarily concerning the situation in Tibet, and he helped organize the first Tibetan Freedom Concert. In addition, he and the other Beasties never miss an opportunity to slam the current administration or the Iraq War. But the new film isn't about politics or human rights; it's about the purist kind of basketball, and getting to know these young players for the influences of power, money, and fame forever change their lives. Here's Adam Yauch…
Capone: Hey, Adam. How are you?
Adam Yauch: Good, how's it going?
Capone: Good. I love the Oscilloscope Laboratories logo that comes on at the beginning of the film. I know you've used that name and imagery before, but is this the first film that been released under that banner?
AY: I guess so. Oscilloscope was really started as my recording studio, and then in kind of expanded into being a production company where I was doing music videos and different things through. And now we've expanded into having a distribution arm. So, there are time that I threw that logo onto stuff that was more in reference to it being a production company. But now this is the first film where it represents being a distribution company, if that makes any sense. I think when I put it on as a production company, I was kind of pretending it was a distribution company.
Capone: So the concert film was not put out under this banner?
AY: It was in the sense of the production end. It was distributed by ThinkFilm.
Capone: That's right, of course. I guess the first obvious question about #1 SPOT is, how did you first hear about Rucker Park? And when did you first go there?
AY: I guess I first started hearing about fairly recently, in the last 10 years, probably through AND1 Mixtapes and things like that. It has an amazing history, and I learned quite a bit about it through doing this documentary. Dr. J came through there, Kareem, and a lot of the New York players came up through there. People refer to it as the basketball mecca, and even to this day, when pro players come to town they go up there to play. People just want to visit it and see it.
Capone: And get their mojo back, it sounds like.
AY: [laughs] Yeah. It's always meant a lot to these young players, to these high school kids, to go there and play. It was definitely a big deal for them.
Capone: Was this the same court that Earl "The Goat" Manigault played?
AY: Yeah, he comes out of there.
Capone: It's cool to see these kids when they're still relatively humble, because the odds are that the ones who make it to the NBA, some of them will succumb to or be changed by the temptations of the fame. And it's good to get to them this early, and maybe it's something that they can look back on and remind themselves where they came from. Was that a part of what you aiming for?
AY: Definitely. I thought it would be exciting to see what the world is like for an elite high school basketball players, where they're on this road where they're likely to blow up, but they don't really know for sure that that's going to happen. But that's kind of the path they're on. I thought it would be interesting to look at now, but I also thought it would be interesting to look back on 20 years from now and see these guys when they were kids. If one of these guys is the next Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson or Michael Jordan, that it would be sort of fascinating to look back and see them all. And it actually turned out to be an amazing class. It's incredible that four of these guys were first-round draft picks, and a number of them aren't even old enough to be eligible for the draft and probably will get drafted soon.
Capone: Are these kids old enough and mature enough to handle a life that doesn't lead to the NBA or even a successful college career? Can they handle failure?
AY: Yeah, it's heavy because these guys have been striving for this ever since they were little kids. Since some of them were three years old, this has been their objective. You hear Lance Stevenson's father say that he would have him on his lap as an infant saying to him, "You're going to be a basketball star. You're going to live the Coney Island tradition of hoops." And the weight that put on these kids' shoulders is immense, and they're getting it from every direction, from not only their families and friends but also everyone in the neighborhood. You see Lance Stevenson walking down the street, and everybody is like, "Save me some court-side seats!" And everybody's got something to say. Not only that, but they've got high school coaches trying to draw them into different high schools, college coaches calling them and texting them and they've go different sneaker companies that are interested in them and trying to put their hooks in. Meanwhile, there's all this excitement and potential for failure. It's definitely a lot of weight to have for a 15-year-old kid and have all this going on, rather than just kick back and play Dungeons & Dragons and say, "I don't know what I'm going to be when I grow up." [laughs] But I think that's why it's fascinating to look at. Hopefully the documentary doesn't really judge it as good or bad; it just kind of looks at some of the positive and negative aspects. Really the objective of the documentary is to celebrate these kids as kids and as great athletes. It's interesting to look at.
Capone: You say you don't judge it as good or bad, but there is that section of the film…
AY: I do judge it as good AND bad. I don't think it's one or the other. I think there are good aspects of it and bad aspects of it, and we try to look a bit at both of those. I don't know that there's any one conclusion to say, "Oh, these guys' lives would be better if they weren't involved in basketball, or if they didn't have anyone writing about them." I don't know if it's that simple.
Capone: The one section where you're talking about the sports statisticians, web ranking sites, agents. Those folks have definitely changed the game for younger guys.
AY: Yeah. And it's heavy. But another way of looking at it, they are heading into an extremely competitive world, and that's part of what they're striving to do. And getting a taste of it young is probably part of the training program too. But it can be a little much, I think.
Capone: How were you and your film crew welcomed to Rucker Park? Were you considered outsiders?
AY: In terms of the game, we certainly had run of the place. I'm friends with the guy who was organizing the game. In terms of the players and their families, they were really accommodating. The trickier place was more with agents and people like that who didn't want to talk to us and were trying to stay out of it. The people who are talking to these kids who really aren't supposed to be talking to them. I was surprised when I meet these guys and say, "Oh, you're an agent. I 'd be interested in interviewing you." And they'd say, "No." That was kind of like "Whoa!" [laughs]
Capone: The last third of the film, the game itself, it doesn't look or sounds like any basketball game that we ever see on TV. What are some of the more fundamental differences of playing at Rucker Park? Obviously the attitude is different, but you've got the music and the emcee.
AY: The differences are, of course, that it's outdoors. That it's at the Rucker in Harlem, so that's immediately going to give it a completely different flavor because you have the feeling of the neighborhood. The fact that the announcer is Babbito Garcia, who grew up in the neighborhood and grew up around street ball and who understands playground basketball and can just announce it. And he's a great guy, Babbito is hysterical. The fact that he can just make up nicknames for these guys and clown the kids and his creativity is amazing. And the way that I shot it, I wanted to use wide lenses somewhat and use a lot of cameras to cut to different angles and shoot slo-mo. And a lot of it is cut to music. Probably because of my background in making music videos, I enjoy cutting to music, so a lot of times, I'd be laying down music and cutting over it rather than the traditional way of filmmaking, which is to cut and then score afterwards.
Capone: The soundtrack is fantastic, and it seems like you had your pick of the litter, so to speak, in terms of artists. Was that more or less the case?
AY: Yeah. I decided early on right when I started editing that I wasn't going to limit myself by what I thought I could clear. I just decided I was going to cut anything that I felt like was going to work or try any idea, and try to clear it afterwards. I knew it would be a crazy hell ride, but I just decided to do it anyway [laughs]. And then it was definitely a big job, calling in every favor that I had in the music business and every friend of a friends of a friend and try to get the stuff cleared. And for the most part, I was able to. There were a couple of track that I would have liked to have cleared that I wasn't able to, and that was really not because of the artist themselves but because of the people who own some samples that are within the music. And those people almost aren't really a part of the music business, you know what I mean? The music business is like a big dysfunctional family of people who all know and work with each other, and then you have a couple of these people who just own a few samples who are almost like outsiders who refuse to let their samples be used. People who own like one little piece of music that it's the only thing that they own, and they are just kind of a difficult person who would say, "No, I'm not going to clear this unless I get $5 million." And we'd say, "It's a small documentary, and if we give you $5 million, we have to give everybody $5 million. And suddenly out budget is $150 million for music." And they'd say, "Tough. If I don't get that, I'm not going to do it." They didn't work with us in the context of something realistic and what the project is. They just thought it was HANCOCK or something.
Capone: You mentioned your visual style earlier. There's a part of me that believes you walk around with contact lenses that give you a fish-eye view of the world.
AY: [laughs] I've tried it. I did take little fish-eye adapters once and make glasses out of two of them and walk around, and it is very bizarre.
Capone: And you seem to want the rest of us to see the world that way in your videos and with this movie.
AY: [laughs] I guess I do have a bias toward fish-eye lenses.
Capone: Nothing to be ashamed of. Aside from the music, the soundscape you create is really phenomenal, the sounds of the players and the ball hitting the court.
AY: Yeah, one thing I did in terms of production sounds was I mic'ed up all the players and the refs and the coaches and recorded with multi-tracks. So at the game, we were recording something like 30 different audio sources to be able to cut to. And also I did some sound design stuff where I played around with isolating a sound. So if you're looking at a wide shot with a lot of stuff going on, you can pinpoint the sound of just the ball bouncing or something like that. It brings your attention right to that specific action. Sometimes I did use the sound design to play around or change the mood or draw your attention in a way.
Capone: I also liked the way you would reverse the footage sometime to show us a particularly great shot or bit of extraordinary defense. A lot of times you wouldn't even change the angle; you literally just reverse the film.
AY: That's something they do, if you listen to a lot of hip-hop radio shows--it really comes from Jamaican-style of DJ-ing. Jamaicans a lot of times, they'll play it and if there's a nice verse or a line from a verse, the DJ will scream "Rewind!", and they'll roll the thing back and you actually hear it go [simulates the sounds of a tape rewinding], and they'll play the verse or the line again. That's sort of what I was going for. You see somebody do something really crazy, and it happens so quick, and you wanna go "Rewind!"
Capone: Were you one of the camera operators during the game?
AY: Not during the game. I had operators. But I shot some of the B-roll stuff at different times. But I kind of wanted my operators handle it so I could kick back and watch the game.
Capone: Other than the Beastie Boys concert film, this is your first feature as a director. How did you decide this is going to be the subject matter of my first film? Some people might have thought with your role as an activist, you might have gone that route. And I'm sure you're got a one or two ideas for fiction films.
AY: You mention my being an activist. I was actually around quite a bit when they were editing the FREE TIBET film, which was cut by an editor named Paula Heredia, who's a great editor. And I learned a lot from that process, from being around Paula and working with her, about how to structure a film, a documentary, about character arcs, about creating a beginning, middle, and ending, and a feeling within a film. I feel like I did pick some stuff up there. I've written a couple of scripts with friends, so some of that goes into the mix of making it work.
Capone: Are you mentally preparing yourself to make a narrative feature?
AY: Yeah, that's something I would love to do. That's actually something I've been trying to do for a while, and I think when the time is right, it'll work. There's a script that I wrote a few years ago with a friend of mine that I was trying to get funding for. It was a period piece, and it was going to cost a lot of money to do, and I was trying to do it without any movie stars in it. You know that old story [laughs]. At some point when the right project comes together at the right time, it's something I'd love to do.
Capone: With the documentary, you used your own name in the credits as director. Does that mean that "Nathaniel Hörnblowér" [an alias Yauch uses for video-directing projects] is officially retired?
AY: [laughs] He's dead! Nathaniel Hörnblowér is a name I started using for band-related stuff, especially when it came to doing photography of the band or doing record covers, because I thought it would be weird to have one of the band members credited. So I started doing that. But since this wasn't really a band-related thing, I thought using my name was okay.
Capone: One of the most interesting observations made in the film is someone says that the way the kids play on the court very often reflects how they are in life, in terms of relating to other people, teammates, how they do in school. Is that what you found as well?
AY: I actually found that…I mean, I'm sure there are parallels…but one thing that's interesting about basketball in general is that people have different personas, and often their persona on the court is the opposite of what you find in life. I know so many guys who are laid back, calm people. And the last thing you'd expect when you play with them is that they're completely hectic, but that's certainly the case a lot of times. I saw that with these guys. Some of them who were pretty shy in their interviews were much more aggressive during the game, and vice versa.
Capone: I have to ask as a fan of your music, what's going on with the Beastie Boys these days?
AY: We're recording! We're putting out a record probably early next year, something like that.
Capone: So what can three guys now all in their 40s still teach us about hip-hop?
AY: [laughs] I don't know. Usually we just have a good time making music together and laugh a lot, crack each other up. I figure as long as we're having a good time doing it, we might as well keep on doing it.
Capone: That's good news. I wanted to add that the music video you guys did with Criterion is one of my all-time favorite things to just pop in and mess around with. That was a real innovative way to do something like that, with the different angles and remixes.
AY: Hey, thanks. It's actually turned into a bit of an albatross, because when I first heard about what DVD could do, when the format first came up, someone said to me, "Oh yeah, there's multiple video angles and multiple audio channels," I immediately thought, "I'm going to take all the outtake footage from the videos and all the remixes of the songs and synch them up together." So once I thought of the idea, I actually had to go and make it. And now every time I'm working on a DVD for the band, people expect us to reinvent the wheel. "It needs to be completely cutting edge!" [laughs] That just made sense with the technology, but I don't know that it can be reinvented again.
Capone: It's even rare on any music video collection that someone goes back and get the original directors to come back and do an audio commentary.
AY: We got together a few of the directors. We got Spike [Jonze] and Evan Bernard, and Evan and Spike and I sat and did a commentary together, and what we did was that any of the directors we didn't have there, we would prank call when it came time for their video.
Capone: That's right. Well, you set the bar high with that project, so I can understand why the fans are demand something of equal complexity.
AY: [laughs] Thank you. Take care.