Adam Yauch, a founding member of the Beastie Boys—otherwise known as “MCA”—died today in his native New York City after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a crucial component in the rise of hip hop as a culture and rap as an art form, and instrumental in the group’s transition: from their early days as a punk outfit and then a brash and belligerent party-rap act, to one of the most sonically deft acts in the history of contemporary music. Never content to rest on their laurels, the Beastie Boys always surprised their listeners, contemporaries, and critics with each subsequent musical course they charted. Yauch’s influence on the lasting relevance of the Beastie Boys, their evolution, and their cultural purview can’t be overstated.
Like so many other young suburbanites, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill was the first CD I owned. I first discovered it during a contraband, back-of-bus listening session towards the end of a school year on a friend’s portable CD player, acquired thereafter through a Columbia House “17 Discs for $0.01″ offer ripped out of Rolling Stone and immediately mailed in. The fact that these three guys who cursed not unlike some of the older kids I knew also happened to be Jewish was not a small deal: When I was eleven, Jewishness was still an alien thing to so many of my friends growing up, even in a city as urbanized as Las Vegas.
The Beastie Boys represented a world of possibility far from the all-too-familiar stereotype of the young Jewish kid: feeble, nebbish, unathletic, and timid, whose idea of humor and wit resembled less the incisive, cutting, and shocking ways of the Beastie Boys and more the schlocky, Catskills Borscht-Belt style of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Not that the Beastie Boys weren’t influenced by that, too—they clearly were—but discovering Licensed to Ill was a relevatory moment in that more suddenly became possible.
There was one line from Licensed To Ill that always struck me as off, though, even as it existed in the same album as “Girls”: The one in “Paul Revere” about having done “it” with a sheriff’s daughter using a “whiffle ball bat.” I always heard it as out of place, not in the good-natured vein of the rest of the album. It wasn’t enough to turn me off to the group, though; I was, after all, eleven. But MCA soon stood out to me not a few weeks later, the first time I saw “Sure Shot” on MTV, sandwiched in the Buzz Bin that summer between Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate,” Aerosmith’s “Crazy,” and later on, the group’s classic “Sabatoge” clip.
He was the guy who rhymed on “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 the sisters and the wives and friends
I want to offer my love and respect to the end
His study of eastern religions later became the impetus for the Beastie Boys’ participation in the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, something that brought awareness of a religion and issues a world away to the front of MTV’s programming schedule, a practicing Bhuddist who was no doubt a large part of the reason the “whiffle ball bat” lyrics of “Paul Revere”—not even his—were never performed as such again (it was changed to a few things, among which was something about “a Siamese Cat,” hilariously).
Again, surely I would’ve eventually come across Buddhism, but without MCA, not in sixth grade. It was MCA who was responsible for my favorite Beastie verse (the last lines of “Root Down” in which he shouts out his parents) and one of my favorite MTV moments (when he stormed the VMA stage as Nathanial Hornblower, only matched by ODB’s “Wu Tang is for the children” speech).
In the summer of 1998, towards the end of my fourth listen to Hello Nasty, when I finally made it past the first half of the album, I heard something happened on the fifteenth track: The same guys who’d not a few tracks ago delivered the megaphone-rap of “The Move” (explaining how they were “intercontinental when we eat French Toast”) and the tin-can digitization of “Intergalactic” had slowed everything to a crawl, and turned it down to an acoustic, intimate whisper. It was the odd occurance of being taken from a race track and being slammed head first into quiet placidity, as MCA quietly cooed about being “as deluded as the next guy.”
In 2009, Jess Harvell wrote for Pitchfork that “I Don’t Know” was a moment of failure for the Beastie Boys, a piece of “eye-rolling heart-on-sleeve earnestness,” characterized as a cliche, overly sincere trap guys with the clout enabling them to make a non-linear, multifaceted album creative enough to want to explore other sonic territories can fall into.
In 1997, it was a shock to everything I’d known or assumed about the Beastie Boys, especially at 14: That their insecurities, like everyone else’s, were very real, but more importantly, that they could exist on the same album as “Remote Control” and “Body Movin.”
It may—like all of this, here—be an eye-rollingly sincere moment, but it was also the one in which I recognized MCA as my favorite of the Beastie Boys. The fact that it was seen by a critic as “eye-rolling” sincerity is as telling as those who are quoting the “whiffle ball bat” line on Twitter in tribute to Yauch: He was a crucial element of the nuance, subtlety, and exploration of new sonic ground that kept the Beastie Boys relevant over the last two decades, beyond what was expected of them, risks taken without which these three, white, Jewish guys may have long been relegated to novelty act status by now, and nothing more than a quoted “Whiffle Ball bat” line on Twitter that they couldn’t even bring themselves to recite not a few years after it made them as successful and influential as they are today.
Yauch was 47, and is survived by his wife, Dechen Wangdu, their daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, and his parents, Frances and Noel Yauch.
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