Saturday, May 5, 2012

Requiem For a Beastie Boy: A Tribute to MCA

Adam Nathanial Yauch, better known to millions of Beastie Boys fans as the rapper MCA, died yesterday at the age of 47.  He finally succumbed to cancer of parotid salivary gland, which he’d been which he’d been diagnosed with just three years ago.  He lived a full life, both personally and professionally.  Though his death was not violent, it is nonetheless saddening.  He was one third of a trio that not only carved out its own unique niche in a revolutionary artform, but continued to innovate and remain commercially viable throughout their careers.  Yauch’s contribution to that legacy is beyond measure.

Image used courtesy of

Adam Yauch was born on August 4th, 1965, in Brooklyn, New York.  Despite his father being Catholic and his mother being Jewish, young Adam wasn’t raised with much of a religious identity.  The one thing that did become an integral part of his being was music.  He taught himself to play the bass guitar in high school, and at the age of seventeen helped form a hardcore punk band called the Beastie Boys.  

The Beasties had a slightly different line up back then.  Other band members were Michael Diamond (better known as Mike D), Kate Schellenbach, and John Berry.  Much like Hip-Hop, Hardcore Punk was born in the 1970’s and became deeply entrenched in the culture of New York City.  The same year the Beasties formed also happened to be the same year that rap music invaded national airwaves with hits like “Rapper’s Delight” and “Personality Jock.”  Both forms existed outside of the mainstream, and could be seen as reactions to the Disco scene.  In a sense they were kindred spirits.  The Beastie Boys would play a very early and active role in bridging the gap between the two, but not before losing one member (John Berry) and picking up another (Adam Horowitz aka Ad-Rock).

Their first foray into rap was “Cooky Puss,” the title track on their 1983 EP.  It gained a bit of 
notoriety on the New York City club circuit.  That early taste of success prompted the group to push further in that direction.  Their shows began to incorporate more rapping.  As anyone knows, rappers back in the early 1980’s needed a DJ.  Enter Rick Rubin, an enterprising NYU student who signed up for the gig.  Rubin was a Jewish kid from Long Island with eclectic tastes and limited musical abilities.  He was just a year away from founding Def Jam Recordings with an equally enterprising Black guy from Queens: Russell Simmons.  This seemingly odd couple would be the ones to introduce the Beastie Boys to the world.

Having paired their line-up down to three members, The Beastie Boys signed to Def Jam records and released the EP Rock Hard in 1985.  That was but minor tremor.  The Following year would bring a full on earthquake.  Their debut LP, Licensed to Ill, continued in the traditions established by Run D.M.C, whom Rubin had become a frequent collaborator with.  Run D.M.C’s third LP, 1986’s Raising Hell, perfected the raucous Rock/Rap meld that became Rubin’s calling card.  Licensed pulled out all the stops, taking that aesthetic to ridiculous heights.

Run D.M.C with The Beastie Boys.

White rappers were unheard of in 1986.  Anticipating a hard sell to core fans, Rubin and Simmons annexed their stable of talent.  L.L. Cool J and Run from Run D.M.C did a bit of Ghost writing.  The Beastie Boy’s style took that of their collaborators to its (ill)ogical extreme.  The vocal delivery was loud and obnoxious.  The lyrics were nonsensical and irreverent, blatantly celebrating all forms of debauchery.  There was even a bit of violence and misogyny thrown in for good measure.  It was Hip-Hop’s answer to National Lampoon’s Animal House.  The group’s penchant for pushing the envelope could be summed up by the album’s original title, Don’t Be a Faggot.

Whatever its wretched excesses, the volatile mix worked like gangbusters.  Licensed to Ill became the first rap album ever to top the Billboard charts.  It has sold nine million copies to date.  Black kids grooved to bass heavy minimalist jams like “Brass Monkey” and “Paul Revere,” while White kids banged their heads to Rock infused anthems like “Fight For Your Right to Party.”  1987 saw the Beastie’s embark on a world tour which seemed to validate their rap personas.  Their stage show included inflatable phalluses and caged women.  Concert crowds responded in kind, often becoming unruly and riotous.  A show at the Royal Court Theater in Liverpool on May 30th of that year ended in Mike D’s arrest.  

Such exploits did not earn them the respect of their peers.  On his debut 1988 LP How Ya Like Me Now?, Kool Moe Dee issued the infamous “Rapper’s Report Card” on the inner-sleeve text.  The Beastie Boys not only received a grade of C, but a scathing reprimand: "We rappers have worked very hard to get rap to the level it's at. Don't mess it up. Keep the wild stuff on stage."  

Kool Moe Dee's "Rapper's Report Card"

Despite their massive success, the Beasties had a less than amicable split with Def Jam, and made the move to Capitol records for their second LP, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique.  They were allowed more creative control, which they exercised by putting the Dust Brothers behind the mixing boards.  The album, a veritable collage of samples both familiar and obscure, was released to tepid fan response.  Though it sold only a fraction of its predecessor, it gained a vocal cult following.   

Their junior set, 1992’s Check Your Head, allowed the Beasties to pick up their instruments for the first time in years.  It was becoming clear that they would never again reach the commercial heights of Licensed, yet they were nonetheless comfortable with their new creative direction.  The lyrics were still nonsensical, but the violent and inflammatory content seemed to be gradually diminishing.  The album had similar sales to Paul’s Boutique, but also proved to have equal staying power.  

By 1994, their unwavering dedication to their own artistic vision paid off.  Their fourth LP, Ill Communication, reestablished them as a mainstream force to be reckoned with.  It debuted at the top of the Billboard charts.  Its massive success was spurred in large part by a kitschy yet stylish video for the albums lead single “Sabotage,” directed by Spike Jonze.  The following they’d been cultivating since their creative rebirth had swelled considerably in five years.  Though they had lost mainstream rap fans, they gained a bigger and more lasting fanbase.

The mid 1990’s was a major growth period for the group.  They became more politically, socially, and spiritually aware.  At the heart of this transformation was Adam Yauch, who became a practicing Buddhist.  He also organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert, a two-day San Francisco festival for Tibetan independence.  The group also began to expand their empire.  They published the trend setting Crown Royal Magazine, through which they issued an apology for past lyrics that promoted gay bashing and homophobia.  Their fifth album, 1998’s Hello Nasty, was released to the same success that Ill Communication enjoyed four years earlier.

At the dawn of the new millennium, the Beastie Boys continued to lend their talents and voices to worthy causes.  They raised money for the 9/11 relief efforts.  In 2004, their 6th album, To The Five Boroughs, was released.  It was a return to their New York roots.  During this time, Yauch became something of a renaissance man.  He began directed the groups 2006 concert film Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That! under the alias Nathanial Hörnblowér.  In 2008, he helmed Gunnin' for That No. 1 Spot, which documented the rise of High School basketball players at Harlem’s famed Rucker Tournament.  He stepped behind the mixing boards for Hardcore Punk outfit Bad Brain’s on their comeback album Build a Nation.  In the late 2000’s, the Beastie’s expanded their discography with two more albums, 2007’s Grammy winning The Mix-Up and 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part 2.  The latter would be their last.  

In the span of 47 years, Adam Yauch made his mark on the world in a variety of ways.  He was a musician, rapper, producer, magazine publisher, activist, and filmmaker.  That’s a resume that any artist could be proud of.  The Beastie Boys have sold over 40 million records worldwide.  They are the only rap group from their era that can still sell out arenas.  Their influence can be seen in Golden era Hip-Hop classics like N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back.  That influence continues today through the likes of Eminem and Odd Future.  They helped change the sound of Hip-Hop, and paved the way for every white rapper that came after.  Yauch was an undoubtedly huge part of that.  His growth as a person reflected that of the group as artists.  He walked to the beat of his own drum, and Rap music became all the better for it.  He may have had white skin, but he was a kindred spirit to every true Hip-Hopper that ever lived.  Peaceful Journey, MCA.


No comments:

Post a Comment