The world is a little less ill today.
This past Friday, we lost one-third of one of the most influential hip-hop group in the past thirty years; Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, passed away after a three year battle with glandular cancer.
The Beastie Boys formed as a hardcore punk act in 1979, when – and this is mind-boggling – Yauch was only 15 years old. While they had success opening for Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and other legendary names from the late-70s punk scene, what would ultimately put them on the map is the eventual melding of that raw punk energy with the multi-layered sampling, heavy beats, and scratchy, high-pitched rapping that became the trademarks of their sound.
“Fight for Your Right to Party” was my first introduction to the Beastie Boys. I have vague memories of seeing the video on my grandmother’s 13-channel, floor model TV when I was a little kid. At the time, being six or seven years old, I probably couldn’t have explained why I liked the song; I’m not even entirely sure I could read the title on Much Music (though, maybe that’s because the TV screen had the resolution of a ‘check engine’ light). But even little kids understand energy; so, when you’re seven-year-old brain hears “Kick it!” and that opening guitar riff, you can’t help but want to throw your arms in the air, shake your head like a wet dog, and jump on the couch until one of your parents yelled at you, or until you fell and cracked your head on the coffee table – and your parents yelled at you while simultaneously trying to scoop your brain off of the living room floor.
It’s really impossible to overstate just how big a mark Yauch and the rest of the Beasties have made on the musical landscape. The fact that a group of white kids from Brooklyn could make a splash in a predominantly black genre of music – at a time when hip-hop/rap was still itself in its infancy – was absolutely improbable; but it wasn’t just their convergence of hip hop sounds with punk rock sensibilities. They also integrated science fiction, comedy, geek culture, and nods to retro-cheesiness into their lyrics and videos. If you’re a part of my generation, you’ve probably shouted along to the chorus of “Fight for Your Right to Party”. Even if you’re not a fan of hip hop or rock, you at least remember the hyper-stylized videos for “Sabotage” – by far the best 4-minute, 70s cop drama ever filmed – and “Intergalactic”, an homage to Japanese monster/robot movies.
Yauch himself branched out into other forms of the artistic community, directing numerous music videos and independent films under the super-pretentious, tongue in cheek pseudonym “Nathaniel Hornblower”, setting up an independent record label and film company – Oscilloscope Laboratories and Oscilloscope Pictures, respectively. On a personal level, he also harnessed his success to try to enact a positive change in the world. A long-time Buddhist, he helped organize the Tibetan Freedom Concert in the late-90s to promote awareness of the sovereignty and human rights issues surrounding China’s treatment of Tibetan people.
In April, only three weeks before Yauch passed away, the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, becoming only the third hip-hop group to receive the honour, after Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash. His death comes a year, almost to the day, after the release of what would be his final album with the Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. The album itself was delayed several times due to Yauch’s medical problems, but the final product stands as a testament to the band’s style, relevance, and energy.
After thirty years in the business, the fact that the Beastie Boys showed no sign of slowing down, even in the face of Yauch’s long, arduous, and unfortunately ill-fated battle with cancer, is perhaps the most fitting sign of the legacy he leaves behind.
Adam Yauch, aka MCA, was one of the good ones. He will be missed, but not forgotten.