When they were struggling rappers/musicians, she was there, camera in hand.
When The Beastie Boys became stars with the 1986 album Licensed to Ill, Sunny Bak was there to chronicle that part of their career, too.
Boys and Dogs, an exhibit that includes Bak’s photos of the Beasties, opens Oct. 8 and runs through Nov. 1 at Hold Up Art in Los Angeles. She recently talked about hanging out with Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA back in the day, her photo of the group that’s featured inside the Ill album and much more.
Medleyville.us: What were your first impressions of The Beastie Boys when you met them?
Sunny Bak: “I first met the Beastie Boys through [fanzine publisher] Dave Skilken. Ad-Rock, Dave and I went to City as School (CAS), an alternate public high school in New York City. While I was in high school, I had a photography studio on 18th and Broadway, and they would come by to hang out. I was shooting a lot of fashion photography for Details magazine, and there were always a lot of models around. They loved it.
“I liked the Beastie Boys. I was around a lot of musicians, producers, artists, models and arty types. They were just poor musicians for whom I’d buy a Subway sandwich every now and then. We would hang out together at the Palladium, Limelight, Area Club, Save the Robots, the World and Milk Bar.
“They had recorded an album for Def Jam called Hold it, Now Hit It and were just recording ‘She’s on It.’ The Beastie Boys played small gigs around NYC. Russell Simmons, who was head of Def Jam, always said that they were going to be great because little white girls could like them. Run-DMC and LL Cool J were just breaking out at the time. I had photographed Madonna a few years earlier, and she was breaking out on the scene, and The Beastie Boys wound up opening for her at Madison Square Garden. That was cool.”
Some musicians embrace the idea of being photographed, and others hate it. Were the Beasties always willing participants, or did you have to coax them into giving you what you were looking for visually?
Bak: “The Beastie Boys were always just being themselves. They were my guinea pigs for lighting. I always had a camera with me and would test lighting by just shooting where we were hanging out on the street.
“I later sold some of these pictures to CBS, their record label at the time, to be used as the Beastie Boys’ PR shots. A lot of images from those sessions, which I have kept in my possession, were never even printed. I’m now printing a few of them for my retrospective Boys and Dogs at Hold Up Art. I am very excited to be sharing these images with the Beastie Boys’ fans for the first time.”
Rap/hip-hop was still on the rise around the time Licensed to Ill was released. As you photographed the Beasties during this phase of their career, were you consciously trying to chronicle a young group and a fast-growing scene?
Bak: “The Beastie Boys and I were hanging out together as friends for a long time before Licensed to Ill came out. I was always snapping photos of my friends and the artists around me. We never thought of it as a ‘fast-moving scene’ at the time. We were thinking, ‘Let’s go to the Milk Bar after Palladium. We should get a beer after softball.’ ”
Talk about your photo of the Beasties in front of the Unisphere from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Who came up with the idea to use this iconic Queens landmark as a photo backdrop? And was it a tough sell or a no-brainer?
Bak: “The photograph in front of the Unisphere was a no-brainer. [Def Jam cofounder] Rick Rubin came up with the idea for the [Licensed to Ill] gatefold image. He came to me with this concept, and we made it happen. This was the first paying gig that the boys brought to me. I shot some of the session in 4×5, and then shot some extra frames in 2¼ as well as on 35mm film.
“There were a lot of great concepts. The Beastie Boys filmed their ‘Fight for Your Right (to Party)’ video in my studio. My photography was hanging on the walls. A lot of my friends and furniture were in the video, too — even my piano.”
The Beasties have been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2012. If you had the ear of the Rock Hall voters, what would you say to them?
Bak: “I would ask them, ‘What are [you] waiting for?’ The Beastie Boys are icons.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Photo by Sunny Bak