'I'm tellin' y'all, it's sabotage': Beastie Boys recall their two most controversial VMAs moments

This year, Beastie Boys Story premiered on Apple TV+, reuniting the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band’s Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz with their longtime collaborator, Spike Jonze. Jonze famously directed perhaps the Beasties’ greatest music video — or perhaps the greatest music video, period — “Sabotage.” But incredibly, the Beasties’ retro cop caper lost out in all MTV Video Music Awards categories back in 1994. This shocking shutout so infuriated late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's lederhosened “uncle,” Nathaniel Hornblower, that Hornblower famously bumrushed the podium, just as R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe was about to deliver an acceptance speech.

"This is an outrage! … Since I was a young boy, I have dreamed that Spike would win this, and now this has happened,” Hornblower semi-yodeled in his thick Swiss accent, protesting Jonze’s defeat in the Best Direction category to R.E.M.'s decidedly more somber entry, "Everybody Hurts.”

However, the Beasties and Jonze (and Hornblower) were eventually vindicated. Only four years later, the group received MTV’s prestigious Video Vanguard Award. And in Beastie Boys Story — Jonze’s live documentation of Diamond and Horovitz’s 2019 Ted Talk-style appearance at L.A.’s Montalban Theater, to promote their Grammy-nominated Beastie Boys Book — footage of Hornblower and Stipe’s awkward VMAs exchange elicits one of the most delighted audience responses in the film.

“I remember a friend of Michael Stipe’s told me pretty soon after… basically, when he found out what was going on, which was after the fact, I think he honestly was pretty surprised at getting bumrushed by Hornblower in the moment. He thought it was pretty funny,” Diamond tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Although I did hear that other people from [R.E.M.’s] record label, Warner Bros., were not psyched about Hornblower!”

“Don't you want to know about our reaction to Yauch's f***ing uncle doing that? I think that's the story that no one's talking about,” Horovitz interjects with a chuckle. “We were all backstage, and you could see it on the little monitor…”

“We were about to go on, so we were right there,” says Diamond.

“…I was like, ‘Yauch, what is your f***ing uncle doing?’ And he was like, ‘I don't know!’ It just happened,” Horovitz recalls. “And that's the first and last time his uncle ever came to any one of those f***ing award shows with us.”

Interestingly, however, this was not the Beasties’ most controversial MTV Video Music Awards moment. That occurred at the 1999 VMAs — shortly after the disastrous Woodstock ’99 festival that was plagued by looting, arson, rioting, and multiple sexual assaults — when this time it was Horovitz’s turn to protest on the MTV stage. And this time, the Beasties’ unscripted moment, during their Best Hip-Hop Video acceptance speech for “Intergalactic,” was surprisingly not well-received.

“This is 1999 or so, when it was extra-not-cool to be political,” Jonze recalls. “Adam Horowitz talks about how appalling it was, what happened [at Woodstock ‘99] — the lack of security, that bands need to step up, and push to have better security, and look out for women at these festivals and these shows. He's basically urging all the artists to take it seriously. There were no other artists talking about that at the time. I mean, it was really moving… and it was not popular.”

“We weren't supported in the room,” Diamond recalls. “It wasn't like everyone was like, ‘Oh, yes, finally someone's saying it!’ It was basically us saying, ‘We all need to talk about this, because it's happening,’ but it was this thing that nobody wanted to talk about it. Because no one wanted to admit that it was happening.”

The Beastie Boys at the1999 MTV Music Video Awards. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect)
The Beastie Boys at the1999 MTV Music Video Awards. (Photo: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect)

But of course, society eventually caught up with the Beasties, just as it always has — whether it was Paul’s Boutique, which was a commercial flop upon its release, now being considered “the Sgt. Pepper's of hip-hop,” or fans in the #MeToo era realizing that Horovitz’s words at the 1999 VMAs were necessary and spot-on. “Sabotage” was even retroactively recognized at the 2009 VMAs (in a category called “Should Have Won a Moonman”), and Hornblower’s “nephew,” Yauch, actually won a Best Direction VMA in 2010 for the Beastie Boys’ final music video, “Make Some Noise.” And there’s little doubt that when the socially distanced MTV Video Music Awards take place this Sunday, multiple artists will follow the Beasties’ 1999 lead and make political statements.

The Beasties cite Meatballs, Caddyshack, Airplane!, and Stripes as their chief cinematic influences, which probably explains why “Sabotage” holds up so well as a classic three-minute comedy. (“It all starts with Meatballs, really, if you think about it. It's kind of like Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Meatballs — that's our sort of cinematic view,” muses Horovitz.) Beastie Boys Story delves into the group;s bratty, fratty past (and their discomfort with it) and how early Licensed to Ill hits like “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” and “Girls” were misunderstood at the time.

“What I want to clarify is, we were terrible. We were really bad when just starting out. So it's not like [Def Jam] found this undiscovered gem — these guys that could really rap, or really play guitar, or whatever the thing was. We were really bad!” Horowitz laughs. Director Jonze then follows the Boys as they mature into unlikely Paul’s Boutique geniuses and enlightened, politically active multi-hyphenates.

“I will clarify a little bit,” says Diamond. “Definitely in writing ‘Fight for Your Right to Party,’ it was literally we're in my apartment in the West Village in New York City, right? And so we don't have any bro dudes in our social circle, so it seemed like a really funny thing to make fun of. …Like, ‘We'll do this song that's kind of a goof, making fun of these bro-y guys who we don't really know.’ And then we go on tour, and then those dudes are in the front row. It's a thing where you go with it for a little bit, because you feel good, you're getting applauded for doing this. … And then after a bit, you're like, ‘Whoa. Wait a second.’ The world we came from in New York City was so not that world. And we missed it. We missed who we were in that world [before the success]. I think we got fortunate in the sense that, because we had this whole falling-out with Def Jam and everything, it brought it back to being about the three of us.”

The Beasties aren’t averse to the idea of spinning off “Sabotage” as a full-fledged movie, or an animated series, or some sort of sequel. (“This could turn into a pitch meeting right now. Let's pitch it! Let's go!” Horovitz says cheerfully.) But lately they’ve been focused on promoting Beastie Boys Story, which along with all the “Sabotage” silliness, has its share of poignant and serious moments — like when Horovitz chokes up onstage while expressing his affection for Yauch, who died from parotid cancer in 2012 at age 47. At its core, Beastie Boys Story is a love letter to Yauch, whom both Horovitz and Diamond credit with propelling the band’s evolution.

“Honestly it was, for me at least, just being around Adam Yauch — him just saying the things that he did and taking stands that he did publicly,” Horowitz explains. “It was inspiring for me to be like, ‘Oh, you can make fart jokes and actually also care about people? And respect your place in the public, that you have a platform to say things and people will listen whether they give a s*** or not?’ He was always really inspiring, like: ‘Oh, wow. If Yauch can do it, I can do it.’”

Jonze says he loved being able to tell Horovitz, Diamond, and Yauch’s story onscreen, and he was honored to be trusted with the task. “I wanted to really just capture the way they create, and the spirit in which they're a band, and their friendship. Not many bands that have been together that long are actually great friends through the whole thing; it feels like a lot of times when a band gets older, they're in a band together almost as a business. And I feel like nothing that these guys ever did was about that,” says Jonze. “It would be, first and foremost, about what the three of them wanted to do. So, I hope [Beastie Boys Story] just captures their love for each other — their friendship.”

And their good friend Nathaniel Hornblower would surely approve.

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