Last Friday we were shaken by the news of the passing of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, the most mature and socially involved voice of the Beastie Boys. Still in shock, we want to pay tribute to one of the men who made us love hip-hop.
This is the story of three New York adolescents hanging out somewhere in Brooklyn, one afternoon in 1979. They were three cocky, wannabe pop star white kids; rocking the garage every day with their second-hand gear and stealing punk and soul records from stores all over town. But seven years later they ended up taking the centre stage in the rap world, at a time when it was virtually impossible to make it there as a light-skinned artist. The story of the Beastie Boys was a happy one until now; until the most final of finals betrayed it. The legend has been smashed to smithereens after the death - last Friday, 4th May 2012 - of Adam Yauch, the man with a mic in his hand who we called MCA.
In 2009, Yauch announced he was being treated for a cancerous parotid gland, a sickness he seemed to be able to beat until not too long ago. Although he still had time to leave his last rhymes on the recent “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2”, the cancer ended his life at the age of 47. Leaving behind a wife and daughter, MCA takes 25 years of music history with him - during which he was a part of the cause of some seismic movements in music that will remain forever. Along with Mike D, Ad-Rock and (let's not forget) Rick Rubin, he reshaped hip-hop, took it out of the strictly black context and brought it to a much wider audience ( “Licensed To Ill”). Without Beastie Boy, we wouldn't have realised back in 1989 that rock, punk and rap could live together happily on one record ( “Paul’s Boutique”).
The trio's legacy, MCA's legacy, is one of the most important in the history of the genre and the reverential respect the community has always given the band is proof of that. Nas, Chuck D, Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Eminem - all the heavyweights of hip-hop - have expressed their grief upon hearing the news of his passing. News we were all expecting in fear, after their acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, earlier this year. Yauch's absence reminded us of his illness and pain, and pessimism about his future increased. When Ad-Rock and Mike D read a message in his name, it was hard not to expect the worst.
My personal fandom of MCA's flow started with “Check Your Head” (1992), which was the exclusive soundtrack of one entire year during my teens. If “Paul’s Boutique” was the radical break from the past, “Check Your Head” was the band’s search for a voice of their own. On that new beginning - floating in a magma of 'real' instruments, old school hip-hop, scratch, funky breaks and outbursts of punk - his voice found fertile ground to become a sober alternative to his band mates' sardonic rhymes. As of the trio's third album, his lyrical contribution became very different from that on “Licensed To Ill”. The raunchy references to girls and six-packs - and the white rock star-rapper pose - made way for a much more reflective, respectful sound, with some socially and politically conscious notes. A factor he increased and perfected with each new record, such as “Ill Communication” (1994) and “Hello Nasty” (1998).
The activist in Yauch had always been there. Specifically, the New Yorker never hid his unconditional support for the Tibetan cause, always condemning the atrocities inflicted on the people of Tibet. In fact, he founded Milarepa, an organisation focusing on the crimes against the country. It was responsible for the biggest charity concert in the United States since Live Aid in 1985, the Tibetan Freedom Concert at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Still, there are two facets of the rapper I admire even more; at the end of the day, we all knew he was a great guy. The first was his talent as a bassist and his nose for a good riff. As Krist Novoselic said on Twitter, we owe him the magnificent bass line of “Sabotage”. MCA's influence within Beastie Boys' music has been huge since “Check Your Head”: he was a master of the four strings. The second was his passion for film. It led to the foundation of Oscilloscope Laboratories - one of the most prestigious contemporary independent film producers-distributors - and him getting behind the camera for the excellent basketball documentary “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot”. Yauch's camera connection has always been prominent; he directed some of the band’s most memorable videos, among which is the brilliant short film “Fight For Your Right Revisited”, featuring Danny McBride, Elijah Wood and Seth Rogen as the Beasties.
No sleep til’…
MCA was a cool guy; a rough voice that served as a counterpoint to the decibel excess caused by the shrieks of Mike D and AD-Rock. He possessed a relaxed grin and a friendly, care-free gaze. With his wild grey hair, half-closed eyes and retro Puma trainers, he was the Beastie in the shadows. He seemed at ease letting his two partners - with more of a taste for histrionics and practical jokes - take the spotlight. There was a certain mystery about him that immediately and unconditionally seduced many fans of the group. I have the impression that the Beastie Boys’ most devoted admirers, as the years passed and the band matured, appreciated the importance of Adam Yauch in all of it. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels he was the best MC of the three.
The phrasing of “Sure Shot”, for instance, still seems almost perfect to me. With skill and talent - excellent rhythm, a mellow flow, roaring voice and perfectly fitting lyrics - it is possibly was his most splendid episode as an artist. When I hear a Beastie Boys track, the moment MCA enters the scene with his rhymes is always a special moment; amusing, classic and with an impeccable sense of rhythm. It's one of those electric, exciting moments marking the entrance of a great rapper. The best way to remember him is to play his tunes, over and over. There's no way out: there will be no sleep till Brooklyn.