Twenty five years ago last March, I was seated in the waiting room of the A&R department at CBS Records in Manhattan. It was my first trip to New York and one of my first formal forays in writing about music. I was panicked as I waited to interview a label exec for my Honors journalism thesis. How should I act? What should I say or do? Just the usual anxiety one feels (or at least I felt) when I was at that stage when I had picked an intended career but still had no idea what I was doing.

To take my mind off the stress, I picked up a new copy of Billboard from the coffee table. The cover story detailed how a new rap trio had, a few days before, trashed this very office. The musicians in question were my age and likely felt as intimidated and awkward as I did at that moment, and their response was to make an impression by making a mess, laugh about it and leave it for someone else to clean up. That sounded like an awesome idea, but not a great career move for me, even if it worked for them.

The group was the Beastie Boys. Notoriety of that kind was as essential to the band's entree into popular culture as their bratty, often calculatedly offensive, often inventive and sometimes clever debut LP, License To Ill. The Beastie Boys and their music would change, but we’ll get to that.

Debatably, the crudest of the crew back then was MCA, aka Adam Yauch, who passed away this week at 47, after a three year battle with cancer. Yauch's transition from twenty-something sneering rap cartoon into a serious, dedicated musician, filmmaker (often under his alias Nathaniel Hornblower) and distributor (through his company Oscilloscope Laboratories) and a leading social conscience in modern music through his admirable dedication to the cause of Tibet, has been an inspiration.

While I had no time for the earliest Beastie Boys music, that changed with Paul’s Boutique, a record where the Boys, in collaboration with masterful producers the Dust Brothers, wrote a new chapter in the pastiche art of sampling. The record is so dense with stolen fragments from, and referents to, discarded pop culture, reassembled in such an inventive, mindblowing way, crate diggers are still -- more than 20 years after the fact -- sifting through its contents for insights and lessons, messages and beats. Laugh if you will, but not for nothing is it sometimes referred to as the Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop. Notably, the list of samples on the record includes Johnny Cash.

Check Your Head (1992) was an audacious amalgam of live instrumental performances by the band mixed with sampled sounds while Ill Communication (1994) was looser and careened between samples of Jimmy Smith jazz funk and pugnacious punk rock jams. Over time, the trio picked up instruments and added support players. The rhymes became more oblique and esoteric. Over the years, I made at least seven pilgrimages to see the group perform in various cities. Each show was an adventure and an indelible memory.

I don’t want to rehash Yauch’s life from secondary sources or get into an endless debate about why I would dare to write about him on a site generally dedicated to “Americana” (whatever that means). But I know that like a lot of people on this site, Yauch’s formative musical experiences were in punk rock, that he had a deep appreciation of American music such as soul, funk and jazz, and he grew from being a technically rudimentary player into a dedicated bassist with a great feel for the instrumental jazz funk that was a subspecialty of the B-Boys. In the middle to late stages of his career, he also provided the group with some of their most skilled, imaginative and thoughtful lyrics.

Yauch’s wild years are frozen in music videos and old MTV clips and naughty lyrics and headbanging primitive rap jams. Most of us grow up eventually. But what makes Yauch’s tale notable and admirable is the extent of that growth.

Born and bred Brooklyn - U.S.A.
They call me Adam Yauch - but I'm M.C.A.
Like a lemon to a lime - a lime to a lemon
I sip the def ale with all the fly women
Got limos, arenas, TV shows
Autograph pictures and classy hos

That’s an MCA verse from 1986. Eight years later on the Ill Communication track “Sure Shot,” his outlook on women had changed:

I want to say a little something that’s long overdue,
The disrespect of women has got to be through,
To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends,
I want to offer my love and respect to the end

Yauch’s passing came at a strange time for me; it coincides with the 25th reunion of my graduating class from journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa next week. Preparations for those festivities have stirred up a number of photographs, long unseen and best forgotten by me, of those reckless (and often wrecked) early 20s. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in hindsight and based on the existing evidence, we spent a great deal of time and energy fighting for our right to party, in bars and rented houses and dorms and campus rec rooms. Happily, nobody was paying too much attention and as 40-something respectable members of our communities, we’ve managed to live down those days.

There’s nothing unusual about the fact that Adam Yauch grew up. It’s the scope of his growth and the grace of the man he became, before our very eyes and ears, that makes his passing so sad and makes his life and music so inspiring. The point is not to live down your past, it's to live up to something better.

PS: There have been lots of tributes to Yauch in the hours following his passing. I confess on paper, this one sounded like a bad idea. But there's something quite sweet about Coldplay, performing "Fight For Your Right," in his memory.


Views: 1517

Tags: Adam, Beastie, Boys, Yauch

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on May 6, 2012 at 12:05am

Thanks for this Paul. I enjoyed watching all the great videos that you linked to.

This Tuesday my son wanted me to take him to the MAC store in the University district to get a new case for his iPod. Next door is a Petco and I had a couple of things I needed to pick up there. I hadn't ever been in that Petco location which is where a fantastic Seattle record store called Peaches Records and Tapes used to be. I lived just a couple blocks down the street from Peaches when I was in school at the UW and was a frequent shopper. When I was standing in line at the check out counter at Petco I had a flash back to being in Peaches (which I had forgotten is what had been in that location decades prior until that very moment) and I had a vision of a full center rack display of the album Licensed to Ill.

I was in the store regularly and I have no idea why that is the memory that came to me in that moment. I remember that the record was on sale and super cheap. I can't remember what possessed me to buy it. Maybe I'd read something about it, or heard people talking about it, or maybe it was just the ridiculously low price. Not sure if it was a loss leader or the record had tanked and they were trying to get rid of them but they had tons of copies. So I bought it and took it home and listened to it and it was unlike anything I'd heard before and I pretty much hated it. I kept it but it wasn't until many many years later when my son started playing it that I came around and ended up appreciating and really enjoying it.  

This is beautifully put... " It’s the scope of his growth and the grace of the man he became, before our very eyes and ears, that makes his passing so sad and makes his life and music so inspiring. The point is not to live down your past, it's to live up to something better."

Comment by Paul Cantin on May 6, 2012 at 7:50am
Thanks Kyla.
Comment by Rudyjeep on May 8, 2012 at 5:14am

Thanks for this great piece Paul.  Good writing is good writing (like good music); you can write about Pavarotti and I would read it. 

Adam's passing has made me nostalgic too.  Their music is rooted in a bunch of places for me that are now long gone – WLIR radio on Long Island, clubs I used to frequent and even Carvel Ice Cream stores.  Nostalgia is just a mild form of depression and this past weekend, when I helped a friend celebrate his 50th Birthday, we talked about the Beastie Boys a lot.      

Comment by Easy Ed on May 8, 2012 at 9:18am

Thank you Paul for writing this and Kyla for sharing. I've held off on watching the Coldplay tribute since I first saw it posted on so many friend's FB pages, but by the end of your piece I hit play. From the very first note it gave me that chill up the neck feeling, and it's as fine a tribute one would want. Generationally perfect, and the audience is right there with the band. My little guy, almost fifteen with a dozen hair colors in as many months, sometimes goes to a local Mexican BBQ/bar on Saturday nights and does karaoke. A couple months ago I slipped in the back at eleven to pick him up and he was just taking the stage. He did "Fight For Your Right" and it was one of those proud papa moments because the kid nailed it. The place was jumpin, the drunks were on their feet and the pint-size troublemaker had the biggest smile on his face when he saw me in the crowd with two thumbs up. The Beastie Boys, and that song in particular, are as iconic and Americana as the shot of Johnny Cash giving the finger. Glad you posted this one.

Comment by Paul Cantin on May 8, 2012 at 12:32pm

Thanks EE

Comment by Rockstar Aimz on May 8, 2012 at 7:18pm

Very nice write up.   I still like Deer Trick's raucous tribute better than Coldplay's.  Now that I'm nearly 40, License to Ill reminds me that it's still OK to be a delinquent once in a while.

Comment by Louis Richardson on May 15, 2012 at 3:16am

In 8th grade, I had a cassette tape with Licensed to Ill on one side, and Run-DMC's Raising Hell on the other. For a good few months, it never left my Walkman. I'd listen to The Beastie Boys, then flip it over and listen to Run-DMC, then flip it again, then flip it again, and again, and again.

Fast forward almost a decade, and I'm listening to "Bodhisattva Vow" with tears in my eyes. I was becoming very interested in Buddhist meditation at the time, and to hear MCA (A freaking Beastie Boy!) express his spiritual devotion in his own plain language was just so awesome:

"I Give Thanks For This World As A Place To Learn
And For This Human Body That I know I've Earned
And My Deepest Thanks To All Sentient Beings
For Without Them There Would Be No Place To Learn What I'm Seeing
There's Nothing Here That's Not Been Said Before
But I Put It Down Now So I'll Be Sure
To Solidify My Own Views And I'll Be Glad If It Helps
Anyone Else Out Too"

Thanks MCA. Hope you are re-born as a Buddha.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.