"Got to keep it going, going full steam
Too sweet to be sour, too nice to be mean
On the tough guy style I'm not too keen
To try to change the world I will plot and scheme"
- MCA, "Intergalactic" by Beastie Boys
I’m still shaken about the passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, and I know I’m not alone. Some of us quite literally grew up with the Beastie Boys and they may have made the first rap music we ever heard. Admittedly, when they released Licensed to Ill in 1986, it was hard to tell where the hip-hop began and the reckless punk rock ended. They were the snottiest side of New York City — hilarious, educated, white smart alecks who suffered no fools or rules. But Yauch in particular seemed to take the debauchery the hardest, spending the rest of his life owning up to it and being a positive artistic force.
First and foremost, the Beasties made music that altered the culture. While they themselves had an uneasy relationship with Licensed to Ill, with its easy misogyny, frat-boy jokes and naive gunplay, the record was a game changer.
"I was 14 years old [and] I loved that record right away," says Buck 65 (a.k.a. Rich Terfry). "But I had already been a fan and collector of rap records for a few years at that point. As a die-hard hip-hop head I felt I had permission to love that record because it was dope. The beats on that album are amazing. But I certainly did react to it in a different way than I had to any other hip-hop record I had heard to that point. I was fascinated with Run DMC and Doug E. Fresh and the Treacherous Three, but I related to the Beastie Boys. Not because they were white guys, but because they talked about things that regular goofballs like myself could understand. I recognized myself in the honesty with which they presented their experiences."
In fact, every album that followed — from 1989’s Paul’s Boutique onward — seemed to predict the future. For a good chunk of time, the Beasties were the ultimate tastemakers; if they mined musical eras/figures for inspiration and samples or switched it up to play their own instruments on a record (Yauch was a crazy-great bassist and the strongest musician of the trio), within months, their sounds were being emulated everywhere and the figures they championed were exposed to a whole new audience.
“MCA passing away is more than just an artist dying,” says Toronto MC D-Sisive. “It's beyond the ‘oh, that sucks’ response we all give to those we've seen on television or heard on the radio but have never met. The Beastie Boys were a movement. They're the real reason I'm able to do what I do. If you're a hip-hop artist and not a fan of the Beasties, or even too young to know their material, trust me, you've been influenced.”
As they grew older and wiser, the savvy trio knew they had people’s attention and could affect change in the world beyond skate parks and clubs. Yauch in particular found it so hard to reconcile his gun-toting, beer-swilling past; he explored Buddhism and, contrary to a whole chunk of their near-anarchistic early catalogue, his spirituality showed up in Beastie Boys songs. Mike D and Ad-Rock certainly seemed as enlightened in their raps, but I always felt like Yauch was leading the way here. Ironically, he tapped into the youthful heart of punk rock — with its DIY ethos, anti-violence and political righteousness — to try and shake up a world full of adults.
"He evolved in the most interesting ways," Buck 65 explains. "He wasn't just a guy breaking beer bottles over his head. He was thoughtful. He was a serious musician. He cared about the world. He was interested in art. As I grew up, MCA grew up with me."
Yauch was the man behind the Milarepa Foundation and the Beastie Boys' famed Tibetan Freedom Concerts of the late '90s — an organizational feat that featured nearly every significant musical figure of that era, participating in the shows and voicing their anger at the Chinese government for its treatment of the people of Tibet. It’s all too easy to be cynical of mega rock stars that get involved in political causes, but Yauch and his band had way too much credibility to be shortchanged. And, like everything they did, it was all so tastefully curated and accessible and drew millions to the cause. I still recall desperately trying to webstream one of the concerts on my parents’ computer (dial-up!) and being riveted by the pixelated images for an entire day. I wouldn’t have done that for just anybody.
"Everyone respects the Beasties," says celebrated Canadian hip-hop artist Shad. "They seemed like the kind of OGs I hope we'll have more of in hip hop; grateful, still creative, political. And 'Sabotage' is the sickest video."
Beyond music, Yauch was a filmmaker (under his Nathaniel Hornblower pseudonym) who started his own company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, producing music videos and films that were challenging and innovative in their own right. His lyrics on recent Beastie Boys albums were angrier calls-to-action against his own government, and he just seemed more amped up than ever.
When Yauch announced that he was battling cancer in 2009, fans were shocked but he seemed so hopeful, handling the news with some levity, that we felt like he would beat it. That’s what you always hope, I guess. As elder statesmen, the Beasties were no longer as relevant as they once were but they were still hugely important and had a lot more work to do. Now it’s over and things will never be the same.
“What they and Rick Rubin created changed the world and will never be matched,” D-Sisive says. “As a teen, I wanted to be them when I grew up. And I still do. Losing one member means losing the entire group. It's a sad f--king day.”
Beastie Boys' official announcement
CBC News obituary on Yauch
Strombo: RIP Adam Yauch
CBC Community: Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's death stuns, saddens fans
Below, we'll continue to update this page through the day with CBC Music stories, including tributes from musicians and fans, and more on Yauch's life and influence.
Storify: Musicians across genres pay tribute to MCA
Beastie Boys on Saturday Night Live
Adam 'MCA' Yauch: Beastie Boys co-founder influenced music and more
Deyden Tethong: Adam Yauch's Canadian connection
Adam Yauch's life in pictures
on May 04, 2012