I’ll call this out at the top: When Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch lost his battle with cancer this week, an era of hip-hop ended. We’ve suffered many losses in hip-hop, many of them are senseless. But this one….maybe because it’s natural causes, maybe because it’s not something anybody could have prevented, it just saddens me so much more.
The Beasties were never the best MCs [I always made the joke that they got paid everytime they told a listener what their names were], but they were charismatic as hell, something that has to be credited to the unique personalities and tonalities of their voices. They each occupied a different sonic register and complemented the other two perfectly: AdRock’s played the nasal high, Mike D sat in the middle, and MCA rounded out the bottom with his signature rasp. It’s incredible when, individually let alone as part of a group, an artist can develop a voice instantly recognizable to a listener. And now one of them is gone.
My entry to hip-hop came on the playground. Schoolyard boomboxes blasting Run-DMC and the Fat Boys at recess made me a fan for life. It wasn’t a popular position in a world where The Bangles and The Pet Shop Boys were dominating airwaves. Classmates subjected me to the usual accusations of being a ‘n—-r lover’ and cursed at me to turn down that “monkey music.” But things started to change the next year: people started getting their hands on License to Ill by The Beastie Boys.
There’s no arguing the point: for white kids on the playground, The Beasties made it okay to like hip-hop. Even if your friends didn’t want to follow you to the worlds of LL Cool J or Eric B. & Rakim, you’d always find common ground with License to Ill.
I can’t overstate how revolutionary that album is. The Beasties and sometimes DJ [and Def Jam Records founder] Rick Rubin took the aesthetic of black hip-hop and used their own musical heritage to make something wholly their own but respectful of the mode they were working in. Instead of James Brown, they were using Led Zeppelin. Much as I never want to hear ‘Fight for Your Right’ or ‘No Sleep til Brooklyn’ ever again, there are a surprising number of jams on that first album that were killing dance floors in the ’80s. The Def Jam coffee table book that came out last year specifically discusses how much it frustrated some black MCs that a song like ‘Hold it Now, Hit It’ was so good, because they really wanted to hate them.
Three years later they took whatever superficial fans they made with License to Ill and tossed them under a bus with the crate-digging opus Paul’s Boutique. A more traditional ‘rap album,’ but with an a progressive view of sampling rivalled only by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like their debut, this is not an album that could ever exist under current sampling laws and pay structures.
The album that resonated with my friends and I the most was 1992’s Check Your Head. The Boys returned to their punk roots to perfectly coincide with the grunge explosion, not just playing punk songs [‘Gratitude,’ ‘Time for Livin’] but taking the chopped guitar riffs of License to Ill and rubbing them full of dirt to give the songs a gritty, lo-fi, DiY feeling. It was the perfect record for a 15-year-old trying to fake a love of rock music while gangsta rap was leaving him alienated from hip-hop. It worked for a while. I mean, watch the video for ‘So What’cha Want.‘ That’s basically how we all dressed until 1996 [toques in the summer all day, son!].
I fell off after Ill Communication, really stepped off after Hello Nasty [too many wack people who reaaalllly liked ‘Intergalactic’], checked in and was pleased by To the Five Boroughs and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Though I never had any reason to, I always considered Yauch the most creative of the three, maybe because he so overtly stepped into other arenas like directing their videos or crashing awards shows as his lederhosen-wearing alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower. If you need a clear indication of the group’s cross-generational appeal, watch that video for ‘Make Some Noise‘ again, and count just how many celebrities were willing to take a day to be a part of a Beastie Boys video.
Had they toured this summer, I probably would have gone to see them, not because I’m any sort of super fan, but because they’re legends and I should have seen them when I could. Now I can’t. But if Yauch’s out of pain, if he was at peace with his passing [as a Buddhist, I hope he was], nobody has any right to complain.
Rest in Peace, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch. Thank you for constantly reminding us that the foundations of this thing we call hip-hop can still rock a party after 25 years. Don’t believe me? Watch the Boys rip ‘Shadrach’ from Paul’s Boutique on Soul Train, and pay attention to how that crowd goes from skeptical to buck wild thanks to a skillfully placed ‘Funky Drummer’ drop, some ‘Don Cornelius’ chants and the sheer will of the Beasties’ enthusiasm. A lot of rappers today could do well to take some showmanship notes from these dudes.