There are a lot of things we could talk about this week. But only one of them really matters, and that’s the death of Adam Yauch, better known as MCA.
It should go without saying that the Beastie Boys were a band unlike any other. In an age where pop acts are assembled in a boardroom with all eyes on the bottom line, you couldn’t make up the Beasties if you tried. Three wiseass Jewish boys from New York in a hardcore band that decides to turn hip-hop, and then revolutionize the art of sampling, and then, what the hell, play jazz-funk instrumentals on the side? And at the same time, complete a graceful transformation from smirking satirists to socially-conscious activists? What alternate universe are you living in?
The fact that the Beasties not only did all that with unrelenting artistic integrity, but remained perennially popular for 25 years is kind of amazing. And right at the forefront was MCA, he of the gravely, lower-pitched voice and the nimble bass playing skills. He announced himself early: “Born and bred Brooklyn USA, they call me Adam Yauch, but I’m MCA,” he rapped on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” But he was always sort of the quiet Beatle of the group, more sincere-sounding than either Mike D. or Ad-Rock.
The Beasties rarely had anything to say, but when they did, it was often Yauch who said it. There’s his signature bit in “Sure Shot,” where he speaks out against the misogyny of rap: “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 sisters and the wives and the friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end…” There’s the environmental red alert “The Update,” and the Buddhist embrace of “Boddhisattva Vow.” MCA was the conscience of the group, the guy who helped steer them toward the elder statesmen status they achieved in later years.
I first heard the Beastie Boys when everyone else did – when Licensed to Ill exploded all over 1987. I was 13 years old, and a good Christian boy, which means I secretly loved this record, but had to act like it was an affront to all that’s holy. It’s kind of amazing how tame it sounds now, how obvious the joke is, but in ’87, this was a record you just didn’t tell your parents you were listening to. You hid it in your pocket (cassettes were really small) and played it on your Walkman. And if an adult asked, you were listening to Michael Jackson.
In those early days of MTV, “Fight For Your Right” was absolutely everywhere. It followed hard on the heels of Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” in smashing down the barriers between rap and rock. It helped that the Beasties were actually a hardcore punk band before making the switch to hip-hop, so sampling Led Zeppelin beats and calling up Kerry King for a solo on “No Sleep” probably seemed less strange to them. For me, it was just fun. I remember doing a parody version of “Fight For Your Right” with some friends at summer camp when I was 14. It was called “Fight For Your Right (To Skip Camp).” Yeah.
In time, the Beasties grew embarrassed by Licensed to Ill – it was all a satirical joke, ripping on frat-boy humor, but by the time they were pulling out a giant inflatable penis onstage, the point of it all was probably lost. In some ways, Fred Durst is their fault, but that’s like blaming Stephen King for Dean Koontz. Some things you just can’t be responsible for. The Boys have tried to bury that record, so the fact that “Fight For Your Right” was probably the most-posted (and most-covered) song in Adam Yauch tributes is ironic.
I have a hard time being angry about that, for a couple of reasons. For one, Licensed to Ill is a stone classic. It holds up remarkably well today, and it’s permanently etched into the cultural consciousness. Just the other week, I made a “She’s Crafty” joke in mixed company, with ages ranging from 23 to almost 40, and everyone got it. So I can’t fault anyone for loving it. And also, sad as it may seem, artists don’t get to choose the work that affects the most people. For many, Licensed to Ill was the best Beastie Boys album, the only one that really mattered. Those people are wrong, and the album just doesn’t represent who the Beasties eventually became, but it still means something to the people who grew up with it.
For me, even if Licensed weren’t an awesome piece of work, it would still have financed the next step in the band’s evolution. And since that next step was the unimpeachable Paul’s Boutique, I’m grateful for it. I’m not sure anyone expected the Beasties to even make a second record, let alone completely flip the game on its ear. But in 1989, that’s just what they did. Paul’s Boutique was a hip-hop record so far ahead of its time that it was considered a commercial and artistic flop upon its release. Its stature has grown immeasurably in the ensuing 23 years, and now it’s rightly considered one of the best and most important rap albums ever made.
Paul’s Boutique was recorded by the Beasties and the Dust Brothers during the wild west years of sampling, before there were any laws in place to cover copyright infringement of sampled material. It’s constructed almost entirely out of an intricate, dense web of pilfered beats and instrumental sections and snatches of dialogue, so much so that there’s an entire website dedicated to mapping out exactly which sections of which old records were used to create it. It’s a masterpiece of production, and it contains some of the Beasties’ best songs: “Shadrach,” “The Sounds of Science,” “Hey Ladies,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and on and on.
It took me a while to appreciate Paul’s Boutique. I was 15 when it came out, and just entering my teenage metalhead phase. Real instruments were my thing, and I didn’t really get sampling. But the Beasties won me back with Check Your Head in 1992, a dirty punk-rap record played on real guitars, bass and drums. Its sound is an echoey muck, distorted and taped with cruddy microphones – it’s like the first garage-rock hip-hop album. The grooves were massive, and the funky instrumentals – making their debut here – were just wonderful.
Check Your Head’s sequel, the stomping Ill Communication, was just as good. In fact, I think the Beasties were untouchable all the way through Hello Nasty, their 1998 mash-up of rap, rock, reggae and balladry. No two songs on that record sound alike, and it contains some of their prettiest material: “And Me,” “I Don’t Know,” “Instant Death.” It’s a free-spirited, let’s-do-anything kind of record, and they never made another one like it. After that, they settled into their elder statesmen role, and while I like the records that came after – the old-school To the Five Boroughs, the instrumental The Mix-Up – I missed the freewheeling style of their older work.
The last Beastie Boys album of Yauch’s life, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, brought some of that back. And it gave MCA the chance to spin a couple more killer rhymes, like this one from “Make Some Noise”: “Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision, I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitchin’, put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf, and you can show it to your friends and say, ‘That’s my old self.’” And it contains “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” and “Lee Majors Come Again,” two final triumphant bursts of creativity.
And now Yauch is gone, and we’ll never get another one. I’m sure we’ll see the requisite compilations of half-completed tracks, and the other two Boys may branch out into solo work, or continue making music together. But there will never be another new Beastie Boys album. The Beasties were a band that kind of defies maudlin retrospectives – they carved an indelible place for themselves in music history without ever trying to. They just did whatever they wanted, whether it made sense to anyone else or not.
I wish there were more bands like them. I don’t know a single one. Yauch was only 47 years old when he succumbed to the cancer he’d been fighting since 2009. I haven’t even mentioned his work in film – he directed a few features and started Oscilloscope Pictures in 2002, the company that distributed smaller gems like Meek’s Cutoff and Exit Through the Gift Shop – or his commitment to the Tibetan independence movement. Like his band, Yauch was one of a kind.
There’s no debating Yauch’s influence as a performer and an advocate. But for me, what I will miss most about Yauch and the Beastie Boys is their willingness to go wherever their particular muse led them, consequences be damned, and stick to those artistic guns. They were a tightly-knit trio of consistently unpredictable, madcap geniuses working in their own little universe. I’ll miss them a lot.
Rest in peace, MCA. And thanks for everything.
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On top of that, I’ve just learned that Maurice Sendak died. His Where the Wild Things Are had a big impact on me as a child, and the 2009 movie version was simply splendid. Man, this week sucks.
Next week, back to music reviews with some combination of Keane, Bryan Scary, Beach House, Best Coast and those long-awaited My Bloody Valentine remasters. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.