The New Yorker Interview
Ad-Rock Just Wants to Be Friends
The Beastie Boy on growing up, mellowing out, and the importance of snacks.
May 24, 2020
Illustration by Mike Reddy
Adam Horovitz was born in Manhattan, in 1966, and raised there by his mother, the artist Doris Keefe. His father, the playwright Israel Horovitz, left the family in 1969. New York in the seventies was wild and lawless, which suited a young person searching for a tribe. As a teen-ager, Horovitz played in a New York punk band called the Young and the Useless. There was no imaginable future in music for him. It was just a way to pass the time, an excuse to hang out and meet people who were into the same things as he was. The Young and the Useless would often play shows with another punk band called the Beastie Boys, which consisted at the time of Horovitz’s friends Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond, John Berry, and Kate Schellenbach. In 1982, as the Beastie Boys were moving from punk to hip-hop, Berry left the band, and Horovitz, who was sixteen, replaced him. A couple of years later, they asked Schellenbach to leave, as they pursued, in Horovitz’s words, a new “tough-rapper-guy identity.”
Perhaps they leaned a bit too heavily into this identity. When the Beastie Boys, now managed by the pioneering hip-hop Svengali Russell Simmons, released their début album, “Licensed to Ill,” in 1986, they were designed to be one-hit wonders. At the time, it was unthinkable that white rappers might be anything more than a passing fad. And MCA (Yauch), Mike D (Diamond), and Ad-Rock (Horovitz), as they were known, came across like a cloud of male hormones that had sprung arms and legs. They toured with a twenty-foot-tall inflatable penis and constantly doused one another in beer. They rapped about partying and chasing girls over their producer Rick Rubin’s headbanging, heavy-metal beats. Their reputation was so rowdy and menacing that the British Parliament actually debated whether or not to allow them into the country.
At the same time, they seemed smug and a bit sarcastic, unconvinced of their own act. Diamond, Horovitz, and Yauch would spend the rest of their careers figuring out who they actually were. In 1989, they released “Paul’s Boutique,” a surreal masterpiece of sample-era hip-hop. Three years later, they made “Check Your Head,” an equally captivating album in which the former punk rockers essentially taught themselves to play jazz. By the mid-nineties, the band that was once famous for songs like “Girls” and “Fight for Your Right to Party”—and who narrowly avoided titling their début “Don’t Be a Faggot”—was speaking out against discrimination and abuse. In 1996, they organized the inaugural Tibetan Freedom Concert. They lamented the “disrespect to women” that was rampant in their old tunes. As Horovitz later explained, “I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.”
What drew people to the Beastie Boys was the feeling that these turns were a natural part of growing up. The band that had once embodied the reckless abandon of youth had now become a model for aging deliberately and thoughtfully. Their music was always chock-full of their latest discoveries, whether it was funk, dub, jazz, electro, or the laid-back vibe of L.A.’s Atwater Village. They collected interesting people into their orbit and gave them their own platforms: the band would start a record label, a magazine, a clothing label, and produce films. The romance of the Beastie Boys wasn’t just that you could make a living by hanging out with your friends. It was that you could stay with those friends for the long haul and grow together.
In 2012, Yauch, often seen as the band’s conscience, died after a three-year battle with cancer. He was forty-seven. The two surviving members agreed to never again make music as the Beastie Boys. In 2018, Horovitz and Diamond published “Beastie Boys Book
,” a sprawling memoir with all the jokes, left turns, and cut-and-paste energy of their best songs. The following year, they performed a series of two-man theatre shows, essentially bringing the book to life. Spike Jonze, who first met the band in 1991, directed those shows, as well as “Beastie Boys Story,” which débuted in April, on Apple TV+.
The documentary draws on Horovitz and Diamond’s shows at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre; one of its most moving moments comes when Horovitz recalls what turned out to be their final performance together as a band, in 2009, right before Yauch’s diagnosis. It’s a rare moment of candor from someone who’s kept a relatively low profile in his post-Beastie Boys life. Horovitz and his wife, the artist and musician Kathleen Hanna, now split their time between New York and California. Recently, I talked to Horovitz over Zoom, as he smoked cigarettes in his back yard, in Pasadena. Despite having never met me, he knew to make fun of the haircut I had tried to give myself. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I believe I’m contractually obligated to ask how your quarantine has been.
You know, freaking out. I’ve flattened the curve a bit, of my freak-out, but it’s still there. You’re back in Southern California now. But you first moved there just after “Licensed to Ill,” in the late eighties. After growing up in Manhattan, was there a sense of culture shock when you touched down?
L.A., when we came out here, seemed very L.A. It seemed very “crystals,” you know what I mean? The super Hollywood thing. And that was funny. That shit was hilarious, ’cause that’s not what our life was like. My brother still asks me, when I talk to him, “You know, so what’s going on with your crystals? Have you started your kombucha farm or whatever the thing is?” I’m, like, “Dude it’s not like that.” Although I did just say “dude.”
Is there any part of you that identifies with being a Californian, other than driving a car?
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When we were writing “Beastie Boys Book,” and thinking about L.A. and stuff, I came to the conclusion that I was like Rhoda Morgenstern. Rhoda was this character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”—she was the New Yorker who was a fish out of water, living in Minneapolis. When I was here hanging out, when we were young, I always felt like I was dirty. Like I was a New Yorker. Actually, I guess I was kind of dirty. My favorite time in New York is summertime ’cause it’s hot, it’s sticky and gross, and everybody just looks so awful. I love it.
So I don’t really feel at peace or at home here. But it’s fucking nice. I don’t know what else to say. I can have a battle with myself. Then it’s like, you know, it’s going to be eighty-four degrees today.
Have you picked up any quarantine rituals?
We ordered lasagna from this really good Italian place. I realized I’m a terrible cook. Really bad.
Something that “Beastie Boys Story” captures is this desire, when you’re young, to be cool. To a lot of fans, the band came to embody what it meant to be cool—what to listen to, what to wear, how to act. What did it mean to represent that? What made you gravitate toward some people and not others?
Well, when you’re sixteen, you think you’re the coolest person in the world, and, at the same time, you’re thinking you’re the squarest person in the world. You just want to be cool, right? When you think back on when you were a teen-ager, there’s all this elusive stuff that you like. I remember there was a British guy that used to rent a room from me and my mom and he was, like, in his twenties and he was so cool. He was British. He worked at a club. He would get drunk. He smoked cigarettes. He was into music. So he was the coolest. I don’t know. We were just really lucky to be around super cool people in New York in the early eighties.
Did you realize at the time how unique it was—your upbringing, what you were exposed to?
When you’re a teen-ager, whatever’s happening in your home life or whatever, good or bad, that’s normal. I had a weird childhood and that was normal. You don’t think about bigger-picture stuff when you’re a kid.
How about when you went on your first big tour and saw what life was like elsewhere?
Oh, it seemed like, you know, America. Like, we left New York—that was noticeable. That we had left the city. We’d be in, you know, no offense to wherever, but we were in Dallas and we were, like, Whoa, this is not New York City. Everything else seemed quaint and small-town, you know?
Along those lines. When you’re young and creating, you often don’t have the time or desire to think about the past or the future. You’re just in the present. I’ve read that there were things like the Beatles or “Seinfeld” that you only discovered later, long after the fact.
You mean things that I wasn’t allowed to like, that I now like? ’Cause the point is that our band, me and Adam and Mike, and our group of friends, we weren’t allowed to like hippie music. We weren’t allowed to like rock music. We were punks and that was it. Rick Rubin played us certain music and was like, “Oh, but this is why I like it.” That was interesting. I don’t know. I don’t like much. [Laughs.] If you’re trying to just get me to say something about the Lakers, I’m not gonna.
Can you tell me what it was like to meet Rick Rubin back then? Whenever I hear stories, I can’t tell if he was the coolest person ever or just this really absorbing weirdo.
For one, he was a little older, so that was kinda cool. He’s just one of these people who would let you know, like, Oh, I’m really cool and really smart and my opinion is the actual right opinion. And when you’re a kid, you’re, like, Oh, O.K. But, in retrospect, he’s just . . . he’s interesting. You want to believe things when you’re a kid, you know? You want to believe things.
Even though “Licensed to Ill” was the big turning point, in terms of people first hearing the band, it often sounds like the Def Jam years were a little traumatic.
Learning experience, that’s for sure.
What did you learn?
The main thing was that me, Adam, and Mike were friends, and that the band we started as friends was more important than business stuff. If we were going to break up, we were going to break up and still be friends. I mean, that’s an important lesson.
After Def Jam, you begin working with John Silva, who still manages you today. One of the things that draws people to the Beastie Boys is this sense that you’re like this close-knit gang—the band but then also the people around you. Can you talk about what it means, as an artist, to have a good manager?
That’s interesting, because anytime you see those award shows and stuff, and people are, like, “I have to thank my manager, my team,” blah, blah, blah—I always thought that that shit was corny. Right? But this guy is my friend, and we weren’t friends for a long time. He was the manager, you know what I mean? Years ago, we went on vacation to Hawaii, and I saw Silva in a parking lot. And I caught his eye, and he quickly cut left and just tried to run away from me. I was, like, “That’s fucked up . . . but I kinda love that. That’s really good. He’s on vacation. He doesn’t need to deal with me.”
We’ve known him and worked with him for thirty years now. They do all the actual work. Yauch wanted to do these Free Tibet concerts. He doesn’t know how to actually put on a concert. Do you know what I mean? [Silva] helped us not be corny.
Like you’re saying, at the core of the Beastie Boys is this model of friendship—you, Adam, and Mike, the people around you. It’s beautiful to hear you talk about how the friendship is what survived Def Jam. I’m curious how you guys handled disagreements.
Well, Mike and I have talked about it a bunch, because we’re both the youngest of three siblings. Yauch was an only child, so me and Mike would always just be, like, “O.K.” Luckily, Yauch had fucking fantastic ideas, and he was ninety-eight-per-cent right, always. And parenting, right? Yauch’s parents were amazing parents, and they were really supportive, and they helped him do all kinds of things as a kid. So he had a sense of, This is what we’re doing, but not in any negative, bratty, selfish, or entitled way. And Mike and I, when you have older siblings, you’re, like, “No, I don’t want to . . . O.K., O.K.” You never get the good seat in the car. You have to sit in the back, in the fucking trunk or whatever it is, and you’re, like, O.K.
Me, Adam, and Mike were together all the time. We recorded every day. We toured every day. When we weren’t together, when there were breaks after tours and stuff, we would still see each other. We would talk, we would swing by Adam’s house. That . . . that speaks to me. Do you know what I mean? That is something to hold on to. I love them, and they’re my friends, and it’s meaningful to like hanging out with your co-workers when you don’t have to.
You’ve always seemed really at ease with yourself, and with growing older. Can you pinpoint when you started to feel this way, feeling comfortably out of the loop?
When we came out here [to Los Angeles, in the late eighties], we had money. Do you know what I mean? We didn’t come out here trying to find gigs. I was really lucky. I could live in a hotel. It’s just different. Your circumstances, like, the way you see things, it’s different. When I was kid, my aspiration was to have snacks—to be able to have whatever snacks I wanted. That’s not what my house was like. My friend Neil and I talked about success, like, what success really is. And I was, like, “If you have a washer/dryer in your apartment, you’re fucking big time.” And, ’cause we both really liked basketball, he’s, like, “I feel like when I get a personal trainer to just stretch me out wherever I am, that’s when I’ve made it.”
But, now, it’s too late for anything else. You’ve got people telling you you’re cool all the time. What am I supposed to do? It’s like Peter Schjeldahl
said, you know, you get attention for something, so you just keep doing that thing. Unless people are calling you a fucking scumbag and then, I don’t know, you either embrace that or you figure out what to do about it. What else am I going to be? I’m fine. I wish I had better hair. I wish I were a little taller. I never thought I’d have a car. I have a car.
Watching the documentary, I was reminded of how you guys always had interesting taste in clothes. I think there are seven or eight incredible shirts in the “Pass the Mic” video alone. The phases always felt organic. Do you still have all the clothes spanning your career?
I think everybody has that, where you see an old picture and you’re, like, “Oh, what did I do with that shirt? I was so happy with that shirt!” I actually have a lot of clothes that I wore then—if it’s comfortable, and it fits, and it’s not full of holes, what’s the problem? People seem to give me some grief about it. My best friend Nadia calls me a walking pile of dirty laundry.
When you were working on “Beasties Boys Book,” I read that you really enjoyed that kind of self-excavation, writing about yourself.
Apparently, the thing about being stoned a lot, it makes you talk a lot. Sometimes I tell the same stories over and over again. So it came natural just to write them down. It was fun for me. I’d never really done it before and I actually liked it. I got, like, half a book I wrote about a kid in Minneapolis. I don’t know what to do with it. Maybe I’ll finish it one day.
From an outside perspective, it seems as though you’ve had an unusually intense past few years, between Yauch passing and your wife being diagnosed with Lyme disease. Have you adopted any new methods of coping or thinking that wouldn’t have made sense to a younger Ad-Rock?
I mean, I just try to stay high.
Being stoned has come up a few times. Do you remember your first time?
I remember the first time I got in trouble for it. This was in fourth grade, in New York City, and my friend Josh’s mom smelled us smoking pot. He got in trouble, and she called my mom, blah, blah, blah. But it was my mom’s pot, so I didn’t get in trouble. She gave me some words of wisdom: if any parents or the school calls her, then it’s a problem. If I managed to not have the school or other parents call her, then things are O.K. I think that was wise.
You’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years talking about Yauch. Do you ever find yourself talking to him?
He’s too busy. What am I gonna say? It’s not my thing. Like, I don’t talk to my mom or whatever. [Horovitz’s mother passed away when he was in his teens.]
You mentioned how when you’re young, you don’t really reflect on what’s going on, you’re just living it. Now that you’re older, do you have a different relationship to the idea of friendship?
You know, I still talk to Mike every other day on the phone. My best friend is my same best friend since junior high. I talk to my brother all the time. Long, lasting friendships are important. But I don’t know about the whole notion of loyalty. It’s weird. You can have a friend and then they can be an asshole and you’re, like, Oh, you don’t have to be friends.
As you get older, hopefully you pay attention to details. We all have milestones in our lives where you need your friends, your chosen family, whatever. And you realize this person is there no matter what. And then this person, Oh, they didn’t show up for that, or, like, Oh, that’s weird, they didn’t call me. You know what I mean? As you get older, you get a focus on what you care about, what’s important to you—and what’s important to your friends and how they treat you, and if they’re there for you. Shit is so hectic, just in general, it’s so easy to say keep your true friends. But I guess each person needs to decide what a true friend is. When bad shit happens, who shows up? You should keep that in mind. You don’t have to. I like to.
You and Mike have made it clear that there will be no new Beastie Boys music without Yauch. You’ve hinted at unreleased stuff in the vaults, but it seems like that’s it. Between the book and the documentary, do you feel like you’ve gotten the definitive story of your band out there?
I guess so. It’s interesting because, writing the book, I didn’t want to get too personal, ’cause it’s about our band, it’s not about me. When we were doing the movie, Spike Jonze kept being, like, “Well, how did you feel about that?” He kept trying to push us to talk about our feelings. I get that. But, like, I don’t know. The book and the movie isn’t, like, the whole story. Maybe I’ll continue writing and talking about all the stupid shit that I’ve done. The whole thing is so weird. That I’m fifty-three is fucking weird. I have money; I can buy whatever I want at the supermarket. I’m very lucky.
Right. That makes sense, given that you once thought that making it meant you could get a lot of snacks.
Like Shane, my friend in junior high. He had fucking Mountain Dews. He had so many snacks.
I get that. I used to think that being an adult would mean that I could drive to Taco Bell whenever I wanted.
I’m gonna give a shout-out to Taco Lita, that’s my spot right now. It’s interesting, when I’m home in New York, I know everything. I still live in the neighborhood I grew up in. So, being in Pasadena, I’m discovering the shit that I really like. I have an old friend Rob from out here. I was talking to him about, “Oh, my God, I just went to this place Philippe’s, you know, the home of the French dip. This place is so good.” And he was, like, “Oh, yeah, I used to go there as a kid.” I was, like, “Why didn’t you fucking take me here when I was living here?” He was, like, “I didn’t really think you would like that sort of thing.” Get to know me, you know what I mean? Tacos. They didn’t have those in New York when I was growing up.
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