Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, has passed away at the age of forty-seven. Though the cause of death has yet to be identified, he had been battling cancer since 2009.
Despite his illness, Yauch continued to write new music and tour with the Beasties. He also steadily built up Oscilloscope Laboratories, a hugely important producer and distributor of independent films. Without Oscilloscope, it's possible films like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, BELLFLOWER and MEEK'S CUTOFF would've never made it to theaters in the U.S. And Oscilloscope didn't just distribute those movies; they championed them. They fought to bring younger viewers into the art house theaters where these films are typically consigned, and succeeded in significant ways.
I'll have more to say about Yauch in a moment. I love the Beastie Boys, and can't quite accept that MCA is gone. Since I know a lot of you feel the same way, I wanted to get this story up as soon as possible, so you can share your love and memories in talkback. These are some of the songs I'll be blasting all day in tribute.
Performing "Sabotage" on SNL (starts at 4.00).
I don't know how to write about Adam Yauch or the Beastie Boys from an objective standpoint. If you don't want to read a professional, authoritative obit, you know where to go.
When the Beastie Boys' debut LP, LICENSE TO ILL, dropped in late 1986, I was thirteen. It was the perfect soundtrack for adolescent rebellion, a raucously explicit celebration of juvenile delinquency that was as terrifying to parents of that era as Elvis Presley had been to theirs - mostly because it was mainstream. But it wasn't the Top 40 smash "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" that scared them; that little ditty was "Volare" compared to a song like "Paul Revere", a ridiculously catchy outlaw tale that every kid in school had memorized, right down to King Ad Rock's boast of violating a sheriff's daughter with a whiffle ball bat.
At some point during my 7th grade year, the Beastie Boys dropped by the Toledo Sports Arena. Seeking an opportunity to get in with the cool kids, I marched over to Finders Records in Bowling Green, Ohio and bought a ticket - which my parents immediately forced me to give away (I'd like to say I sold that shit at a $10 markup, but I handed it over to a ninth grade girl I was trying to impress). It's probably a good thing I didn't go. Every kid I knew who snuck out to see the show - on a school night! - returned home stinking of beer (most of which was sprayed from the stage by the Beasties) and pot. It was quite the scandal. People got grounded.
At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the Beastie Boys were a fad; they were a novelty shock act who owed their popularity to MTV and the production wizardry of Rick Rubin. And when they disappeared for a couple of years - at the exact moment socially-conscious bands like U2 began to move into the mainstream, while hip-hop either got harder (NWA), more political (Public Enemy) or profoundly shitty (MC Hammer) - most people figured the Beasties had run their course. By the time the long-delayed PAUL'S BOUTIQUE hit in the summer of 1989, consumers had no use for the Beasties; their dense method of sampling was no match for the artless looping of popular acts like Tone Loc, MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice. MTV gave "Hey Ladies" a shot, but it didn't take. When the LP fell far short of sales expectations, PAUL'S BOUTIQUE was declared a failure, and the Beasties seemed done for.
To my ears, PAUL'S BOUTIQUE was a thick pop-cultural jumbo of everything I loved (or would come to love). It was my SGT. PEPPER. On "Eggman", they mashed up samples of Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly", Bernard Herrman's shower-kill cue from PSYCHO and John Williams's opening theme from JAWS (and you knew it was the opening cue because, at the end of the song, they let the sample run past the director's credit to the harmonica) over a beat cribbed from Lightnin' Rod's "Sport"; on "Sounds of Science", they fused The Beatles together with Boogie Down Productions. The whole album's like that. In terms of sampling, no one's matched PAUL'S BOUTIQUE (though De La Soul and DJ Shadow get honorable mentions for, respectively, DE LA SOUL IS DEAD and ENDTRODUCING).
It's at this point that the Beasties stopped being figures of thoughtless anarchy to me; now, they were like-minded subversives. I trusted their taste implicitly. So every time I heard a song I knew only as a sample from PAUL'S BOUTIQUE, I plunged headlong into that artist's oeuvre; this, with an assist from Prince and early Red Hot Chili Peppers, led me to The Isley Brothers, The Meters and Funkadelic. I am beyond indebted.
CHECK YOUR HEAD hit during my senior year in high school. The Beasties toured exhaustively for the next year in support of the album, and, finally, I was old enough to not only buy a ticket to see the Beasties, but also drive myself to the show. I saw the Beasties twice in 1992 - once during the summer at the legendary Agora in Cleveland (where House of Pain no-showed as the opening act), and again that fall at the University of Dayton Arena (with a very present Rollins Band kicking off the festivities). The showstopper both times was "Shadrach", an amazing track off of PAUL'S BOUTIQUE that, via a Sly Stone sample, references the Biblical tale of three brothers - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - who were spared a fiery death due to their fierce devotion to God.
Notions of faith would creep into their music over their coming years, but the Beastie Boys largely endured because of their fierce devotion to each other. By the time they released ILL COMMUNICATION in 1994, there wasn't a hip-hop trio that could trade lyrics with such ease or generosity. They could split an AB rhyme scheme, fall into conversation for an entire stanza, or chant together in unison, and yet there was never a hint of ego. They were the best of brothers; if they fought (and I'm sure they did), they never let that contentiousness seep through to the songs. They complemented each other beautifully: Ad Rock brought the rambunctiousness, Mike D was the puckish operator (he also played the part of businessman when he formed the now-defunct Grand Royal Records), and, as the years wore on, MCA supplied the raspy-voiced political consciousness.
Adam Yauch's Buddhist conversion jumped out on ILL COMMUNICATION, and yet no one really marveled at the fact that, in eight short years, he'd gone from boasting of armed robbery to advocating for Tibetan independence. Then again, in the same time frame, I'd gone from devouring Mack Bolan books to hanging Krzysztof Kieslowski movie posters on my bedroom walls. What's cool is that we never lost each other's sound. I was on an adventure, and the Beastie Boys were there to mark the time. They were both the party and the reality check.
When Yauch launched his film production/distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2008, I was excited to see how the eldest Beastie would contribute to independent cinema. Along with Yauch's basketball documentary GUNNIN' FOR THAT #1 SPOT, Oscilliscope's initial acquisitions were inspired (particularly Kurt Kuenne's emotionally pulverizing DEAR ZACHARY). In subsequent years, they grew bolder, backing idiosyncratic works from essential filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt, Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold (all women, by the way). As a movie lover, I feel as fortunate to have Oscilloscope in my life as I have the Beasties.
This is Adam Yauch's legacy, and it will only grow long after his passing. When I see an audacious film like Edgar Wright's SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD - which seamlessly blends formats, genres and sensibilities all the while feeling unmistakably like the work of one artist - I'll hear the soulful sonic melange of PAUL'S BOUTIQUE. When Kelly Reichardt makes her next movie, I'll be thankful a distributor like Oscilloscope will be there to back it.
And when I throw on "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" right this instant, I'll pay Yauch his own tribute:
"MC for what I am and do/
The A is for Adam and the lyrics true."