Adam “MCA” Yauch was co-leader of the Beastie Boys, a New York City trio that transformed hip-hop. But just as significantly, the group and especially Yauch transformed themselves, providing a model for how artists can mature and grow as people without losing their credibility or relevance.
“Role model” – Yauch, who died Friday at age 47 after a three-year battle with throat cancer, would have hated that term. But he became one almost in spite of the Beastie Boys’ early reputation as foul-mouthed innovators.
"To become this gentle Buddhist soul who literally would not step on a fly was something else," said his friend, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, shortly after the news of Yauch's death was announced. "His commitment to social justice and especially to Tibet's freedom put it on the map for an entire generation of people."
Michael "Mike D" Diamond, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horowitz and Adam "MCA" Yauch were still in their mid-teens when they formed a hardcore punk band in New York City during the early ‘80s, before crossing over into hip-hop.
At the time, it wasn't exactly commonplace for white kids to be rapping, but the cultural implications "didn't really occur to us at the time," Diamond once told the Tribune. “The early rap shows we did were in front of all-black audiences. We'd be in small clubs in Queens or Brooklyn, opening for Kurtis Blow or somebody like that, and they'd look at us like we were nuts."
They hooked up with Rick Rubin, a New York University student who would start the Def Jam label out of his college dorm room. Their first full-length album, “Licensed to Ill,” was issued in 1986 and met with a mix of acclaim and derision, equal parts Led Zeppelin, Grandmaster Flash and a more explicitly politically incorrect Marx Brothers. The headline over the Village Voice's lead review said it all: "Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece."
It went on to become the first hip-hop album to top 5 million sales while bridging the chasm between rock and rap. Essential to its appeal was the perception that the trio were, in fact, jerks: arrogant, loud, snotty, foul-mouthed. Transgression has always been a lynchpin of pop culture, and the trio’s demand -- “You gotta fight . . . for your right . . . to party!" – became an ‘80s MTV generation anthem. Their rhymes were clever, hilarious and sometimes just plain idiotic – forming a lethal combination with Rubin’s stockpile of rock guitar riffs. On a massive arena tour with Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys helped bust hip-hop out of the inner-city and storm the suburbs.
The 1989 follow-up, “Paul’s Boutique,” was a radical left turn and confirmed that the Beastie Boys were much more than just a one-hit wonder. With dense, sample-heavy production by the Dust Brothers, the Beastie Boys made an album that has often been described as hip-hop’s answer to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” splicing together the history of funk and soul with countless pop-culture references and audacious, tag-team rhymes.
The group's subsequent albums, including "Check Your Head" (1992) and “Ill Communication” (1994), affirmed the Beastie Boys’ place as a key band in alternative rock’s rise. They began blending live instrumentation with their expanding grasp of hip-hop’s roots, exploring everything from organ-fueled jazz instrumentals to rampaging hard-core.
Along the way, Yauch began to re-evaluate his life and music, as he explained in a Tribune interview: "Shortly after we put out 'Paul's Boutique,’ I really started thinking about our lyrics and how they affected people. I just began noticing more and more how lyrics that I viewed as just joking around had a longer lasting effect on people, myself included. I never smoked 'dust' (PCP), but kids would come up to me citing our songs: 'Yo, I heard you talking about smoking dust in your song and we used to smoke dust all the time and listen to your music.'
"There are a lot of lyrics on our first two albums that talk about carrying guns or being disrespectful to women. We looked at it as a fantasy, a cowboy movie, but I began to realize those things have a deeper effect, where people actually think that's who we are. And in some cases, you kind of become that, a caricature of yourself, your image."
Yauch turned to Eastern philosophy and spirituality, and in the early ‘90s he was trekking to Bali and Nepal to further his studies. On his second trip he encountered Tibetan refugees making their way to a refugee camp in Katmandu.
There he met Erin Potts, a social worker from San Francisco, and together they established the Milarepa Fund, which since 1994 has been putting on concerts and funding projects and organizations designed to aid Tibet in its 60-year struggle to gain independence from China.
"I didn't know anything about Tibet at all," Yauch said of his first visit there. "But I was struck by how these people carried themselves. . . . I began to learn about their non-violent approach to life, and the teachings of the Dalai Lama (Tibet's exiled leader)."
The more open world view had an effect on the Beastie Boys’ art. Diamond and Horovitz acknowledged that they were skeptical about their bandmate’s newfound spirituality, but the Beastie Boys began making albums that managed to balance their trademark wit and sarcasm with a more enlightened social consciousness. They maintained their credibility by avoiding the preachiness that often makes such transformations deadly dull affairs. The fans embraced albums such as "Hello Nasty" (1998) and “To the 5 Boroughs” (2004), which each sold millions.
Along the way, Yauch built a recording studio in New York City (Oscilloscope Laboratories) and began making and distributing movies, including his directorial debut, the basketball documentary “Gunnin' For That #1 Spot” (2008).
His health problems forced the Beastie Boys to cancel a 2009 tour, including a headlining slot at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” was released last year after several delays, but the group was unable to tour afterward. When the trio was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last month, Yauch was unable to attend due to his deteriorating condition.
He leaves behind a legacy that includes 40 million records sold and a musical career that maintained relevance for three decades. But just as notable was his personal transformation as an artist, social activist and human being.
As Erin Potts, his Milarepa partner once told the Tribune, Yauch "showed that at any point in your life, good or bad, you can turn it around. None of us are perfect, but we all have the ability to say, 'I can start living my life right now to help other people.' "
Yauch is survived by his wife, Dechen Wengdu, and their daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch.
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