No Peers in Heaven: A Tribute to Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys
On May 4, the world lost Beastie Boy MCA, 47, to cancer. The Boys’ music moved a generation and changed the way the industry works in ways that many may not fully be aware of, and their influence will be felt for generations.
BUSAN, South Korea -- In 1986, the trio of Adam “MCA” Yauch, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz burst onto the music scene as the Beastie Boys with the instantly iconic hit “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)”. I was 12 at the time, and the perfect audience for this hugely fun, largely misunderstood ironic rant on their debut album, Licensed to Ill.
Run-DMC, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow and others had been around for a while at that point, but this was something new - three white Jewish boys with the simple intent of everyone having a good time with their songs. And we did! It wasn’t long before almost everyone I knew was singing about “Rhymin & Stealin”, drinkin’ “Brass Monkey”, whatever that was, and loudly proclaiming “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”!
The Beastie Boys, along with a young producer by the name of Rick Rubin, combined funky beats, classic rock guitar riffs and entertaining rhymes about silly adventures to make a brew that intoxicated our youth. Prior to them, rap and hip hop were still part of a relatively underground scene in gritty, urban environs and MTV was afraid to broadcast videos by black rappers. The Beastie Boys changed that; as Rubin once said, “They brought hip hop to the suburbs.” Suddenly, every white kid in North America was practicing their rhyming skills and it seriously scared parents, triggering one of Western history’s greatest moral panics over music.
In the mid-80s, Tipper Gore (wife of Al) and a group of influential, probably bored senators’ wives became seriously alarmed over the music their kids were listening to. This led them to create the censorship committee known as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to ‘advise’ the nation’s parents on which artists were guilty of having obscene song lyrics.
Along with Prince, Judas Priest and Cyndi Lauper, the Beasties made the PMRC’s ‘naughty’ list. Although the PMRC claimed to be simply providing information to concerned parents, it appeared that they had compiled a hit list of artists they intended to censor, seriously threatening First Amendment rights of speech and expression. The moral panic of ‘protecting the children’ set in motion events that sent a chill through the music and artist communities.
Following a concert in my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, the Beastie Boys were charged with obscenity. The potential catastrophe came to a head with congressional hearings on ‘porn rock’ where the senators were schooled on the importance of freedom of speech by testimony from Frank Zappa, Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) and even the country boy himself, John Denver. Eventually, the public decided that the First Amendment was far too important to screw with, resulting in the compromise of a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker. The Beastie Boys would continue unscathed and Eminem’s playbook would already be written.
The group continued integrating audiences and acts, touring with Run-DMC and Public Enemy, and followed up their debut with the seminal Paul’s Boutique. Produced by the Dust Brothers, this album revolutionized sampling in a way that would not be possible with today’s copyright laws. With Boutique, they found a much deeper groove and maturity of sound with tunes like “Shake Your Rump” and “Hey Ladies”.
In 1992, the world was done with the failed experiment known as Vanilla Ice, and I was graduating from high school. I caught the video for “So What’cha Want” and was blown away by its slow funk bombast and swagger. I drove right to the record shop and bought Check Your Head on cassette - how we listened to music in those days! From the moment I popped it into my tape deck, I was transfixed by the big beats, the jazzy-funk groove and the hardcore jams that flowed as I sat there in the parking lot, unable to drive away.
Check Your Head was followed by 1994’s Ill Communication and the explosive “Sabotage”, “Sure Shot” and “Root Down”, all proving that they were serious about the music without taking themselves too seriously. Their growth could be seen in MCA’s lyrics: “I got more rhymes than I got gray hairs/ And that’s a lot ‘cause I got my share.” A major criticism of their early work was the sexism and misogyny in their lyrics, but by the 90s, as exemplified in “Sure Shot”, they made evident moves to change that image: “I wanna say a little somethin’ that’s long overdue/ This disrespect to women has got to be through/ To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
It was in the summer of ’95 that I finally got to see the Beasties live in Atlanta, and they lived up to the hype. Alternating between playing live instruments and backing from DJ Hurricane, they had an intensity of groove and fun that is a true rarity. Public Enemy’s Chuck D was absolutely correct when he stated that the Beasties Boys were “one of the best live acts around.” This was the era in which Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden and Radiohead were turning the music world upside down, and the Beasties had no trouble keeping up.
It was in the early 90s that Adam Yauch became interested in Buddhism, eventually converting and penning Buddhist themes with “Shambala” and “Bodhisattva Vow”. He went on to establish the Milarepa Fund to raise awareness of Tibetan issues, and produced the highly successful Tibetan Freedom Concert series, ensuring him a charitable legacy as well as a musical one.
Last year’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two will likely be the final release from the Beasties with Yauch’s recent passing after a three-year battle with cancer. The Beastie Boys cut a wide swath across the musical landscape and stayed vital for decades. They will not be forgotten.
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