Music that broke the rules
remembers the life of a Beastie Boy and how he changed music.
ADAM YAUCH wasn't larger than life. Beneath the dynamic stage presence, over-the-top rhymes and highly stylized videos was someone who was quite humble and even soft-spoken in interviews. One almost gets the feeling that Yauch and his MCA alter-ego were two separate people. The hole that both leave in modern music, however, is immense.
After Yauch's death from cancer at the age of 47 on May 4, a staggering number of artists--Black and white, from across the musical spectrum--paid tribute to the profound way Yauch and the Beastie Boys helped expand music's boundaries."
Back in 1998, when he was presenting the Video Vanguard award to the Beastie Boys at the MTV Video Music Awards, Chuck D of Public Enemy described the shock of the group's emergence in 1987:
In those days, hip-hop was truly from the streets, and everybody rapping was Black. All of a sudden, these three punk-rock white kids--there was no politically correct term for them back in the day--transcended their style and crossed into hip-hop with the shock of Jackie Robinson in reverse...
[They were] accused of being wannabes, but eventually gaining respect in the school of hard knocks. And at the same time expanding and giving to music the diversity that it claims today. I'm proof of that. They helped me get put on, and I was on their first tour, the Licensed to Ill tour, in 1987.
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THE BEASTIE Boys had started out as a hardcore punk group. Yauch, at the age of 14, decided he wanted to form a punk band after seeing Black Flag at a New York show in 1978. The name was chosen by he and Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D) because they liked the idea of sharing initials with Bad Brains.
America's punk scene was an unstable animal, however. As it evolved and fractured into countless sub-genres in the 1980s, hip-hop began to take center stage. By the time the Beastie Boys had recruited Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz in 1983, thus rounding out the trio, they were already drifting in that direction.
This was New York City after all, and they weren't the only excitable white kids aching to embrace the style as their own. "Cooky Puss," a prank call to a local Carvel ice cream store goofily set to sampled beats, is named by many as the Beastie Boys' first hip-hop track. It unexpectedly became a hit in the NYC underground club scene.
"Cooky Puss" showcased a zany sense of humor that would always remain part of the group, but was particularly prevalent in the days of Licensed to Ill, their first full-length album in 1986 that made them superstars. Paul's Boutique, released in 1989, saw the outlandishness somewhat tempered as their musical style matured. (Not everyone got the joke; Tipper Gore and the PMRC hated these albums, which to anyone who actually respected music meant they were doing something right.)
In 1992, Check Your Head was the most organic fusion yet of all things Beastie. The beats and scratches ran alongside some of the best of New York City hip-hop's then-ongoing Golden Age, but they were complemented by a razor-edged live instrumentation. The band's sneering bravado was infused with just enough wink-wink-nudge-nudge--sure, you were outside the realm of respectability, but that's where the most fun was anyway.
Music fans of all types had tired of the Vanilla Ices of the world, and bland opportunistic crossovers were looked on with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Check Your Head didn't fall into this category, though. It had authenticity to spare. This wasn't "white boys playing Black music"--nor was it an anticipation of the testosterone-laden rap-rock that emerged later in the decade.
Rather, the Beasties were a key link in a broader musical moment that was all too brief. It wasn't just about white artists embracing hip-hop, it was Fishbone and Suicidal Tendencies, Tracy Chapman and Me'shell Ndegeocello--artists of color innovating in genres of music that had for too long been erroneously considered the purview of white musicians.
For many young folks, it was a sign that maybe, despite all the attempts by the industry to keep rock and rap separate and the scenes divided, they had a lot more in common.
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THAT YAUCH and the Beastie Boys have remained a fixture in the mainstream even while many other artists and bands from the era have receded to the underground is a testament to how easily they've been able to run the gamut. There aren't many acts wose comfort zone is so unpredictable.
Their hardcore roots were never fully relinquished ("Tough Guy," "Time For Livin,'" even an EP of punk songs in 1995). Their love of jazz and funk was always obvious, always combined in new and innovative ways with their scratches and beats.
Hip-hop continued to evolve, morph and come into its own in the 1990s. The Beastie Boys, however, could never be accused of merely following the trend. The respect they got from artists of all styles was well deserved--and considering the early accusations of cultural piracy, it was all the more impressive.
Likewise, Yauch expanded his own creative horizons in the 1990s. Under his eccentric alter-ego of Nathanial Hornblower, he directed several of the group's videos, and began experimenting with filmmaking in earnest. Oscilloscope Laboratories, the indie film company he founded in 2008 with THINKFilm executive David Fenkel, has released almost 50 titles to date.
Yauch also became a Buddhist, which obviously had much to do with his increasing involvement in the campaign for a free Tibet. The Tibetan Freedom Concerts he spearheaded with his Milarepa Fund were instrumental in raising awareness of China's unjust treatment of the Tibetans. And how many social justice music festivals could attract everyone from Rage Against the Machine to Sean Lennon to De La Soul to Bjork?
Yauch's political enlightenment, so to speak, went much further than the Tibetan cause. Starting somewhere around Check Your Head, the sexual braggadocio that had characterized the Beastie Boys' early work--especially on Paul's Boutique--started fading away. The group had always claimed it was a joke, but now he was declaring, on Ill Communication's "Sure Shot":
I wanna say a little something that's long overdue
The disrespect to women has got to be through
To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends
I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.
As the decade progressed, it seemed that Yauch was increasingly aware of the unique platform he and the group had been afforded. Just as he had provided a crucial link in the Beastie Boys' creative process, so now was he providing a political rudder for the group.
When the Beasties accepted the Video Vanguard award from Chuck D in 1998, it was three weeks after President Bill Clinton had ordered missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan--supposedly in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Among the buildings demolished by the U.S. strikes was the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which almost certainly caused the deaths of thousands of Sudanese from treatable illnesses.
Yauch took the entirety of his acceptance speech to speak out against the bombings:
I think it was a real mistake that the U.S. chose to fire missiles into the Middle East. I think that was a huge mistake. And I think it's very important that the United States start to look towards nonviolent means of resolving conflicts...
I think that another thing that America really needs to think about is our racism--racism that comes from the United States toward Muslim people and toward Arabic people. And that's something that has to stop, and the United States has to start respecting people from the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problems that have been building up over many years.
This was three years before the September 11 attacks. Yauch's comments foreshadowed the New Yorkers Against Violence concert that the Beasties organized in October 2001, noted for its opposition to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and featuring Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber as a guest speaker.
Yauch's comments also prefigured "In a World Gone Mad," the free download the group released in 2003 to protest the invasion of Iraq. The song, quite frankly, was bad. Really bad. But it also revealed an awareness of Islamophobia that many other antiwar liberals were happy to let slide:
First, the "War On Terror," now war on Iraq
We're reaching a point where we can't turn back
Let's lose the guns and let's lose the bombs
And stop the corporate contributions that they're built upon
Well, I'll be sleeping on your speeches 'til I start to snore
'Cause I won't carry guns for an oil war
As-Salamu alaikum, wa alaikum assalam
Peace to the Middle East, peace to Islam
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THE YEAR 1999 was a formative one for the "millennial" generation. The Battle in Seattle, Napster's debut, the shooting of Amadou Diallo and other events were causing many of us to question whether the present order was the best we could do. The Beastie Boys ushered in the year being protested by cops.
Police groups were up in arms about a massive concert at New Jersey's Meadowlands, co-headlined by Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys--Bad Religion and Chumbawamba opened. The show was a benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Yauch, ">speaking for the group to MTV, stood his ground:
The main reason that we wanted to be involved is, in general, opposition to the death penalty. I think the death penalty is really not a solution to anything. If we all agree that killing somebody is not a good thing, then we can all agree that killing another person is not a solution.
In the end, 16,000 people attended the concert. I wasn't among them; I was all of 16 and stuck all the way down in Washington, D.C. I weighed the options of disappearing for a few days and buying a bus ticket to East Rutherford; the grounding might be worth it. Here were four of my absolute favorite acts on the same lineup, innovators across the board.
It was a rare opportunity to experience the very best of what had become my two musical obsessions--punk and hip-hop--in the same environment. Why, oh why, couldn't they make it a tour?
I knew nothing about Mumia's case. The fact that the Beastie Boys and Rage were supporting him--and pissing off the very same people who regularly harassed me for the "crime" of putting up fliers for local shows--made me want to find out more. I did, and Mumia quickly became one of my heroes. From there, it wasn't a long jump to joining the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and marching outside Maryland's Supermax prison. I attended anti-sweatshop meetings and became part of the global justice movement.
The first (and unfortunately only) time I saw any of the Beastie Boys in person was in 2000 at DC's MCI Center. Ironically, it wasn't a concert; it was a super-rally for Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate. Yauch was one of Nader's most up-front supporters, and unlike many other Nader 2000 stalwarts, he never apologized for it. I was just barely old enough to vote and had already registered Green. I was excited enough to see Patti Smith play at the rally--the fact that Yauch was speaking was just gravy.
Certainly I'm not alone in saying that the Beastie Boys played a formidable role in shaping my politics. It wasn't just the fact that someone famous was lending their face to this or that cause. It was deeper than that. It was what their music represented.
That three white Jewish kids from Brooklyn could be taken into the world of hip-hop, even be allowed to innovate it by their peers, seemed to point a way toward something ineffable, something better. Yauch and company weren't cultural colonists--they were artists adding to the conversation, and taking the conversation seriously to begin with. Years before anyone starting abusing the term "post-racial," such a musical stance took big-time guts.
Yauch's gutsiness came across in another form when I got this Tweet from Occupy Wall Street after the news of his death: "Adam Yauch marched with us in November over the Brooklyn Bridge. He was a visionary artist who never lost sight of his community."
Here was Yauch, battling cancer's final stages, marching arm-in-arm with Occupiers and union members as police swung their batons. That's some rare bravery.
But then, artistic vision requires bravery. Adam Yauch's music and art revealed him to be always curious, always searching, always seeking to chart new territory. In short, he was someone who understood that art simply doesn't respond to boundaries. He also understood that, to a real artist, this meant breaking more than a few rules along the way.