Growing up in suburban Kansas, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t own a Beastie Boys album.
Today, in consideration of the passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, a lot of fans are saying the same things, with the same opening statement: “Growing up in…” “Living in…” “Moving to…”
It didn’t matter where you lived. The Beastie Boys trailblazed everywhere. They made hip-hop safe for listeners from all walks, and it wasn’t just because they were white, or that “Brass Monkey” was mercilessly catchy. They blended punk and hard rock in hip-hop early times, with a name sounded like a joke (and it was a joke). They were funny as hell.
It was unsafe too. They were distinct and distinctively button-pushing, bringing a spotlight over New York with wreckless, juvenile attitude, even into their 40s. They put hip-hop at No. 1 on the album charts for the very first time in sales history, setting a glad and perilous precedent for popular music. Sometimes their rhymes — including some of Yauch’s — were like the sound of your hand going over your head. I always thought of MCA’s lower-voice as the ground wire, less-zinger-more-thinker.
They had songs to, at, around and against the ladies. Not only would they demand we get funky, but Yauch threw R-E-S-P-E-C-T our way, even when “bitches” is still the adoptive vernacular: “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,” he rhymed on “Sure Shot.” He was a husband and father. The Beasties’ recontextualized some of the world’s best known songs in samples and made them part of their verses in “Paul’s Boutique.” Yauch handed over the power of making music videos to their fans. They made instrumental albums. They couldn’t leave the press alone when the press frustrated in trying to leave them alone. Beastie Boys were cool and uncompromising, and I can’t name an album or song that says otherwise.
Yauch was a peace-lover, a convert to Buddhism and an activist of peace, by establishing the Milarepa Foundation and the Tibetan Freedom Concert. He stepped out as a gifted director on “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot,” and expanded Oscilloscope into a respectable and beloved relative newcomer to the film industry. But he always had a sense of humor about his own hand at directing. (Just check out his letter — under his moniker Nathanial Hornblower — to the New York Times when they took a dig at his
“Ch-Check It Out” music video.)
Yauch’s death effectively brings new music from the Beastie Boys to an end, at least in my mind. I don’t forsee Ad-Rock or Mike D stepping to the mic without their lifelong friend. I interviewed the Beastie Boys only once, and I remember the publicist reminding me that the group only answers questions as a group, that attribution could be to the individual but on behalf of the group. They were impossible to eek any serious answers out of for more than a sentence or two. They asked me where I was from, like it mattered that I’m a Brooklyn convert.
Oscilloscope will go on, and the Beasties had a few projects — like fleshing out “The Mix-Up” — that could still make it out of the can. But it feels like the end of an era. We’re left with hip-hop artists influenced by them, the survivors from their earliest era and contemporaries, pale imitators… The loss makes some noise to the five boroughs, and beyond.
Here are five of my favorite Beastie Boys moments, in song, in video and in era. For the record, I owned “Licensed to Ill” first…