Posted by Michael Borshuk On 8:49 AM
Adam Yauch (5 August 1964 - 4 May 2012)
It's been a month now since Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died, felled by cancer at the tragically young age of 47. While the media panegyrics have quieted over the past four weeks, I find myself still grieving the loss of MCA (certainly more than I expected to) and listening to his music in fairly frequent rotation on my iPod. Like all grief for celebrity deaths, my melancholy here is, of course, merely a vehicle for self-reflection (or is it only self-indulgence?), since Yauch was a celebrity whose career I witnessed in its entirety. He was less than a decade older than me. His death is a reminder of my mortality, and a sign that my generation is creeping deeper into the perilous terrain of middle age.
But, aesthetically, Yauch and his comrades Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond were key to my development as a music fan. Manic, comic, and cool, The Beastie Boys were ambassadors to skeptical white kids like me who were slow to catch on to hip-hop's pleasures and its artistic potential.
Yes, full disclosure: despite having a lifelong love of African American musical forms, I confess that as a youngster in the early 80s, I didn't care much for hip-hop, or "rap music," as I remember calling it back then. Part of this was biographical influence, no doubt. I am a musician's kid. My father made his living playing the piano for live audiences. To embrace a musical form that turned on people "talking" over existing records might have seemed a betrayal, and due cause for familial excommunication. Even if I'd had the moxie to rebel and listen to the music on the sly (Lord knows it was omnipresent on the radio stations that boomed across the river from Detroit), I just couldn't get into it stylistically. It wasn't tuneful enough. Stripped down to words and rhythm, it didn't sound enough like, well, music to me. While I liked the occasional "rap" tune (like, say, Run DMC's famous collab with Aerosmith), for the most part, the new music, despite being popular with my friends, didn't do much for me.
The Beastie Boys, I admit, changed those feelings.
Not at first, though. In fact, while I was lukewarm about hip-hop initially, I outright loathed the Beasties when I first heard them. Licensed to Ill was an affront to everything I cared about as an adolescent: culture, courteousness, refinement. (I worshiped the Beatles' more ambitious efforts back then, and spent my summers reading George Orwell and Joyce Carol Oates.) I associated The Beastie Boys with the louts in my homeroom at school--idiot jocks and soon-to-be burnouts who thought it was slick to be obnoxious. (Like them, I didn't pick up on the Beasties' capacity for self-parody and their intentionally carnivalesque tone.)
In 1989, a week after its release, the Beasties' epic second LP Paul's Boutique came into my life, via my best friend, who insisted I have a listen. Sitting in his garage on a summer evening, we listened to the entire album, start to finish, on cassette, on a boombox, interrupting the BBs only occasionally to interject our approval or wonder in monosyllabic remarks. I immediately asked him for a cassette dub of the album and listened to it obsessively for weeks and weeks afterward. In short, Paul's Boutique blew me away and made me an appreciative hip-hop fan. I loved its range of reference, its lyrical dexterity, its antic energy. All at once, I saw what I'd been missing: the significance of flow and playful rhyme; the potential that sampling possessed.
Now, in some ways, though it's honest to admit, I'm sad to be such a cliche. (Sure, whiteboy, it took a trio of whiteboys to hip you to the most important paradigm shift in popular music during your lifetime.) But I suppose Rick Rubin knew there were listeners like me when he put the Beasties on record for Def Jam and I'm not sad for what followed in my music fandom from there. That is, I got in board just in time to enjoy what I still think is one of the most fruitful and wonderful periods in hip-hop history, in the late 80s and early 90s. Paul's Boutique helped me get my head right so I could enjoy LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, and the group that remains my all-time favorite hip-hop ensemble, Public Enemy. Moreover, the Beasties' constant affectionate tributes to early (by which I mean 1970s) hip-hop in tracks like "Shadrach," "Sure Shot," and "3 MCs and 1 DJ" sent me back historically to earlier acts I'd missed as a kid: Spoonie Gee, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Funky Four Plus One...
Beyond his music, Yauch was admirable for so much more. For his support of independent artists. For his support of peaceful activism in world conflicts. For having the maturity to renounce the offensive material he'd recorded in his youth, like the loutish sexism that initially turned me off the Beastie Boys.
I am grateful for his legacy, for the way he opened my musical tastes when they were otherwise much too closed. To this day, I cannot think of his stage name, MCA, without delighting in one of my favorite playful exchanges from the uptempo party jam, "Shake Your Rump" on Paul's Boutique: "Arrested at the Mardi Gras for jumping on the float / My man MCA's got a beard like a billy goat."
So long, then, Billy Goat. And thanks for so much.