The world lost a good man on May 4, 2012, when Adam Yauch, 47, one of the founding members of the experimental hip-hop band the Beastie Boys, died as a result of a cancerous tumor in his salivary gland.
For those who follow music or take notice of which artists are headlining the big music festivals each year, Yauch’s passing, unfortunately, should come as little surprise.
This story arc began in 2009, when Yauch received his cancer diagnosis.
The Beastie Boys had a new CD queued up for release in late 2009, entitled Hot Sauce Committee. It was a refreshing, of-the-moment recording, that harkened back to the sounds of New York City hip-hop that the Beastie Boys grew up around.
It was to be a celebration of sorts. A chance for these three guys who started rapping as a joke, to bring their polished sound and positive energy to full fruition and place it on display as a sort of homage to all who helped them reach the lofty peaks of popular music where the Beastie Boys resided.
The release of the CD was delayed after Yauch’s diagnosis, in an effort to allow him time to receive treatment and hopefully get healthy. It wasn’t until spring of 2011 that Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 was finally released to critical acclaim.
This appeared to be a good sign. Bold announcements were issued for a tour in support of the well-selling CD. Then in December, the Beastie Boys were selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It seemed the stars were aligning for the trio to have an amazing 2012.
The new disc made the Beastie Boys a hot prospect to headline several major summer music festivals, but rumblings of possible show postponements had already begun in early 2012. Then came the revelation that Yauch was too ill to attend the hall of fame ceremony in April.
Two of the band’s heroes, Chuck D and LL Cool J were giving the induction speech for the Beastie Boys – that is a moment that Yauch, or MCA as he was known, would not have missed unless his condition was life threatening.
The Beastie Boys were spawned in 1981 as a punk rock outfit, with Yauch, on bass, and Mike Diamond, also known as Mike D, on vocals and later drums. In 1983, Adam Horovitz, or Ad Rock, joined the band on guitar, and by 1985 the Beastie Boys were down to their current lineup, and had shelved the punk rock in favor of rapping full-time.
Some in NY’s hip-hop community didn’t take them seriously, but when noted producer Rick Rubin, who was an NYU student at the time and DJ for the Beasties, turned Run D.M.C’s manager, Russell Simmons, onto the band, the boys were added to his stable of artists.
This provided them street cred. They were playing shows with Run D.M.C., LL Cool J and Whodini, and cutting singles for Def Jam, the predominant hip-hop label started by Rubin and Simmons.
Then came Licensed to Ill in 1986, the first full-length release from the Beastie Boys. Its impact was immediate, as traditionally white and black publications reviewed it positively – including Rolling Stone magazine’s snappy headline, “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece.”
This might not have been their most enlightened period, but the rhymes were tight. This verse from The New Style is the distilled essence of what the Beasties were all about:
“Cooling on the corner on a hot summer’s day, just me and my posse and MCA, a lot of beer, a lot of girls, and a-lot-of cursing, .22 automatic on my person.”
All of a sudden rap was blaring out of white FM radio. Licensed to Ill was Def Jam’s fastest selling debut record and became the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but equally impressive was it reaching No. 2 on the urban charts.
Licensed to Ill eventually sold over nine million copies and was the biggest selling rap album of the 1980s.
The sample-heavy Paul’s Boutique followed in 1989, going double platinum. This landmark recording remains a blueprint for experimental hip-hop. Rolling Stone ranked it number 156 on the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The band’s innovative spirit continued with their 1992 release, Check Your Head, when the Beastie Boys took up playing their own instruments, something unique in the turntable, beatbox driven world of rap.
Hip-hop is a harsh environment. The shelf life for artists is similar to that of pro-athletes, intense and short. The streets are littered with underground singles and one-disc wonders, but the Beastie Boys have remained relevant for over 30 years.
Yauch was a major factor in the band’s durability. He helped them to evolve past their homophobic frat-boy raps, and become socially conscious sonic explorers.
One verse that exemplifies Yauch’s shift in perspective away from the band’s early sexism can be heard on the Beastie Boys’ 1994 hit, Sure Shot:
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue, the disrespect to women has got to be through. To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
Yauch also recognized the need to diversify his interests in order to grow as an artist, and in turn grow the Beastie Boys’ brand. This led to the band creating the Grand Royal magazine and recording label. Additionally, Yauch had been dabbling in film, directing some of the Beastie Boys’ videos under the pseudonym Nathanial Hörnblowér, so he founded Oscilliscope Laboratories, an independent film production company.
As a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, Yauch had a deep appreciation for the Tibetan independence movement. In 1994, he started the non-profit advocacy group Milarepa Fund, to raise awareness of China’s control over Tibet.
In 1996, Milarepa organized the first in an international series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts, held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which attracted 100,000 fans and raised $800,000 for Tibetan exile organizations.
I attended the Tibetan Freedom Concert at R.F.K. Stadium in Washington, DC, on June 13/14, 1998. During Herbie Hancock’s Saturday afternoon set, a freak lightning storm rolled through, dropping bolts inside the stadium. Twelve people were injured, four critically, in particular a woman who had been holding on to a metal railing and had electricity conducted through the underwire of her bra, leaving her chest severely burned.
This was tragic obviously, but with Yauch at the helm there was never any sense of desperation. The energy remained positive for this event. He and the other Beastie Boys worked behind the scenes to get as many acts as possible onto the Sunday ticket.
Reports indicated the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and Kraftwerk couldn’t be rescheduled, but Radiohead, touring behind OK Computer, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth would be squeezed in the following day. Already on tap Sunday were sets from the Beastie Boys on their Hello Nasty tour, and Pearl Jam.
Radiohead was mind blowing. As Fake Plastic Trees was cooking up the whole stadium simultaneously shut up and turned to watch the band play in unison. Our attention was rewarded with an unscheduled performance of Creep, the band’s alt-rock anthem, which lead to a violent sing along.
After the Beastie Boys delivered a funky set a bunch of people left.
Pearl Jam whipped folks back into a frenzy, but finished early and didn’t return for an encore – which should have been the end of the concert, but all the band’s equipment remained.
Another bunch of folks departed, then out came the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
That was a hot finish!
Hats off to the organizers and especially to Pearl Jam, who gave up some of their set time and loaned the Chili Peppers their equipment.
The event drew 120,000 people and raised $1.2 million.
What is the legacy of the Beastie Boys and Adam Yauch?
They brought hip-hop to suburban white America. Previously it was the domain of urban black kids, and that was too scary for the mall rats. As rude or off-color as the Beastie Boys may have been on Licensed to Ill, their mix of cutting humor, with urban hip-hop culture, punk beats and samples from classic rock acts like Led Zeppelin and the Clash, worked.
It crossed over.
To date, the Beastie Boys have sold over 40 million records.
The world is worse off with Adam Yauch gone. As large a platform as musicians, movie actors and sports stars are given in the United States, MCA was an influential artist achieving positive change through his actions, work and art.
My kindest thoughts go out to all the folks associated with the Beastie Boys, and to their families.
After writing this, I look back at Adam Yauch and see he lived a good life. He earned the chance as an artist to make a difference. A rapper and songwriter, yes, but also film director, producer, human rights activist and Buddhist. He evolved as a human being, and was a devoted husband and father. That is a life well lived.
Indeed MCA, you rocked the Sure Shot!