This clip is basically the most perfect eulogy for the 90s I can ever imagine.
It is not the job of the Gen X-er to lament or to wax nostalgic. We have essentially made a generational pact to shrug our collective way to the grave. And that’s cool, but still, let us count the things that once existed in this video that are, simply, no more: viable spoken word performers, viable music videos, viable indie record labels, affordable NYC art scenes, Maggie Estep (RIP), Lou Reed (RIP). The 90s really were fucking magnificent, man.
Anyway, this spoken-word cover by poet Estep was from her second album, Love is A Dog from Hell. (Bukowski reference! Everybody loved Bukowski in the 90s!) It was directed by Steve Buscemi (!) and features a cameo from Mister Lou Reed himself. Shortly thereafter “downtown” died and so did virtually everything and everybody that you love.
In 1995, MCA Records released Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits, a compilation of then current alt-rock stars and also-rans transforming the 30-60 second theme songs from classic children’s shows into three-minute pop songs, accompanied by a full length home video that featured all the songs on the comp with the linking device of Drew Barrymore watching them all and commenting with her central-casting Gen-X friends. It dovetailed both with the vogue for alt-rock tribute comps and the ongoing popularity of the Television’s Greatest Hits series, which by then had been around for ten years.
Though they win points for sporting cool Glenn Barr cover art, both the CD and video were pretty crummy overall, but naturally, amid the dross of tepid mid-’90s radio alt (Sponge, Semisonic, Collective Soul, Sublime—I’ll bet you just can’t wait to hear it now, right?) there were some terrific moments. How could the Ramones doing the unforgettable theme to those endearingly cheap 1967 Spider-Man cartoons be bad? IT CANNOT. Violent Femmes went on a marvelously weird tangent. Instead of covering the Jetsons actual theme song, they did a deep cut: “Eep, Opp, Ork, Ah-ah!” by the in-universe teen idol Jet Screamer. It’s pretty great. The Reverend Horton Heat did a roaring psychobilly medley of the Jonny Quest theme and another deep dig, “Stop That Pigeon” from the short-lived Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines. The Butthole Surfers, though they were well past the height of their powers by then, did a mindwarping take on the Underdog theme. And there’s perhaps the album’s most perfect pairing of artist and material, the Aussie folk-pop band Frente! doing a really charming “Open up Your Heart (and Let the Sunshine In),” a 1954 song about rejecting the Devil, which became huge when the infant Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm sang it on The Flintstones.
These videos, from documentarian Corey Shaff, are a record of a New York long since passed, despite being only 20 years old. Yes, the rapid gentrification of the Lower East side has rendered the areas you see here nearly unrecognizable, but before you bemoan the lost “real” NYC, it’s worth remembering that the changing landscape of New York is its most consistent feature—you’ll notice some of the subjects in these shorts talking about how different the neighborhood is from the one they remember. Of course the most recent changes in New York has left it all but unlivable for the working people and artists it once boasted, though somehow they keep coming, and finding a way to stay.
Shaff covers some fascinating ground in these three little shorts. There’s a five-minute tour of Ludlow Street, where little theaters and punk bridal shops and millineries exist alongside older businesses, like a pillow shop where the owner still uses techniques from the old country. It’s a cool look at at artistically thriving area with old and new artisans—there’s even a shot of The Mercury Lounge with its original signage at the end. The longer second film centers on 2B, a gritty art space that operate for nine years before being replaced by a corporate drug store. My favorite film is the third one, a look at the Amato Opera House on the Bowery. The tiny little venue had world class artists crammed onto a tiny stage, spitting distance from the audience, for a truly intimate yet grand experience. Shaff’s wife Stefanie Lindahl says the documentary was a little too gritty for some viewers:
I remember how Corey wanted to juxtapose the Bowery ‘bums’ with the goings on within the opera house, but PBS nixed the idea as ‘too scary,’ so he had to cut out the footage.
It’s a weirdly selective documentary that covers the Bowery in ‘95 yet leaves out the bums, but this is the sentiment and aversion that has shaped the New York of today—one that prefers Applebee’s to artists.
It’s still sinking in here that MCA-aka Adam Yauch- has died, and that, in effect, the Beastie Boys are no more. What a fucking bummer.
It’s an inescapable fact that the Beastie Boys are one of the bands that define my generation. If you were a child at any point from the mid 80s up until the late 90s you cannot have escaped their influence. And I’m not just talking about their music; their aesthetic reached everywhere, from film and music videos to magazine publishing and clothes lines.
I feel like my generation (and I use that term loosely) don’t have a singular iconic figure they can point too, like a Prince or a Bowie. You know, that one person that unites an entire age group through sheer talent and poise. Well, the Beasties may not have had the incredible album-a-year productivity rate of Prince or Bowie at their prime (in fact they were legendarily slow at making music,) but their extra-musicular activites more than made up for that, and meant that when their albums did drop it was a major event.
More than just the music on its own, more than the Grande Royale magazine and record label, more than fantastic the art work or the trend-setting X-Large clothing range, it was the Beastie Boys incredible videos that set them apart, and brought their diverse fan base together. They really knew how to work in different media while retaining their core identity, making them some of the first and most successful rap music entrepreneurs, and this placed them right at the centre of the 90s golden age of both hip-hop and music videos. And there steering the helm of most of those awesome Beastie Boys promo clips was Yauch himself, often in the guise of Swiss director Nathanial Hornblower.
My God, looking back now it’s startling to think of how these videos have influenced my life and my addiction to (and perception of) pop culture.
I caught the raunchy video for ‘She’s On It” on TV when I was about 8 years old and the image of Mike D sliding an ice cube down a bikini-clad model’s back has been seared into my brain ever since. I didn’t quite understand what was going on in that shot at the time (hey, I was too young and too sheltered) but there was naked flesh and it was naughty and exciting. I still remember that tingly feeling of not wanting my parents to walk in and see me watching the video. Even though that’s a feeling that returned often in my teenage years, I guess I can say that seeing “She’s On It” was one of my first childhood sexual experiences.
When I was 13 the promo for Check Your Head‘s opening track “Jimmy James” was a staple on late night European cable music channels, the kind I would creep downstairs and watch on low volume while my parents were asleep. It was hard to keep the volume on this one down, and the visuals themselves were a hypnotic template for everything I thought rocked in the world at the time - New York subways, vintage go-go strippers, dope looking rappers filmed in fish-eye lenses, burning 8mm film, Jimi fucking Hendrix. At this point the Beastie Boys were a bit of an unknown quantity in the UK press, as their reputation stemmed largely from the License To Ill “frat” period (Paul’s Boutique was still being seen as a costly, if interesting, flop.) Still, “Jimmy James” (and “So Watcha Want”) was THE SHIT, and helped spread the word of mouth amongst listeners and the journos alike about how great Check Your Head was.
Early 1994 saw the release of “Sabotage”. Sure, the clip was directed by Spike Jonze, but Yauch’s fingerprints were all over it. I don’t think I need to write much about this video, only to say that it really was a cultural milestone for people my age. Almost single handedly it ushered in a new era. Out went heroin-chic and woe-is-me grunge, and in came a new sense of fun (with a healthy dose of irony.) Here was an appreciation of pop-culture’s bargain bin that tied in nicely with Tarantino, some new looks that were equal parts vintage and street, and most importantly of all an incredibly broad musical palate where anything went.
Beyond the stone cold classic video, “Sabotage” pushed boundaries musically. Yeah, so it may be a straight forward punk song, but how many ‘rap groups’ had ever done something like that? In fact, me and my friends didn’t really perceive the Beasties as strictly a ‘rap group’ per se, even though (obviously) they rapped. They were more than that. Presumably because they were white and played actual instruments on occasion, they weren’t talked about in the same hallowed tones as Cypress Hill or Public Enemy. But they were very much a gateway to those bands, and the more commercial hip-hop that followed, and their blessing of the above mentioned acts with tours and remixes made it feel ok for middle-class white kids to define themselves as “rap fans.”
Last year’s video for “Make Some Noise” brought the band back in to the limelight, not least for the starry cast list: what other modern act would be able to convince Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Elijah Wood to play them in a clip AND THEN rope in Ted Danson, Kirstin Dunst and Will Ferrell for additional cameos? But the real fan treat was the clip for “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win”, which featured G.I.Joe-style puppet versions of the band doing battle underwater, on ice, and even at a music festival.
Adam Yauch was a visionary, and should be remembered for his film work just as much as his music. In fact, he brought music and film together better than anyone else up to that point, and for that has to be counted as a huge influence and inspiration on the artistic endeavours of myself and my peers. I probably wouldn’t do what I do now if it weren’t for him.
And he did it while wearing a ginger wig and lederhosen. Here’s a strange (and strangely touching) short film of Yauch David Cross [? - what’s going on here?] as Hornblower, shooting the shit on a NY Street and engaging in a game of chess with a labrador:
Adam Yauch, aka MCA, aka Nathanial Hornblower (August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012.)
Rest In Peace.
After the jump, videos for the above mentioned Beastie Boys songs, and a 1992 interview with the band featuring Yauch (yes, definitely Yauch this time) in full Hornblower attire…
Music journalist Neil Kulkarni is one of the UK’s premier writers on hip-hop. He writes regularly for the Quietus, and readers of a certain age might recognise his name from the mid-90s, when he wrote about rap, and lots of other music, for Melody Maker.
Kulkarni has recently put together a mixtape of some of his favourite hip-hop tracks from the 90s, which he stresses is “not definitive”. It features music from the well known (Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Camp Lo, KRS-1) to the more obscure (Cru, E-Bros, Don Jagwarr), and tracks from some of the most respected names of the era (Showbiz & AG, Kwest The Madd Ladd, Gravediggaz, Nas). On his blog he reflects on the artists and the tracks featured with some amusing anecdotes like this one about Jeru The Damaja:
Nastiest fucker I ever interviewed. Straight up racist. Once he figured out I wasn’t black, [he] clammed up, got surly, treated me like I was an idiot. I may have been, but fuck you very much Jeru and thankyouforthemusic, the songs I’m singing.
Shame to hear that Jeru is/was racist, as his tunes still sound great:
Jeru The Damaja “Ya Playin’ Yaself” live @ Rust, October 2010
You can hear ‘90s Hip-Hop Vol 1’ (and download it, once logged in) over at Mixcrate.
I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with the Michael Alig/club kids story by now, but let’s face it, no matter how many times it is told it never fails to shock and entertain. Limelight is a new documentary which recounts the story yet again, but as opposed to Party Monster, Shockumentary or James St James’ excellent Disco Bloodbath book, the focus this time in on the Limelight club itself and its owner, the nightclub impresario Peter Gatien.
Gatien owned a string of venues in New York, Atlanta and London during the 80s and 90s, including the very successful Tunnel and Club USA in Times Square. The Limelight was perhaps the most notorious (due in no small part to the club kids’ involvement), and became the focus of Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown on the city’s night life and drug culture. Gatien made a fortune from his venues, but was found guilty of tax evasion in the late Nineties and deported to his native Canada. Gatien is interviewed in Limelight, along with a prison-bound Michael Alig and everyone’s favorite vegan porn-hound Moby (who describes the Limelight as being like “pagan Rome on acid”). The documentary is released on Friday, here’s the trailer:
Let’s face it - with the Nineties revival beginning to build up steam, it’s only a matter of time before Friends becomes re-evaluated as not just mere trash TV but something deeper, something representative of the culture of the time. And who knows - maybe it was. If the culture of the time was utterly vacuous and so bland and white-washed that having bleached hair was somehow “edgy” and the most rock and roll thing one could do was attend a Hootie And The Blowfish concert. But that wasn’t the 90s I lived through.
Before we go hailing Friends as the voice of a dispossessed generation, let’s take a minute to pause and reflect on how the show represented gay people, and how much of the humor was based on a premise that being gay in and of itself was just so strange and unusual that it’s inherently funny. And that’s not even touching on gender roles as shown in the show - as a friend of mine commented on this clip:
I always thought Friends’ gender policing was outrageous - it seemed like every other episode centred around how hilarious it was that a man was doing things that normal men didn’t do.
Homophobic Friends is a re-edit compilation by Vimeo user WayOutEast, that compiles all the gay-based humor in the show and that runs for over 40 minutes. Bitch Magazine has an excellent feature on this video and its creator, real name Tijana Mamula:
Mamula found that the homophobic and transphobic jokes in Friends tend “to avoid provoking either aversion or anger, and instead prompts the viewer to be swept away by the hilarity of the situations.” Seeing theses moments altogether, one after another, you can see how the audience was presumed to just chuckle and move on. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of the site Microaggressions, which documents the little, caustic everyday incidents that add up to much more).
And wait, there’s more! “I noticed all sorts of other problematic content, some of which I found even more upsetting, like the place of women and foreigners…You could do a whole series of videos, like Misogynistic Friends and Xenophobic Friends.” (See also: this zany montage of the few black characters that have appeared in the show. The overwhelmingly white cast—including the extras, despite the show taking place in New York City—has often been pointed at as one of the show’s shortcomings.)