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Adam Yauch: Check His Head

Back in the day, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch brought Tibetan music and Buddhist philosophy to music fans everywhere. Originally published in the January 1995 Shambhala Sun magazine, this interview finds Yauch after the release of Ill Communication, candidly talking about about hip-hop, hardcore, helping people, and his relationship to Buddhism's Bodhisattva Vow.


Amy Green: What was your first experience with Buddhism, the first thing that really caught you? Was it books you read?

Adam Yauch: I was reading a lot about Native American and other religions and checking out different things. Then I was in Kathmandu about two years ago, and I met some people who were Tibetan Studies majors living there. I was just hanging out with them; went to a couple of monasteries and Tibetan people's houses and started getting into Tibetan culture a little bit. And I went and saw the Dalai Lama speak when he was in America for the Arizona teachings. I have studied a lot of different things; Buddhism is fairly new to me.

Jerry Granelli: Buddhism made sense to you?

Adam Yauch: It just seemed like Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, because that's mainly what I've been exposed to, was a real solid organization of teachings to point someone in the right direction. Some real well thought out stuff. But I don't know, like, every last detail about Buddhism. (laughter)

Jerry Granelli: Even the Buddha didn't. Most of the teachings are somebody asking him a question. You know, not just some kind of solo performance or something.

Amy Green: Do you feel like the Dalai Lama is the main Tibetan teacher that you connect with?

Adam Yauch: I think the Dalai Lama is an amazing individual, but I think that Tibetans in general are really centered in the heart, coming from a real warm place. Real compassion. I think that all of the years that Tibet spent focused on Buddhism kind of affected the collective consciousness of Tibet and just kinda stayed in. It's so deeply inlaid in the culture. It's the closest thing that I've seen on the planet, as one culture, that really...the most advanced culture mentally, as opposed to our, uh, physical advancement.

Jerry Granelli: As somebody who has played music all of my life and been a Buddhist now for 24 years, I'm interested in the way you compose. Can you relate that to meditation or to non-aggression, which is the foundation of Buddhism.

Adam Yauch: I guess what I do is visualize the way that the music should feel or what it should represent. In meditation or whatever, just hanging out and listening, I work on visualizations of what that music represents or feels like to me and then when it comes time, it just pretty much comes out, somehow. It just comes through.

So that's the main way that I compose. There's no set way of starting with music and then working on lyrics, or starting with lyrics and then working with music. It is kind of random when it comes together and just playin' around to see what works. But the main part of it is that visualization. Just knowing what the music feels like. Not necessarily what it sounds like.

J. Anthony Granelli: As a musician I find that I'm constantly dealing with my mind, the same kind of stuff that meditation brings up. I was wondering if meditation has affected your own relationship to music? Have they worked together in any way?

Adam Yauch: Not Buddhism exclusively, because, as I said, I've studied different things. But I think that as you start understanding the nature of reality in a different way, it affects everything that you do. Music is one of the main things I do-it totally affects that. But it probably also affects the way I walk down the street or what I'm thinking about while I'm doing my laundry. It just kind of affects your whole perception and thinking process...or non-thinking process.... (laughter) or watching yourself think, or something like that.

Amy Green: Do you practice any formal meditation practice?

Adam Yauch:Yeah. I spend a little time in the morning and at night, just bringing stuff into perspective from the day or setting up what's going to happen the next day. And doing visualizations. Things like that.

Amy Green: Practices that you have received from teachers?

Adam Yauch: My main teacher is not Buddhist. The guy who mostly taught me pretty much picked up whatever he has just through meditation. He lived by himself off in a log cabin somewhere for years and gained a lot of understanding about the nature of reality. He's been my main teacher. So he's not coming from any specific religious background; he's just coming from his own understanding.

To me Buddhism was kind of like an afterthought. I still think it's amazing, but I learned most of what I've been learning, kind of getting me going in a direction, from this friend of mine-his name is Quentin. And then I started reading some Buddhist books and just kind of went, "Oh yeah, this makes sense." It's slightly different wording and different context, but it's real similar to the stuff I've been working with.

So even the bodhisattva vow is something that I had taken to my self, a bunch of years before I had read about it in Buddhism. And then when I started learning about it in Buddhism, I thought, [says in thick New York accent, like a '30's gangster] "Yeah...that makes sense. Look, they got that all figured out there."

J. Anthony Granelli: "Someone wrote it down!"

Adam Yauch: Buddhism just seems like a very logical, organized approach.

Jerry Granelli: I hear spirituality in your music. There's a caring in the music. It's not just about "fuck you." How was your environment in your life growing up? That had to have had an affect.

Adam Yauch: Actually, I was really...I'm an only child. [Jerry: "Yah"... gestures thumbs up] You are, too? I just lucked into a really amazing set of parents. They are really cool and supportive. All the way through. You know, a lot of people you meet wind up with a lot of things that they have to deal with in their life because of stuff their parents have thrown at them. I somehow managed to side-step that one, for the most part.

Jerry Granelli: We were talking earlier about Burroughs. Who were your poets? What did you listen to or read?

Adam Yauch: Lyrically, I was influenced by stuff like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, which were "hardcore" bands that really set a tone for being able to play really loud, powerful music and have the lyrics be really positive. There is this sheer power, but without negativity.

Before that, I had always thought of positive lyrics having to be in this nice little happy music, and hard loud powerful music being about really negative stuff. To this day, the Bad Brains were probably the "hardest" that have ever played music. They took like, whatever, Coltrane, and combined that with punk and the precision of classical or jazz players. It's the most powerful music ever, and the most positive lyrics, really about unity and stuff.

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