In the hours following the announcement of Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch’s death after a near three year struggle with cancer, all but one of Twitter’s top trending topics were either his name, the band’s, or one of their songs. The onslaught of tributes paid to MCA was nothing short of overwhelming, with the Beastie’s wide-spread popularity demonstrated by the near exclusive discussion on the website about the great man’s life and work. If any person deserved this much praise, it was certainly Yauch.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, he met his fellow Beastie, Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond at high school where they formed the first incarnation of the Beastie Boys as a punk band alongside fellow members John Berry and Kate Schellenbach. After a few line-up changes, the group became a trio that now included Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz, where they soon moved musically towards the rap group (although they never lost their fiery punk spirit) which we know so well today.
They signed to Def Jam in 1985 and released Licence to Ill a year later, which would become the first hip-hop LP to top the Billboard 200. The album blended a more classic rock sound (sampling Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin, Aerosmith, AC/DC, among others) with the beats and eclectic percussion that was fast becoming inseparable from the hip-hop genre. On it, the band painted themselves as lady-killing, hard-partying and fun-loving gangsters, with MCA in particular adopting a tough-guy persona. With his James Dean leather jacket, unruly stubble and gravely voice, he set himself apart from the other two Beasties in menacing swagger. Whilst Mike D and Ad-Rock were throwing pies in the ‘Fight for your Right to Party’ video, he was smashing TVs with a sledgehammer.
But the group were a lot more intelligent than the pitchfork and torches-wielding tabloids of the British press would have you believe. They were willing to defend their bacchanalian lyrics, reasoning that their shows on their ‘Together Forever Tour’ with Run DMC were about partying together whether you were black or white, bringing hip-hop back to its roots in the DJ block parties of the Bronx in early 70s where members of rival gangs would set aside their differences for the sake of music and having a good time. When news stations started using an isolated incident of fighting at one of their Los Angeles concerts to argue that hip-hop was inciting violence, the Beastie Boys dismissed the allegations brilliantly, with MCA lucidly explaining that ‘by showing that footage it gives the kids and their parents in those towns the impression that that’s what goes on at those concerts, and that’s not what goes on because we’ve played hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of concerts where nothing like that has ever happened’.
Any critics that had dismissed the group as and moronic or juvenile on their first record would soon have to eat their words when the Beastie Boys released their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique in 1989. Quite simply one of the greatest albums of all time, it seemingly blends every popular genre imaginable into a kaleidoscopic slice of hip-hop nirvana. The change for MCA also was staggering; for a guy who once rapped ‘I’m MCA/I got nothing to prove’, Yauch was now spitting lines like ‘dropping science like Galileo dropped the orange’ and ‘equinox symmetry/the balance is right’. Miles Davis was quoted as saying he never tired of listening to the album, Chris Rock advised people to ‘don’t go anywhere without it’ and Chuck D confessed it was a ‘dirty secret’ in the black community that it had ‘the best beats on it’.
Not content with transforming themselves musically just once, the Beastie Boys picked up the instruments they’d once used as a punk band in order to create the gloriously funky and inventive Check Your Head in 1992. A number of the bass grooves on the album were played by MCA himself, notably the album’s fantastic opener ‘Jimmy James’ and also the brutally distorted riff of their single ‘Gratitude’. MCA’s four-stringed skills would reach their apex in the sublime feedback-heralding bass breakdown that powers ‘Sabotage’ on their subsequent LP Ill Communication (1994). The group would also go on to record a fully instrumental album, The Mix-Up, in 2007 that fused lounge, jazz and funk on a record that demonstrated how comfortable they were playing instruments as they were laying down rhymes.
It was around this time in the early 90s that Yauch and the band began to become more politically aware, and were keen to use their position to spread awareness about the issues that were troubling them most. Him and the band showed hints at their bourgeoning activism when they preached about pro-choice at concerts in Louisiana in 1992 and awareness of teenage Aids in 1994 (a year before the Larry Clark’s sobering portrayal of HIV-postive debauchery in Kids), with MCA stressing it was important ‘not to bring fear into it but awareness, and just learn more about it’. But it was after becoming a Buddhist around 1994, that MCA began to campaign for the Free Tibet movement, shocked by the ‘disgraces that were going on over there’ by the Chinese government and the American business witnessed in his visit to Nepal and China. His political views resulted in the Tibetan Freedom Concert in June 1996 which over 100,000 people attended (the biggest charity concert on U.S. soil since 1985’s Live Aid). The concert has since been held in places as diverse as New York City, Washington DC, Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, Taipei and other cities.
On record, Yauch was never afraid to repute his previous views, opting to distance himself from the band’s somewhat misogynistic lyrics on Licence to Ill by rapping ‘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 friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end’ on Ill Communication’s ‘Sure Shot’, a brave statement for a genre as notoriously chauvinistic as hip-hop. He also admitted his shame about the group’s ignorant consideration to call their first album ‘Don’t be a Faggot’, showing his maturity and ability to face one’s past mistakes and move towards a better sense of a global community.
Fearless in public, he would take the opportunity on winning the MTV Video Vanguard award in 1998 to humbly ask the audience to ‘forgive me, while I speak my mind on a couple of things’, going on to condemn the US’s decision to fire missiles into the Middle East and warning people not to consider all Middle Eastern people terrorists and to look towards non-violent means of retaliation against terrorist attacks, finally pleading with Americans to treat Muslim and Middle Eastern people with respect. The fact that his words were so eerily prescient to the September 11th attacks that followed three years later, which came about partially as a consequence of people in government disregarding the message behind his words, owes much to MCA’s intelligence. It was his astuteness and humble determination in all his causes that led Yauch to receive the kind of respect among his peers that someone like King Bono can only wet dream about.
However, the band never lost sight of what people loved about them in the first place: their sense of humour. Throughout their career, they were willing to make fun of themselves, with MCA for example uttering the hilariously self-deprecating lines ‘I got more rhymes than I got grey hairs/and that’s a lot because I got my share’. Even on a record as often dark as their post-9/11 criticism of the Bush administration, To the 5 Boroughs (2004), they still found the time to record songs as hilariously bizarre as ‘Ch-Check it Out’ and the ‘Rappers Delight’-sampling ‘Triple Trouble’. This was also the band that decided to name a collection of early demos from their hardcore punk years as Some Old Bullshit, showing how they never took themselves too seriously.
It’s no question the band also had the most consistently smart, funny and inventive videos, ones that Yauch himself, under the pseudonym of Nathanial Hornblower, often directed, including the spy pastiche ‘Body Movin’ and sci-fi spoof ‘Interglactic’ from 1998’s Hello Nasty. Last year also saw the release of the epic 30 minute short film ‘Fight for Your Right Revisited’ written and directed by Yauch. It featured Seth Rogen, Elijah Wood and Danny McBride playing Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA respectively, and chronicled what happened to them after leaving the crazy party that happened in the ‘Fight for Your Right’ video, cumulating in a dance off that descends into a pissing war (yes, really) between the band and their future selves (played by Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reily) before being arrested by police offices played by the real Beastie Boys themselves. It really does have to be seen to be believed.
Yauch’s interest in film also resulted in him founding Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film distribution company whose releases include some 50 films, such as his own directorial debut, the basketball documentary Gunnin for the #1 Spot (2008), the Academy Award-nominated Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) and Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaption of Wuthering Heights. Right up to his death, Yauch was invested in projects that stemmed from his own passion for film, insuring that smart and thought-provoking projects saw the light of day, an effort that is even more laudable when we remember the struggle he was having with his health. And all this is also without even mentioning the release of last year’s excellent 10th Beastie Boys album The Hot Sauce Committee, pt. 2, a record that continued to push the band sonically and lyrically.
Artists as diverse as Nas, Jay-Z, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Weezer, Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes and Flea, as well as actors and directors like Tom Hiddlestone, Edgar Wright, Charlie Brooker and even New York Senator Chuck Schumer have all come forward to pay their respects to a man that all regard as a legend. MCA realised that respect for people of all walks of life, whether they were white, black, Asian, male, female, gay, straight, was fundamental if the world was going to change for the better. As Tom Morello has so poignantly put it, Adam Yauch was simply ‘irreplaceable’, his contributions to music, film and human rights are staggering (as you can see from the length of this obituary) and he is a man whom will never be forgotten.
He is survived by his wife Dechen and his daughter Tenzin Losel, as well as his parents Frances and Noel Yauch.