By Daniel Kohn and Ned Raggett
First posted at 10:28 a.m.
Adam Yauch, better known as MCA of legendary hip-hop trio Beastie Boys, has died at 47.
For the past few years, Yauch has been battling cancer. News of his passing was reported less than an hour ago by TMZ.
Below, Ned Raggett remembers Yauch, one of hip-hop's most pivotal figures.
Twitter didn't explode upon the announcement of Adam Yauch's passing. Instead, there was one huge, all-encompassing exhalation and a resigned but loud “Fuck!” Yeah, it was obscene and a bit crass … which is what made it absolutely appropriate for a Beastie Boy.
In the cascade of individual reactions and observations from all over — musicians, writers, fans — there's a generational reaction that's astonishing. At one point, the entire United States trend list was nothing but Beastie Boys' references or songtitles. Twitter isn't all of America, of course, but right then it felt like all of America, like a whole cadre of people — not just of a certain age — can't imagine life without all of them around. A Beastie Boy dead? Get outta here.
It's not just about the feeling of youth lost forever, the horribleness of cancer, the sense of being suckerpunched by fate. Yauch had been struggling with cancer for some time, and reports had indicated he was managing well enough, but in retrospect, his inability to attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was a sign that things just weren't well. Still, as often is the case with sudden death, it's hard to believe.
Again, though, it's more than that. First, the Beasties themselves. English writer Joe Muggs said, “Licensed To Ill came out when I was 12 and bratty; Paul's Boutique when I was 15 & getting deeper into music — perfectly timed.” A followup comment to that went, “Then Check Your Head & Ill Communication said you could mix-n-match whatever the fuck YOU liked and call it an LP.” A perfect summary of their impact. I remember watching the debut of “Hey Ladies” on MTV in 1989 and being amused with all the seventies references — in retrospect, they were prescient about the retro focus that was going to come into vogue. The rest of their career started there.
Yauch himself? MCA was both a solid bassist — that bassline midway through “Sabotage” remains a perfect, perfect moment, one of many — and for many, the best MC of the three. The band's arc to another place matched his own course in life, one that shifted from just being a goof to being someone else, and the lines being quoted on Twitter from him are a cascade of sharp, witty and often moving moments (Eric Harvey is putting up a slew of them via the #RIPMCA tag). As Marcus Gilmer observed, part of the Beasties' appeal lay in owning up to their own past — and that it was MCA who delivered the closing verse making amends on “Sure Shot.”
But turning back to his course in life, consider what else he did. Even though that amazing “Hey Ladies” video was directed by Adam Bernstein — and their marvellous “Sabotage” was one of Spike Jonze's first efforts — Yauch directed a slew of them himself under the Nathaniel Hornblower psuedonym. Writer Anthony Cohan-Miccio noted, “'Nathaniel Hornblower' easily makes my top 10 music directors ever — simple, memorable visuals that focus on the act being advertised.” Some of those credits? “Intergalactic,” “Shake Your Rump,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” “Body Movin',” “So What'cha Want” — never mind even that he ended up founding Oscilloscope Laboratories, with an enviable listing of credits in terms of both films and music.
Then there were the personal causes and goals. Yauch's personal studies in Buddhism are the key reasons behind the band's championing of the cause of a free Tibet via the Milarepa Fund. Little question they brought the widest publicity and knowledge of this to America in particular. Ann Powers asked people to remember “the political activist and peaceful man.” Farm Sanctuary mentioned his concern for animals and Boston writer Dart Adams recalled, “I remember once MCA STOPPED A SHOW because he saw girls were getting groped in the crowd.” Not all artists have that level of insight and compassion.
More can be said, will be said, should be said. There are all kinds of things to unpack and reflect on — how three Jewish punk kids from New York helped break hip hop to broader audiences; how they, self-admitted Pulp fans (really: check the liner notes of The Sounds of Science), took to heart Jarvis Cocker's admonition to not confuse growing up with growing old; how Yauch did a lot more than we're probably aware of. For now, Adam Horowitz and Michael Diamond have lost a brother; Dechen Wangdu, a husband; Tenzin Losel, a father. And we all lost one of our collective favorites.