Funky Boss: Evan Bernard Breaks Down the Greatest Hits of Nathanial Hornblower

The filmmaker—and expert in all things Beastie Boys—gives us an inside look at the music video career of MCA's Swiss uncle, who was definitely a real person.

I consider myself among the lucky ones who worked under the tutelage of Nathanial Hornblower. For the uninformed, Nathanial (or as I referred to him, “The Blower of Horns”) is Adam Yauch’s Swiss uncle who directed many of the Beastie Boys’ videos.

Hailing from the Swiss Upenziel, Nathanial seemed an odd choice of director for the Beasties on first glance. I found that once you got over your own preconceived notions of what a music video director should look like, and you got past the ridiculous accent, cartoonish lederhosen costume, and almost Halloween-quality beard and mustache, you were left with an aging alcoholic prone to fits of rage with no working knowledge of hip-hop culture.

Conspiracy theorists have long questioned Nathanial’s true identity. While I find no credence in their claims, I will admit it’s weird that I’ve never seen Mr. Hornblower and the Beasties’ percussionist, Alfredo Ortiz, in the same room at the same time.

Although I haven’t heard from Nathanial in quite a while, I always think of him whenever I hear a horn being blown.

“So What’cha Want”

Hip-hop videos of the this era often incorporated footage of an artist performing to a low-angle camera in an urban environment. I love how this clip flips the convention on its head by placing the band in a rural setting.

I remember sheepishly approaching Hornblower at the bar at the Magic Castle to ask him what his inspiration was for giving the sky a kind of solarized look. I thought he was going to reference some obscure arthouse flick that I hadn’t heard of—let alone seen—but was equal parts surprised and relieved to hear it was influenced by the Wolf’s POV shots from the early ’80s basic-cable staple Wolfen. Furthermore, the thermal footage of the band performing in the studio was lifted from Predator’s POV from the film of the same name. I remember thinking, “Wow, smart people are stupid like me.”

“Pass the Mic”

I was super excited about the release of this video; I actually stayed in on a Saturday night circa 1992 to watch the premiere on Yo! MTV Raps, much to the chagrin of my then-girlfriend. I had been given a copy of a copy of a copy of an advance of the album, and this track was a standout. I remember really responding to the aggressive nonchalance of the whole clip. It has a lazy, undeliberate, relaxed braggadocio that is distinctively these guys.

I love the use of long, slow dissolves between wide and medium shots of the band performing in the back stairwell of G-Son Studios. This is a convention you see in a lot of old live music shows and is more associated with ’70s soft rock than hip-hop or punk rock. It really encapsulates what I love about this band: their ability to seamlessly mix disparate music and film references into a cross-cultural bouillabaisse that is distinctly of their own making.

“Jimmy James”

Copious use of the fisheye lens here. Hornblower was an early pioneer and champion of this technique. I think the performance stuff was shot by Ricky Powell on a day off on tour, although referring to “a day off” with regards to Mr. Powell may be a misnomer, as that would imply that on other days Ricky worked, which is not how I would characterize what he did. I like the Bond title sequence references and the cross cuts visually simulating crossfading between tracks on a mixer.

“Intergalactic”

I visited the set of this shoot. The guy who plays the octopus played a giant chicken in a video I had directed for Cibo Matto and in that clip had smashed into that exact same wire-tower prop, for what it’s worth.

I argued with Hornblower that the robot is not sympathetic enough here. The robot lands on this planet and then smashes the place up; the octopus is merely trying to protect its turf.

The guy inside the robot costume was a member of The Rock Steady Crew. I remember him complaining that the costume was too restrictive. Clearly, the Party Rockin’ Robot from LMFAO learned this lesson and made the necessary adjustments. Perhaps this is “Intergalactic”’s legacy: enabling future generations to shuffle everyday.

“Alive”

Out of all the videos the Beastie Boys did, this is definitely one of them. The driving scooter footage looks really dangerous to me. I have it on good authority that they did that without the proper permitting or safety precautions. I still don’t approve of this.

Their costumes remind me of something incredibly funny Yauch said one day. I was accompanying him to the set of a Busta Rhymes music video during his “making cameos in other rappers’ videos” phase. We ran into a mutual friend who was rocking a head-to-toe, oversized, forest-green, polar-fleece sweatsuit. Yauch eyed him up and down and asked, “How many Muppets did you have to kill to make that outfit?” Not sure the guy got the joke, but I almost pissed myself.

Ch-Check It Out”

This is all-around pretty silly. Couple takeaways here:

– The guy who stunt-doubles Ad-Rock is very convincing and is probably the second-best version of someone playing Ad-Rock in a Beasties video.

– This is a return to the “the Beasties don’t know what to do, so make them fight” genre of Hornblower’s work, which also permeated his efforts off Hello Nasty.

– It strikes me as a throwback to what I think is Hornblower’s first foray into music video direction, a clip for Tina B.’s song “Bodyguard.”

– The video’s direction is credited to Adam Yauch, but I think this was purely because of Nathanial’s shaky immigration status.

Fight for Your Right Revisited

Nathanial’s Citizen Kaneand the final Beasties clip.

Elijah Wood gives a career-defining performance as Horovitz. He’s more Ad-Rock than Ad-Rock in that first verse. Seth Rogen does an effective reimagining of Mike. And although Danny McBride captures Yauch’s Licensed to Ill–era rebellious spirit, boy, does he swing and miss with regards to lip-synching to double-time playback.

I love how dense this video is with Beasties song and video references. A couple standouts for me:  

– Buying hot dogs from George Drakoulias.

Orlando Bloom playing Johnny Ryall.

Jason Schwartzman as Vincent van Gogh from the Hey Ladies” video.

The Danny McBride “smashing the bodega window” moment was taken from a real life experience as well. I believe this happened in the ’80s. As Yauch told it, he was walking down Broadway with a friend. Without warning, the friend suddenly picked up a metal trash can and launched it through a bodega window. Apparently Yauch’s friend had previously shopped at the bodega and believed he had been shortchanged. He went on to do this several more times, explaining to Adam that his revenge policy was “a broken window for every dollar they took from me.”

The realization that there is a definitively final Beasties video is heartbreaking to think about. If there has to be a last one, though, I’m glad this is it. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of like everyone came back for a final curtain call—just with more urine this time. FL

Evan Bernard is a filmmaker who has directed videos for the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Green Day, and Violent Femmes, but he’s best known for his unparalleled ability to drive the lane.

This article appears in FLOOD 6. You can download or purchase the magazine here.

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