When rumors were going around on Twitter about the passing of Adam Yauch, it was just a matter of an official word and clarification. I knew he had been battling cancer for a long time, and like a lot of people, I did not want it to be true. Then there was a report from Billboard saying it was a “false report”, but then one Tweet indicated that a person close to the group made the announcement on Facebook. Everyone wanted to know the truth, and with one post from TMZ‘s Harvey Levin, it was now officially. Yauch was 47 years old.
A lot of people have and will make comments about him, his music, and the influence he had on their lives, but one comment that had stood out was one in my Twitter timeline, which stated that it’s hard to deal with a middle-aged hip-hop. It’s not so much the music or the community of fans, but the people who are dying, and all of us who were raised on the music for years and decades.
The Beastie Boys were unique identities. When they were a goofy punk/hardcore band from New York City, very few people outside of their circles heard about them. Those that did loved their energy. My introduction to their music was not that first demo, but through a review in a cassette fanzine called Bang Zoom, within a record review section that covered “Cooky Pus”. It seemed goofy: nothing but a funky new wave song with a prank phone call, and yet I thought this was great. Next time I heard from them was with “She’s On It”, which was cool too as it combined rap music with a bit of hard rock. I love hard rock and heavy metal, the video made it out to look like they were a part of a new beach blanket bingo party, so what was there not to like? Yet from a lot of critics, and keep in mind that there was no sense of “hip-hop journalism” in 1986, they were a joke, a trend, a bunch of drunken frat boys ready to get drunk and get ladies pregnant. Their interviews and public personas didn’t fix that, for they were a mirror of a good portion of their fans. Licensed To Ill was released and people went crazy. Rap music had been “official” for seven years, but the Beastie Boys helped push the music to the mainstream. No one talked about “community” or “keeping it real”, it was always that music from New York, even though by 1986 it had been spread across the United States, England, and Japan. It was still “rap music”, and you had to seek and find it. There weren’t guidelines, other than “sounds good? I’ll buy it. Doesn’t sound good. I will not buy it.” No one had a measuring stick that was used as a guideline, and a lot of times people bought music blindly. It may not have been good, but it may take time to absorb. The Beastie Boys were pushed because they were viewed as “white boys”, and that was viewed as a takeover or an invasion, as in “what in the fuck do these white kids think they’re doing?” They might not have sounded like Melle Mel, LL Cool J, or Kurtis Blow, nor were they trying to emulate them 100%. These were three Jewish men whose flows represented their backgrounds, experiences, and neighborhoods, along with a respect for the music they would eventually embrace. Some wondered why these punk/hardcore kids were moving over into a new territory, and maybe they were. Yet they were not the first to do so. People were shocked when Deborah Harry of Blondie told everyone about Fab 5 Freddy in “Rapture”, or someone like Ian Dury telling people about his “rhythm stick”, or Captain Sensible talking “Wot”. However, they weren’t considered real “rap music”, just mere knock-offs, imitators, or someone trying to take a taste but… what made the Beastie Boys different? Full length songs, full stories, personas people could embrace, and of course, the promotional push from Def Jam, who had financial backing from Columbia Records. For all intents and purposes, this meant anyone on Def Jam could have the same push as Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Journey‘s Escape, REO Speedwagon‘s Hi-Infidelity, and Toto IV. They were not the first rappers to have major label backing, you can go to Kurtis Blow for that one, but they were the first to catch attention for who they were and what they were doing. People listened, and a lot of people hated them. However, there were those who loved and embraced what they did, despite some of the buffoonery they might have projected to the public (and themselves).
Then there was a break. News came out that the Beastie Boys had a dispute with Def Jam head Russell Simmons, Simmons wanted and demanded a new album as part of his contract with them, but the Beastie Boys wanted freedom and obtained it when they were signed on the opposite coast by Capitol Records. It was a war, because a second album by a group who had one of the biggest selling albums of the year can prove to be prime business. Then “Hey Ladies” was released as a single, and some were baffled. How come these guys are making disco music? The video had a heavy disco vibe, and it seemed very few were ready for something different. People wanted Licensed For More Illin’. Some of the first reviews of Paul’s Boutique were quite good, in fact that is what lead the album to be immediately be called a “critic’s darling”. Licensed To Ill initially sold 4 million copies, or “quadruple platinum” in the United States. Paul’s Boutique sold a nice 500,000, which is an immediate Gold in the U.S., but the public couldn’t figure it out. Where’s “Paul Revere”? Fans wanted to party for their right to fight again, but there was none of that. The raps were different, the stories complex, and yet if they truly listened, it was pretty much a continuation of what they had done on Licensed To Ill. Did The Dust Brothers‘ production really force people to go “what the fuck is this shit?” If so, it worked. Selling 500,000 copies was now considered a failure compared to selling 4M for their debut. The group had intended on doing a few shows on the West Coast in support of Paul’s Boutique but when sales came to a crawl, they decided to cancel all of their plans, but not without doing a few shows in Los Angeles, which were filmed and documented, some of the footage was used in their video for “Shadrach”.
That lead to people wondering if the group had what it takes to be worthy of a contract, worthy of being a group. Were they truly a one-hit wonder? Yet those who loved and embraced Paul’s Boutique from the start knew it was the start of the next level, at the dawn of a new decade of what would hopefully be more incredible music. The production used samples in a way that had not been doing actively, and came off like the perfect flip side to Prince Paul‘s production on De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High And Rising. For a generation of Beastie Boys fans, Paul’s Boutique became the alpha and omega, not thinking it was THE core of rap music, but a great place to start or fall back on when one needed a boost in creativity and inspiration. It would take the release of their third album, 1992’s Check Your Head, for others to embrace Paul’s Boutique, and that would mark a rebirth in the group which didn’t stop for 20 years.
What I liked about the group was that they were “different”. Some rap music up until that point seemed to fit in a few categories. The Beastie Boys fit many of them, and by a few defaults they didn’t, whether it was due to lack of melanin or sounding different. As much as they could try to fit in, they simply were who they were and let nature take its course. With the release of Check Your Head, Yauch started to show a more political and social side, talking about his new interest in Buddhism and helping the environment. He actually touched on it on Paul’s Boutique‘s “A Year And A Day”, but considering his vocal track was distorted, it was hard to tell what he was saying. No one really knew until the release of Check Your Head, when the group sent out pamphlets featuring lyrics to the song. Then people were saying “oh, it’s a bit of a personal and spiritual awakening.” He wasn’t putting up a front either, and along with that came a lyrical and musical growth, as the group were taking to their instruments again and becoming a band once more, taking in Keyboard Money Mark-Ramos Nishita as their keyboard/carpenter.
Eventually, Yauch would bring his political and spiritual sides to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which would help bring in not only other rappers to support his causes, but other artists and actors to show their approval for Yauch’s fight for peace and unity. In the last 10 years, it seemed the group’s output came to a bit of a crawl, but that might have been personal or social, or not having a need to meet up to expectations of the hip-hop grind. It had been announced Yauch was fighting cancer, and a lot of people were hoping for a quick recovery. Yet despite the grind of output, people continued to show respect, if not honor, for a group who were different from the get-go, but through their efforts a bit of power and strength in numbers. Everyone had their favorite MC from the group: you could love Michael “Mike D./Clarence” Diamond, you may have been a devotee of Adam “King Ad Rock” Horovitz, or Adam “MCA” Yauch. You might have wanted to flow like them, went back and forth to pass the mic, even if there were no mic’s. Or simply, you just liked them because they were rap, because they were hip-hop.
In the words of Yauch himself on Paul’s Boutique, he may have wanted to dedicated a song “To All The Girls”, from the upper eastside nubiles, the Jamaican girls, and Italian women, but at the end of the album, when the song made a reprise, you heard two words from him stand out as it echoed in a reggae dub stylee: “to all”. Beastie Boys were very much “for all”, and with all, the possibility of becoming one.
r.i.p. Adam Yauch.