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.