Yesterday Adam “MCA” Yauch, one of the three Beastie Boys, died of cancer. He was 47 years old.
If you’re my age or within 10 years or so, you probably know who the Beastie Boys are. Even if you aren’t a huge fan, you’ve probably heard some of their songs (just do a YouTube search.) If you aren’t or are but don’t, it’s difficult to explain, really, just what a big deal they were in music. They were three Jewish nerds from Brooklyn who decided to become a rap/hip-hop group and utterly conquered the music industry. Their first album, “License to Ill,” hit the music world like a hydrogen bomb. Their second, “Paul’s Boutique,” was so innovative and brilliant that it sold a million copies and nobody knew what the hell to make of it anyway. Every album after that was one masterpiece after another. In defiance of all odds, with people laughing at them pretty much from the start, giggling at the notion that three white guys with names like “Horowitz” could make it in a music genre dominated by black gangsters (or usually black artists acting like gangsters) the Beastie Boys became not just insanely popular, influential and successful, but proved to be, for guys who couldn’t sing, musical geniuses of the first order. Every album broke new ground, tried new things, added new concepts. Their videos were often brilliant. Their technical proficiency was out of sight. A list of great Beastie Boys songs is almost too long to attempt; I can think of five great songs of theirs just limiting myself to songs that start with the letter S: Shadrach, Sure Shot, Sabotage, She’s Crafty, and So Whatcha Want, but don’t forget Brass Monkey, Intergalactic, Paul Revere, Girls, Hey Ladies, Pass the Mic, Ch-Check It Out, Three MCs And One DJ, Body Movin, and a dozen more. They fused rap with rock, punk, jazz, techno, and made it effortless and seamless and brilliant. And for all their genius, the thing about them was that for 25 years they never once lost sight of the fact that their music was supposed to be fun. They never looked down on their audience, never made fun of them; they engaged with the listener, let the fan in on the fun they were having.
Of the three, MCA was clearly the leader, not that he would ever have said so – the three never had any sort of public feud or ego battle, working as a harmonious unit from the first day to the last. But MCA was the smartest one. His rhymes and delivery were the most thoughtful and brilliant. He was the band’s filmmaking genius, directing many of their greatest videos and branching out into feature productions. It was his idea to have the group’s seminal concert video created by giving video cameras to fans at a concert, and then edit the footage to create a concert movie.
A lot of famous music artists have died in the last few years; I wrote a blog about Michael Jackson, too. None, though, have hit me in a way I could honestly say was emotional. This one did; I haven’t really been able to take my mind off it this past day.
I originally thought of titling this post with the title of a Beastie Boys song or one of his best rhymes. In the end I couldn’t really do it. For one, it’s kind of hard to pick one out from so many. And for another, I kind of felt like I’d be trivializing the man, though, ironically, it would have been entirely consistent with his, and the band’s, attitude that I throw a rhyme out there as a title or a closing line, because he of all people would want his fans to keep having fun with his music. So it’s not out of a sense of moral righteousness that I titled this post with just his name and stage name. It’s just that my heart is too heavy to make light of it.
I guess what gets me about this isn’t just that he was one of my favourite musicians, though he was, but that he was, to be honest, someone I’d very much want to be like. Not an idol, but certainly a role model. Not in all the details; I’m not interested in being a Buddhist or a vegan, as he was, and for that matter music is not my art of choice. But he was a dedicated husband and father. He had a little girl, like I do, and he loved her very much, like I do. And more than that, he worked hard, harder than I ever have or could, growing and becoming even more than he was, learning and trying new things and, by God, succeeding. He was a consummate professional, never feuding with his bandmates, ignoring the nastiness directed their way (people don’t remember that the rap giants of the day in the late 80’s/ early 90’s, who now praise them, often sneered at them) and forgetting every insult while remembering every act of kindness. He was a star at 22 and, despite that, didn’t let it wreck him, as it does so many; instead he just spent a quarter of a century pumping out brilliant works of art.
He stood up for what he believed in, even if it didn’t necessarily sell another record or go with the flow in hip-hop. He was thoughtful and kind and decent, and instead of retreating into a mansion built with bricks of $50 bills, which he could have done, he went out of his way to try to help people. He was a family man, a man of dignity and charity. He never pretended to be anything he wasn’t; it’s often noted that his hair went gray young, in an industry where that sort of thing is about as accepted as having a booger hanging out of your nose all the time, and rather than coloring it, he wrote jokes about it into his songs. He never forgot that while he was MCA to millions, he was still Adam Yauch to the people who really counted. He only lived 47 years, which is terribly unfair, but he got every last goddamned ounce out of those 47 years a man could get. I never met the man and now my eyes are watering.