Q: How has your background of living in New York City informed your work?
A: People say, "I can't imagine how you grew up in Manhattan!" Somehow, they
think that it can't possibly have been safe or productive. When I first became
aware of music, it was probably the same way a lot of people do even more
suburban or rural people from my older brothers playing music. The
tremendous difference was that at the same time, I didn't need to ask my mom for
a ride to go buy a record. Admittedly, my parents were of the more liberal sort,
so as long as it didn't interfere with me being in school, I could go tag along
with my brothers and go see the Clash or an Elvis Costello show when I was,
like, thirteen years old.
Even whereas today it's a smaller world in terms of being able to access
music via the internet and people e-mailing you cool music from wherever and
having a musical community that reaches far beyond where you are geographically,
that still in no way can match having that actual access to live music and other
people playing music right around you all the time. That's how the Beastie Boys
met each other. We all went to different schools Kate [Schellenbach,
original Beastie Boys drummer, later formed Luscious Jackson] was going to
Stuyvesant, I was going to St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, Adam Yauch was going
to Friends [Seminary] at that point. John Berry, who was our first guitar player
I knew him from a school called Walden on the Upper West Side. We were all in
different schools, but we'd all see each other at these different shows.
Another huge impact on me growing up musically in New York was having to
take the subway from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn Heights every day. That's
how I first started hearing battle tapes early Hip Hop tapes that people had
taped from Afrika Islam's Zulu Beat Show of like the Harlem World Battles, like
the famous ones like Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee or the Soul Crush Brothers.
New York isn't segregated the way many American cities are, where there are
specific ethnic neighborhoods that don't necessarily co-exist, or they co-exist
but in a much separate sense. To me, to this day, I look forward to getting in
taxis, because a lot of times I'll hear some incrediblem usic from the Punjabi
Taxi Driver, and then I'll start talking to him about Bhangra.
Q: What do you think of the current climate in New York City. Is it as exciting
A: First I'd have to say I'm not really qualified to answer that question,
because on the one hand, the music that was so significant to me when I was
growing up; well, that was then and this is now. I was of a certain age, and
let's face it...I'm not fifteen years old anymore. At the same time, I think the
environment must be a little bit different. I remember when I was fifteen and
going to see bands, the drinking age was eighteen, so it really wasn't a huge
deal. There were never really issues of drinking ages, where bands could play,
cabaret licenses and where venues could be that exist today. It's in the same
way that real estate in general is at such a premium on the island of Manhattan
now. I think that's affected all art scenes not just music.
I remember going to the East Village for the first time as a fifteen-year-
old and going to Tompkins Square Park. That really seemed like a pretty edgy
thing to do. You didn't know if that was safe or not. Obviously, it's totally
not like that anymore. If I were growing up in the city now as a teenager, I'd
probably be spending all my time in Brooklyn somewhere. With both music and the
visual arts, it's not like those same sorts of scenes don't exist anymore, it's
just that they've been forced to exist somewhere else.
Q: What were some of the early, influential bands you saw back then?
A: For me, growing up in New York, it started with Elvis Costello and the Clash
and then got into louder things like Bad Brains and Stimulators, because those
were like the local bands. Then I started getting into bands from England like
the Slits. I remember seeing Gang of Four at Irving Plaza, that was a really big
show for me.
Q: The Beastie Boys did a bit of an about-face. The band circa LICENSE TO ILL
seemed to espouse a certain persona of beer-drinking frat boys. Despite it being
tongue-in-cheek, the band became initially associated with that stereotype. From
there, the band has since gone out of its way to do a turnaround, from
attempting to increase awareness of the plight of Tibet to issues of sexism and
homophobia. How effective do you think the medium of music is as a tool of this
type of social change?
A: Music has always had a really profound place in our world because music as a
form just goes beyond how words can reach people, or for that matter, even how
visual images can reach people. Music has the ability to touch or galvanize or
grab people, if you will, in a truly transcendent way. It can either take a
collective mass of people on a journey to a different place or inspire them to
become involved in making their own music or to initiate some great social
change. This is evident across cultures, across time and involves every
different kind of music, whether you're talking about Hip Hop, Punk Rock, the
many revolutions that have taken place within the brief history of Jazz, Gospel
Music, or even the roots of Sanskrit as a language. It's an ancient language,
going back thousands and thousands and thousands of years was always meant to be
recited and sung, basically. I know it sounds a bit far-fetched on my part.
Q: Did You expect Hip Hop to become the major, cultural force that it is today?
A: Definitely not. When I first heard Hip Hop, like battle tapes or the first
Sugarhill records, being someone who was into Punk Rock at the time, it totally
blew me away. The only other music I was listening to at the time was Punk Rock
and Reggae. All of a sudden, Hip Hop was almost, if not equally radical, way
more radical than either Punk Rock or Reggae. It was combining beats and vocals
and was really stripped down and getting its message across without having to be
hugely produced. Instantly, I knew it was for me. I instantly became a huge fan
of Hip Hop and held it on a very high pedestal. I had really high regard for it.
We'd hooked up with Rick Rubin, who then went onto produce our first record.
Through him and Russel Simmons, we met Run-DMC. That was a huge thing for us,
because to me, Run-DMC were huge rock stars. "Sucker MC's" was out in New York,
and that was a huge record and "Jam Mater Jay" was a huge record. They dropped
their first album with "Rock Box" on it, and that was a huge song. To me they
were tremendous stars. The fact that we were actually hanging out with them and
around them when they were making records and on tour with them, I thought of
that as really huge, but at the same time, if you'd asked at that time if I
could foresee Hip Hop becoming the backbone of all kinds of popular music that's
made today whether its pop songs having looped beats or rock songs on rock-
styled radio having guys rapping and having a D.J. in today's equivalent of
heavy metal bands? I'd say no. There's no way I would have foreseen that.
Q: What are you currently excited about?
A: I'm always a bit eclectic, if you will. Hip Hop will always be an ongoing
thing for me, and I don't just mean old Hip Hop. Like I said, I love the
Neptune's production. I'm totally amazed with some of the songs they've done for
Jay-Z and Ludacris. At the same time, I love having discovered Bhangra from
being in taxicabs. Here in New York, you've got everything. There's even the
other side of Indian music, like the whole devotional musical scene. That's how
I met Bhagavan Das, and I produced a record for him. I met him through this
small spiritual music scene, and he has just had an amazing voice. I had him
sing on this Moby remix I was doing at the time, and I ended up making an album
with him. That to me is one of the incredible things in New York. You can go
from hearing incredible devotional music on Wednesday night, going out to see
Radiohead play at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, and staying home on
Friday listening to whatever you wanna listen to because its too crazy outside.
And on your way back and forth to any these things, you get to check out
whatever it is that your taxi driver's checkin' out.
Q: What do you think of the current mainstream?
A: That's a pretty broad question. Mainstream to me encompasses everything from
N'Synch to P. Diddy to Jay-Z to Dr. Dre to J-Lo. In an interesting way, I wonder
if we've ever had a time when mainstream actually has meant so many different
things simultaneously. To me that's a potentially good thing, being the electric
eclectic type of person.
Q: What's next?
A: Well, like I said, I did the music for that Bhagavan Das record, and that
comes out in August. On the band front, that's in the Top Secret stage, because
we're working in the lab so to speak, at the moment, and scientists like to keep
their things secret.