Since Feitleberg wrote probably the worst Adam Yauch blog on the internet on Friday I asked Pres if he wanted a more fitting tribute today. I was probably 14-years-old when I first saw the video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)”. Watching these three Brooklyn Jews thrashing their way through their hedonistic video debut was unlike anything we had seen from this particular television station that used to play these things called music videos. The Beastie Boys acted like a trio of Bluto Blutarskys, implored fans to take up arms in the War on Partying, and forever changed the game.
Simply put (and excepting Blondie’s “Rapture” and Aerosmith’s pre-RUN DMC “Walk This Way”), rap/hip-hop was strictly a black man’s game (please act like adults in the year 2012 in the comments and leave the racist bullshit the fuck out of here, thanks). Formed in the Petri dishes of disses Uptown and The Bronx, this fledgling new genre of music and culture was rooted in the black American doing his own thing in his own way—the ultimate expression of individuality. But our idea of just who could be a rap star was effectively shattered thanks to three bad brothers we got to know so well.
Sadly, one of those brothers, Adam Yauch, who was the raspy-voiced MCA and eventual social conscience of the iconic trio, lost his three year bout with the modern scourge of our times that is cancer and died at the much-too-young age of 47. Getting the news, where else?, on Twitter Friday was like a punch to the gut to anyone who ever slugged his first few beers listening to the prank-gone-wild/nine million copy-selling “Licensed To Ill” or smoked his first spliff while grooving along to the wonderfully pureed offerings of “Paul’s Boutique”.
The public was aware that the universally beloved Yauch had been suffering from salivary gland cancer and fears about his long-term health were further stoked when he was unable to appear at the Beasties R&R HOF Induction Ceremony a few weeks ago. Even with the proverbial writing on the wall, his death was still met with shock and felt out of left field because, damn, 2012 is just too friggin’ soon for the world to be saying our farewells to a Beastie Boy. The ceremony’s airing on HBO this weekend took on a particularly heavy poignancy as we watched Mike D. and Ad-Rock, no doubt aware that they would soon be losing their homeboy who had the beard like a billy goat, read their ailing mate’s final ‘thank you’ to their many fans.
A one-time hard-core punk outfit, the Beastie Boys came together at a perfect time in rap’s infancy and in a perfect storm of a long-gone, hardcore NYC when there was actually a middle-class on Manhattan. Inspired by the rap singles they memorized, they started rapping on a lark…and the crowds ate it up. After meeting up with Def Jam co-founder/uber-producer Rick Rubin and essentially setting up base camp in his NYU dorm, the Beastie Boys were poised to explode and they didn’t disappoint.
The business-savvy Rubin saw in these three Jewish (read: white) kids from Brooklyn the ironic wrecking ball to knock down barriers that were holding rap back from reaching its full potential, both creatively and financially. What better way into mid-‘80s white suburban markets than with some nice, non-threatening Jewish boys? So in conjunction with the group, Rubin produced a nearly 45 minute gem of an album that kicks off with a heavy Led Zeppelin riff and goes on to celebrate getting fucked up (on Budweiser, no less!), smoking dust and woolers, porno mags, girls, whores, going on the run, and all sorts of other debauchery told in rock-rap form. It also was released on the heels of RUN DMC’s “Raising Hell” which had a similar, successful heavy metal rap sound. Though “Licensed” is laden with plenty of sing-along jams, it was the rebellious, eternal party anthem “Fight For Your Right” that truly sent both the album and the band into the stratosphere.
But the funny part is that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously and started off as more or less just fucking around, with its over-the-top tales of being chased by Johnny Law and the post-modern feminism on display in the NOW anthem “Girls”. Instead, it became the first rap/hip-hop album to top the Billboard chart.
Because I was a 13-year-old subscriber to PLAYBOY (thank you, Publisher’s Clearing House), I was clued into these new things called CD players because back when PLAYBOY was actually relevant, they were pretty spot-on when it came to tech shit like this. “Licensed” was one of the first CDs I owned and I did the majority of my HS freshman year homework listening to it. A true album in that it could be listened to from front to back, I had memorized (or at least faked) every lyric. 26 years later and it still works like a charm.
Three years after “Licensed To Ill”, “Paul’s Boutique” was released. Fans expecting more fantastical tales of braggadocio weren’t quite sure what to make of the mash-up of styles and samples that gave us the hugely popular “Hey Ladies” and “Shake Your Rump”. Though it wasn’t particularly well-received upon its release, people came around after getting in the requisite number of listens. “Paul’s Boutique” is now considered one of the seminal and most influential rap albums of the ‘80s, largely because of the unique sounds and mixes manufactured by MCA.
In 1992, the Boys got back to their instrument-playing roots (with MCA playing his signature bass) for the punk-rap mash-up “Check Your Head” which reached #10 on The Billboard Top 200 Chart while producing the monster hits “Pass the Mic” and “So What’Cha Want” as well as showing off the band’s versatility. From 1994-2011, they would release five more studio albums and hits like “Sabotage”, “Root Down”, “Body Movin’”, and “Intergalactic”.
It was also during this time where Yauch got more in tune with his spiritual side, disavowed the rampant misogyny inherent in hip-hop, brought attention to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, spearheaded many other charitable endeavors, and seemed intent on living a decent and righteous life in service to others rather than just living off of the ample fame he acquired.
Long-time fans of the band saw Yauch’s growth from a raucous party animal into a family man in search of inner peace. Many fans likely went through a similar transformation in their own lives over the last quarter century and, in a sense, grew up with MCA. And that’s what made the loss so profound—he was a link back to childhood that was always there but is suddenly gone.
He left an indelible legacy as both a musician and a human being, provided the background music for many of our fun times, and set an example of how to treat fellow humans. Most importantly, Adam Yauch left this place a better place than he found it. And that’s all any of us can ever hope to do.
Farewell, MCA. I hope your tearing it up with Ed Norton, Ted Knight, and Mr. E.T.