The death of Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch and my delayed appreciation

I remember when I first heard “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)” by Beastie Boys, I thought it was one of the stupidest songs I”d ever heard.

It turns out Beastie Boys felt the same way: after the irony of the trio lampooning Frat Rock sailed right over more party boys” heads, Beastie Boys eventually stopped performing the delightfully sophomoric song live. However, by then, its place in the pantheon of top party songs was ensured.

 “Licensed To Ill,” which featured “Party,” came out the week before I moved to New York in November 1986.  I was recently out of college and was going through a major adjustment. The magazine I worked for was in Times Square and the area still resembled a crack den more than the Disneyland it looks like now. I often crunched crack vials under my feet as I trudged the few blocks from the subway (where I would have undoubtedly seen a rat on the A train tracks only slightly smaller than the size of my tiny, illegally-sublet studio apartment).

[More after the jump…]

When I heard about Adam Yauch”s (aka MCA”s) passing this morning, it immediately took me back to that era in New York. Their music was gritty, aggressive, ballsy, noisy, and in your face, just like New York. “Licensed to Ill” provided the perfect soundtrack for both a city and musical landscape in transition, not to mention a cub reporter trying to find her way. 

We all experience and discover artists when the time is right for us and I was never on the leading edge of the Beastie Boys. In the mid-80s, I was way more interested in U2 and R.E.M. Despite my fondness for a number of other “Licensed to Ill” tracks, including the funkiness of “Brass Monkey” and rowdiness of  “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” I had no clue at the time that the former sampled “Bring It Here” by Wild Sugar and the latter was a play on Motorhead”s “No Sleep till Hammersmith”and featured Slayer”s Kerry King on guitar.

It wasn”t until years later that I came to realize the obvious: the Beastie Boys” ability to mix jazz, funk, rock and rap wasn”t from some dumb, naive luck. MCA, Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) were scholars and the musical brews they concocted came out of their deep love, respect and knowledge of the musical geniuses who had come before them. They were some of hip-hop”s earliest and finest alchemists. It”s a word that gets thrown around too much, but Yauch and his partners in crime were visionaries.  Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz were never of the musical moment: they were ahead of the moment and they brought the rest of us along with them.

To my recollection, my few interviews with Yauch were about his causes. He cared deeply about Tibet (through his Milarepa Foundation) and took part in benefits to raise funds  and awareness. In interviews, he was quiet, thoughtful and so different from his stage persona. He and his bandmates were all so dissimilar from what I saw on stage. Over the years, my admiration and respect grew not only for their music, but for them as humans who seemed desperate to connect and to make a difference through the power that fame had conferred upon them.

Sometime around the release of “Sabotage” from 1994″s “Ill Communication,” I came back around to the Beasties. The Spike Jonze-directed video was so infectious and fun that I started paying more attention to them again. And for those who think Kanye West was the first to interrupt an MTV Video Music Awards ceremony, think again: after “Sabotage” was lost out on five categories at the 1994 MTV VMAs, MCA rushed the stage while REM”s Michael Stipe was accepting an award to protest its shut-out.

Yauch was admitted to the hospital three weeks ago on April 14, the same day the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, according to The New York Times. How difficult it must have been for Horovitz and Diamond to read the lovely letter from him at the induction, knowing that their brother was deteriorating. Even though Yauch had battled cancer since 2009, causing delays in the release of “Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2” and for the band to drop out of Lollapalooza a few years ago, it seemed like he”d beat it.

I heard “Right to Party” earlier this week on my car radio and I found myself smiling and wanting to pump my fist. More than 25 years later, it makes me happy when I hear it now in all its giddy goofiness. That makes it the furthest thing from stupid. To be able to bring someone joy decades later? That makes it brilliant.

Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda