More than most groups the Beastie Boys seemed like a gang. It was all for one and one for all, the Beasties presenting a united front, speaking their own code, turning private jokes into public pranks. Unlike the Ramones or the Strokes, they weren’t a gang dressed in the same uniform, they were three distinct personalities who shared a worldview, one cultivated in New York but reaching far beyond those borders. There was Adam Horowitz, a.k.a. King Ad-Rock, the whiny-voiced imp who never stopped smirking. There was Michael Diamond, a.k.a. Mike D, often acting as the straight man sliding his rhymes and asides under the radar. And there was Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, whose gravelly snarl possessed a visceral force unmatched by his Beastie brothers.
Where Ad-Rock and Mike D pranced like class clowns, MCA brought danger to the Beastie Boys. His prematurely hoarse rasp and persistent stubble gave the impression that he was a genuine thug, capable of living out every ludicrous fairy tale on their 1986 debut Licensed To Ill. Given the chance, he’d crash your party, all soused in Budweiser, ready to fight or fuck depending on who answered the door. He had enough violence and sex to compensate for his companions; he was the Super Id in a trio who happily embraced their basest impulses. Yauch may have been acting a part but he sold it brilliantly, so much so that it never was quite clear whether the full-frontal metallic assault of Licensed To Ill was intended as satire or celebration. All these years later, after all the explanations, disavowals and apologies that the Beasties and Yauch in particular made for these loutish early days, Licensed To Ill still sounds furious; like Jerry Lee Lewis’s Sun recordings or the Clash’s first album, it retains its primal roar, it still grabs by the throat and doesn’t let go.
That enduring power and Yauch’s crucial role in its creation may be the reason he worked so hard to separate himself from the teeming adolescent urges of Licensed To Ill. The distancing started early, beginning with the visionary second album Paul’s Boutique, a kaleidoscopic record that sounded nothing like the debut. Tucked away underneath the thick haze of samples was Yauch first hinting at his evolving spirituality on “A Year And A Day.” He cloaked that confessional through a distorted mic. It wasn’t until 1994, when the Beasties had weathered the utter failure of Paul’s Boutique —few who call it their favorite album now bought it at the time, fewer still bought it then and liked it—and mounted an unexpected comeback in 1992 with Check Your Head, that he had the confidence to be sincere, offering an apology for the group’s early sexism via a verse on “Sure Shot” and concluding Ill Communication with a sequence of songs making his Buddhism plain. For the rest of his life—a life that was cut short far too early by cancer on May 4, 2012, when he was just 47 years old—Adam Yauch never disguised his intents again, working steadily as an artist and social activist through his nonprofit organization Milarepa Fund. Although his philanthropy began with a splash via the Tibetan Freedom Concerts of the late ‘90s, much of this work flew under the radar, just as his work as a filmmaker through his Oscilloscope Laboratories did.
He may have spent the last decade of his life working quietly—Beastie Boys released only three albums in the new millennium, one of them an instrumental LP that garnered little attention despite winning a Grammy—but their influence is so pervasive it seems as if they never went into hibernation. Citing their influence on either the mookish rap-rock of Y2K or Eminem is correct but reductive as the Beasties legacy extends far beyond the parameters of white-boy rap…or beyond the self-satisfied provocations of Odd Future, for that matter. As the first crew of MCs to top the Billboard charts, they brought hip hop crashing into the mainstream and they acted as ambassadors of the culture, bringing Public Enemy onto their first national tour, their last few albums functioning as an education on the old-school crews they and their Def Jam crew swept aside. During rap’s Golden Age, few expanded the sonic horizons of the music through Paul’s Boutique, an album that flat-out tanked upon its release in 1989 but slowly seeped its way into pop culture at large. It’s no great stretch to say that Paul’s Boutique is ground zero for ‘90s pop culture or even the hyperactive, cross-linked culture we have today. Musicians always steal from the past to make music for the present but the Beasties stitched together existing sounds to create something entirely new, something that scanned as retro but played fresh. And it wasn’t just a sound, it was a sensibility where all pop culture—disco, kung fu, punk, Jaws, platform shoes and pimp hats, classic rock, rap, TV police shows, Blaxploitation—existed on the same plane. This was not far afield from Licensed To Ill, which had the theme for Green Acres spliced in between heavy Zeppelin and Sabbath samples, but Paul’s Boutique confirmed that this was a world-view, one fueled by omnivorous tastes and insatiable curiosity.
Beastie Boys never relied on samples so heavily again—and neither did anyone else, as legal restrictions became too great—but they explored this aesthetic in greater detail throughout their purple patch in the ‘90s. Picking up instruments again, they touched upon their hardcore punk roots but spent more time mining gritty funk as a trio augmented by keyboardist Money Mark. This is the sound they debuted on Check Your Head and, truly, this is where all of their interests came into play: old school hip-hop, hardcore punk, soul-jazz, funk, hard rock. Over the next two albums—1994’s Ill Communication and 1998’s Hello Nasty—the Beasties continued to expand, their interests fueling an entire empire called Grand Royal. Through the record label and magazine of that name, the Beasties championed all manners of downtown bohemia and junk culture, never drawing a distinction between either extreme. Perhaps few of the artists had hits—Luscious Jackson, featuring early Beastie drummer Kate Schellenbach, was the only artist who had a record that genuinely crossed over—but the reach of Grand Royal was large, as evidenced by how the magazine popularized the term mullet for the hairstyle that was business in front and party in back. Grand Royal celebrated the ‘70s and early ‘80s, digging deep to find pop culture trends and phenomena that never received due credit, pushing them into the mainstream. It was a labor of love that wound up establishing hipness via crate digging, establishing that the past was inextricable from the present.
It was the birth of mash-up culture, an aesthetic that has extended far beyond that now musty definition. We live in an age where anybody who is immersed in pop culture now dives into the past, often championing oddities for the sake of obscurities. But the Beasties were never like that. Sure, they had their odd cult favorites but they never got stuck on snobbery, there always was a palpable enthusiastic joy for the music they celebrated. So much is happening on any Beastie Boys album, so many sounds and styles rubbing up against each other, that the group always suggested that the world was greater than your imagination. Within their music, there was always something to discover. It could be something as small as finally realizing that sample on “High Plains Drifter” is from the Eagles’ “These Shoes” or it could be something grander, like discovering jazz organist Groove Holmes through an album track on Check Your Head. Personally, the Beasties were a gateway to the Blue Note LPs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ones where Hank Mobley, the Three Sounds, Jimmy Smith, Grant Green and Lou Donaldson stopped playing hard bop and started laying down groove. Listening to these Blue Note albums in the mid-‘90s, the connection between this old soul-jazz and the Beasties’ current music was clear and it opened up more worlds for me as a music lover. The Beasties always added new sounds to the mix—there’s tropicalia and Lee Scratch Perry on Hello Nasty, salutes to Lee Dorsey on Ill Communication—and when this music was taken in conjunction with the articles in Grand Royal or the videos Yauch directed under his nom de plume Nathaniel Hornblower, they created a boundless interconnected universe filled with surprise and humor, all grounded by a spirituality that was felt without being pushed.
It’s not a secret that Yauch was the most explicitly religious Beastie, acting as a quiet yet tireless advocate for Buddhism, but he also embodied the group’s interdisciplinary creativity. Horowitz and Diamond busied themselves with other creative endeavors but Yauch pursued a serious career in film, first directing music videos and then branching out to the 2006 Beastie Boys concert film Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That and a 2008 basketball documentary Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot. Those full-lengths were released through his Oscilloscope Laboratories, which has evolved into a major player in the indie film market, earning Oscar nominations for their 2009 release The Messenger. This was the major new work of Yauch’s final decade, a time when the Beasties downshifted, spending more time with their families as they entered middle age. Their last three albums—2004’s New York love letter To The Five Boroughs, the instrumental funk LP The Mix Up in 2007, last year’s Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two—found the group working familiar territory that nevertheless showed more imagination than most bands because the Beasties’ worldview always overflowed with ideas. But these albums—and Hot Sauce Committee in particular—also exuded the warmth of camaraderie; this was the work of old war buddies whose bond will remain strong to the end of their life.
Sadly, Yauch did not live past middle age. Listening to Hot Sauce Committee, where the group is so comfortable in their skin, accepting their past and their age with no apologies, it’s hard not to imagine how they would have sounded some twenty years down the road, trading old stories and perhaps looking like the three geezers strolling on the cover of The Sounds Of Science. It was not to be. Yet what Yauch achieved with the Beastie Boys is so great and so lasting that it’s hard to not look in wonder at his life and wart. With their albums and with Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys created their own universe from parts of our own. What they found within our culture was louder and funnier than what was really there—it was romanticized and funkified, it was better than reality. And an artist cannot hope for a better legacy than that.