We spent most of Friday preparing for a couple social engagements, so I wasn’t able to write anything immediately after learning about the passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch. Here are some semi-related thoughts.
Since I didn’t know MCA, I can’t really write about him as an individual. Rather, I must write about him as one of the Beastie Boys. It’s impossible to determine with exact certainty what the Beastie Boys’ full impact on music was. Were they the most important hip-hop group ever? Second? Fifth? Who knows. I think the best way of characterizing their contribution is that they kicked the door that RUN-DMC had opened off its hinges. LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, and countless other artists of the late 80s may have still had mainstream success. But without the Beasties forcing hip-hop into the mainstream, who knows how long it would have taken hip-hop to ascend from a niche loved only in New York.
Every white rapper/rap group has to answer questions of authenticity. The black music community, seeing rock & roll taken from them a generation earlier, were fiercely protective of hip-hop. The only white MC’s who didn’t have to answer those questions were the Beastie Boys. Part of it was because they were goofy, didn’t pretend to be “black”, and were viewed at first as gimmick artists. They were operating in an area where no black artist was working, thus they weren’t perceived as a threat. It also helped that they were on Def Jam, the biggest label in the game in the late 80s. But a big part of it is that they were always authentic to themselves, rather than trying to portray themselves as products of the black community. Because they were always carving out a path that was uniquely theirs, the critics, the protectors of hip-hop, the other artists never questioned the Beasties’ motives.
The Beastie Boys were a remarkable group. They recorded music for 30 years. While their introduction to the world was as foul-mouthed, drunken hooligans, they quickly reinvented themselves and created some of the most amazing collages of sound ever heard. They operated on their own terms, breaking from Def Jam and taking control of their releases when other bands would have happily ridden the hype wagon. They took breaks when they wanted. They zigged to computer-built sound collages then zagged to playing their own instruments. They made remarkable videos when investing them with time, money, humor, and artistic value was rare. There were never rumors that they were on the verge of breaking up. They not only respected those around them, but also seemed to always respect each other.
The most sobering thing about MCA’s death are the conditions of it. He didn’t die in a car or plane accident (Buddy Holly). He didn’t OD or drink himself to death (Shannon Hoon). He didn’t go for a swim and never come back (Jeff Buckley). He neither took his own life nor was the victim of a shooting (Kurt Cobain, Biggie, Tupac). He got cancer and died, like thousands of other people each day. His passing is a reminder to our generation that we’re all getting older, and such demises are no longer unexpected or shocking.
The Beastie Boys were an important part of my youth. I was interested in hip-hop but reluctant to explore it too deeply until they came along. Just as they were becoming the biggest thing in music, we moved halfway across the country. Knowing all the lyrics to Licensed to Ill helped me find my footing in a school that was much more diverse and accepting of hip-hop than where I came from. It’s amazing the group continued as long as it did. They made two epic albums, and a collection of unforgettable songs. MCA was the political and spiritual center of the band. He played a huge role in carving out their visual image. My generation, and music, is better for his efforts.