Belated Thoughts on Adam Yauch
For me, the pivotal Beastie Boys moment wasn’t when I first saw the video for “Fight for Your Right to Party” on a giant screen at a local Chuck-E-Cheese knock-off, or when I saved up enough change to make Licensed to Ill my first-ever cassette purchase. The video terrified me, less for what it sounded like and more for its wanton, idiotic cruelty. I may even have cried. But I also wanted to be it. The tape, copped at K-Mart with piggybank change, was played endlessly because I didn’t know what else to do with it.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Beastie Boys changed my life. But I’m pretty sure that this only really happened was when I realized that Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, who passed away this week at the age of 47, was the best rapper in the group.
When their place in the genre’s history gets discussed, the Beasties are frequently referred to as a “gateway” act; my relationship with them, in a sense, a generational trope. The screwball collages of Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head’s skate-punk soul jazz are considerably more original and highly-regarded; The Beastie Boys made the greatest impact with their first album, a novelty record whose cultural pastiche was more memorable than its musical accomplishments, then spent almost two decades proving they were more than obnoxious rip-off artists.
Except Licensed to Ill wouldn’t have worked if it had simply lead so many of us to rap music. Licensed to Ill didn’t just put the idea of hip-hop in our heads, it taught us the basics of how to listen to it.
The Beastie Boys played their delinquent scourge to the hilt, and the bratty, smash-and-grab ethos that shaped their image may have suggested that they were subjecting pop music to random acts of violence. That wasn’t it; they were riding the coattails of a new musical language. Their ceaseless trolling, Oprah-baiting and parent-frightening belonged to a time-honored tradition of commodified rebellion. The music, though, was a primer for a new language. What’s more, it was a surprisingly effective introduction to “the real” of artists like Run-DMC, Slick Rick, and Rakim, not to mention the groundwork that allowed Public Enemy and N.W.A. to have an even more marked effect on many of us a few years down the road. The Beasties didn’t teach me to yell over samples, they lead me straight to the Panthers.
The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, are mistakenly credited with making a rock-influenced album as if they had anticipated rap-metal. Yet Rick Rubin’s guitar-heavy production, including Zeppelin samples and an appearance by Slayer’s Kerry King, was part part of the sound he had already established with Run-DMC on King of Rock. To make their case to the mainstream, Run-DMC had to had to make a “Walk This Way” video in which walls were forcibly removed and Aerosmith joined forces with them in seeming violation of some musical natural law (note: Joe Perry has said that he intended the original song to be a Meters-style groove, which suggests that rap had the ability to reinforce racial barriers even where none had existed in the first place). The Beastie Boys, on the other hand, had tracks that were very much a product of rap’s avant-garde impulses. This was new, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t also convincing.
Part of understanding hip-hop meant learning the difference between dope and wack, or whatever we said back then. Rubin provided the credibility but when it came to the actual rhyming, the Beasties walked a fine line between aspirants and outright parodists. That is, except for MCA. The reason why, for me, Yauch was always the most important Beastie Boy is that he made me realize that there were standards in rap; when I listened to him, I heard something that wasn’t there with Ad Rock and Mike D. It was part of the education; you might even say he was the first MC I ever heard who made me understand the importance of flow, breath control, riding the beat, and all those other things we expect of credible rappers.
Ad Rock seemed to relish sounding ridiculous, and Mike D could be wan and shaky, so the format probably. It was MCA’s booming voice that saved those composite, rapid-fire verses. The first voice you hear on Licensed to Ill is Ad Rock’s adrenal whine, stretching syllables in an unpleasant yammer: “Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about.” Then comes MCA, simpler, more composed, and vigorous: “I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out.” In its wake, Mike D’s “No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder” barely registers. At some point in 1986, I could hear that. MCA was the one who seemed to actually get this hip-hop thing and in the process, allowed so much of us to figure it out with him. He wasn’t battle-tested or battled-ready, but it didn’t really matter. He was the hook. He was what got us in for life; we all carried some of MCA with us down through the years.