Last month, we lost a great innovator of hardcore, hip-hop, funk, film and humanity. Adam Yauch – MCA of the Beastie Boys – passed away on the fourth of May, 2012. His passing has brought on thoughts and feelings for me that I never knew were so deep-rooted before now. As a kid in the ‘80s, I heard everything from Def Leppard and Weird Al Yankovic to A-ha, but there was something different evolving at the same time. Hip-hop was still new and everyone doing it seemed to be larger than life. B-boys, graffiti artists, DJs and MCs were doing things that blew my young mind. It was so different than anything else at the time and yet seemed to combine elements of everything I already loved about music. My first forays into hip-hop were DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, followed by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. I played those cassettes every day after school for what seemed like hours on end, memorizing all the lyrics as I went. Soon enough, I discovered Run-DMC and from there, learned of the Beastie Boys. Licensed to Ill became the tape I played more than any other. From the intro scratch of “Rhymin & Stealin” to the finale of “Time to Get Ill,” the album spoke to me more than anything else I was listening to at the time. It was a bit more eclectic and random than the others; and although a lot of it went over my head at the time, there was something about the call and response style the Beasties used that I still see as brilliant today. I had no idea that I was scratching the surface of what would turn out to be one of the biggest influences of my life, both musically and personally.
I was ten when Paul’s Boutique was released in 1989. Like a lot of people at the time, I slept on it. It was so different than Licensed to Ill that I lost interest. It would be another three years before I saw the video for “So Whatcha Want,” coming to the realization that the Beastie Boys weren’t back; they had never gone anywhere in the first place. Check Your Head showed the world that not only had the Boys matured, but that their sound was much more versatile than three white kids rapping about beer and parties. The Check Your Head era saw a return to their roots with hardcover covers of “Time for Livin’” by Sly and the Family Stone as well as expanding into funk excursions such as “POW” and “Groove Holmes.” It was at this point that I rediscovered Paul’s Boutique for the genius that it truly is and also began to delve deeper into playing music outside of a school environment.
I had been playing drums for a few years and had no intention of stopping; but something about the groove of the basslines that Yauch played really got me thinking, “I wanna play the bass.” Soon after, I got my first bass and of course, the first thing I learned to play was “Gratitude.” The fuzz on that tune is still one of my favorite things on the album and it was that distorted sound that got me into the other half of the rhythm section.
The Beasties followed up with Ill Communication, which not only carried on the vibe and varied styles of Check Your Head but also introduced new philosophical directions for the group as a whole. It was around this time that Yauch converted to Buddhism and started the Milarepa Fund to raise awareness about the Tibetan freedom movement. The Beasties began using acceptance speeches at awards ceremonies as political platforms to speak out against war, US aggression and the Tibetan occupation, among other things. I was still in high school, but these issues struck a chord with me. It made me realize that there was a very large part of the world that I was completely unaware of. Adam, Adam and Mike opened the door for me to see that there were tremendous injustices in the world and that not only was it okay to speak out against certain issues, it was necessary. Yauch especially inspired me to read up on Buddhism and practice compassion towards others no matter what differences might lie between us. That may be the biggest impact for me personally other than the music itself—the message.
Followed up by Hello Nasty and To the 5 Boroughs, the Beastie Boys continued to push the envelope production-wise. Combining everything from breakbeats and funk rhythms to chamber music and classic hip-hop hooks, they proved that they weren’t afraid to do whatever the fuck they wanted. I know a lot of people who think the Beasties fell off as time went on and I disagree with them wholeheartedly. They are one of the few artists that embraced not only music as a whole, but also the technology available at the time to take it to a new level. Very few bands are able to seamlessly blend elements of hip-hop, funk and hardcore, let alone put all of them on one album. Their groundbreaking videos, many directed by Yauch himself, were one of the things that gave them staying power in a world of one hit wonders during the now-defunct MTV era, when music videos were just as important as album content. Combined with a live show that included a quadraphonic sound system, the Beastie Boys cemented themselves as a group concerned with bringing the best possible performance to their fans every time.
I have now been a Beastie Boys fan for more years than I haven’t. Mike D, MCA and the King Adrock will always hold a special place in my heart. As their music has grown, so have I. Like many others, I was shocked to learn of Yauch’s illness three years ago, but I admit that there was a bit of denial that anything bad would happen. I rationalized it just as we all do. “MCA will pull through,” I told myself and yet, here we are. The loss of Adam Yauch has come too soon. What he inspired in so many will live on and will continue to influence people for generations to come. We should all take his compassion, good humor and hard work as an example of how to make the world a better place. Rest in peace, Adam.