More sad news from the music world: Russell Simmons' GlobalGrind has announced (and Rolling Stone has confirmed) that Adam "MCA" Yauch, one-third of the pioneering and remarkably indomitable hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, died at the age of 47 following a long battle with cancer. Yauch was diagnosed with a cancerous parotid gland in 2009 and while he had to shoot down rumors that he had been pronounced cancer-free just last year, he'd remained optimistic and proactive about his chances for recovery ever since, even as his illness kept the group from performing live over the last several years and delayed the release of its last album, Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2. Most recently, it forced Yauch to sit out the Beastie Boys' induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Yauch was the George Harrison of Beastie Boys, a spiritual searcher, vegan, and practicing Buddhist whose obsession with film led him to start an essential art-house distributor named Oscilloscope Laboratories, just as Harrison’s cinephilia led him to form Handmade Films. Like Harrison, Yauch possessed intense spiritual convictions that made him an activist for causes he believed in. Harrison famously helped organize the Concert for Bangladesh, while Yauch’s fierce dedication to the cause of Tibetan dissidents led him to found non-profit Milarepa Fund and organize the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996.
Beastie Boys began life as a hardcore punk band in New York in the late ’70s but experienced massive, unprecedented success as a hip-hop trio after they added to their live shows an ambitious DJ named Rick Rubin, who also happened to run a label named Def Jam that was on the lookout for fresh new talent. Rubin was no mere DJ of course. He was also a brilliant, vastly influential producer and a conceptual mastermind who played a big role in establishing Beastie Boys’ proudly belligerent early persona and the ironic frat-rap sensibility of its multi-platinum debut, 1986’s Licensed To Ill.
Licensed To Ill and its inescapable hit single “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” made Beastie Boys hip-hop’s first white superstars, and is still one of the biggest-selling hip-hop albums of all time. Licensed To Ill was a masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek boorishness and over-the-top adolescent aggression, but the irony at the core of the group’s aesthetic was lost on fans who took the trio’s party anthems at face value.
Yauch and bandmates Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Michael Diamond (Mike D) were never particularly comfortable with Licensed To Ill, which represented the smartass, defiantly crude vision of producer Rubin more than the band, and parted ways with Rubin and Def Jam following Licensed To Ill.
The trio moved to Los Angeles and began recording a follow-up album with an up-and-coming pair of producers called The Dust Brothers that was utterly unlike anything that had been recorded before, in hip-hop or anywhere else. Paul’s Boutique was a dense, kaleidoscopic cut-and-paste sonic collage that luxuriated in the freedom and infinite possibilities afforded by sampling. It was a sizable commercial disappointment at the time, but has subsequently come to be seen as a milestone in hip-hop and arguably Beastie Boys’ masterpiece.
1992’s Check Your Head represented an equally radical departure for the trio, trading in the sampling of Paul’s Boutique for live instrumentation and a more rock-oriented sound reflected in its metal-leaning smash single “So What’cha Want.”
By the time Check Your Head made Beastie Boys commercial superstars again, Yauch’s life and career were about much more than hip-hop or even music in general. Yauch began directing music videos under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower and quickly established himself as one of the masters of the form, an aggressive and accomplished stylist with an irreverent, pop-culture-crazed sense of humor that set him apart from his peers.
Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, Beastie Boys reigned as cultural tastemakers who played a huge role in kick-starting the ’70s-nostalgia craze with its videos for “Hey Ladies” and “Sabotage,” the latter of which introduced the world to a skate-punk and photographer turned music-video director named Spike Jonze, who would go on to enjoy a fruitful and important relationship with the group.
Beastie Boys used the power and money that comes with being one of the most popular groups in the world to agitate for the artists, causes, and art they believed in, and nobody in the group was more passionate or successful in evangelizing for movies, musicians, and causes that mattered to them than Yauch. Yauch’s ever-growing political and social awareness was expressed in the lyrics he wrote and the songs he made. The group that once toured with women in cages became some of hip-hop’s most outspoken feminists (granted, they didn’t have a lot of competition), recording songs about the male gaze, sampling the chanting of Buddhist monks, and releasing songs like “Bodhisattva Vow” that reflected Yauch’s Buddhist convictions.
While Beastie Boys’ commercial fortunes declined somewhat in recent years, Yauch remained as culturally relevant as ever by shifting his focus and attention to film, both as a filmmaker (he directed the 2006 Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! and the 2008 basketball documentary Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot) and as the leading light behind Oscilloscope Laboratories. Over the course of less than a decade, Oscilloscope released a string of important independent films whose impact belied their modest budgets: the Kelly Reichardt masterpieces Wendy And Lucy and Meek’s Cut-Off, both of which starred Michelle Williams; the 2009 Iraq War drama The Messenger, which was nominated for two Academy Awards; Banksy’s brilliant provocation Exit Through The Gift Shop; and the controversial art-house shockers Bellflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin. Oscilloscope shows no sign of slowing down, distributing three films that made a big splash at Sundance: the deliriously fun LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up And Play The Hits, the crowd-pleasing Melanie Lynskey vehicle Hello I Must Be Going, and a well-regarded adaptation of Wuthering Heights from Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold.
Yauch’s life and career are a testament to the possibilities of emotional, creative, and artistic growth. A man who rose to fame peddling a proudly obnoxious form of adolescent nihilism grew up to be a man whose life and career were defined by idealism and integrity. Adam Yauch wanted to make the world a more compassionate, loving, and funky place. He succeeded. The world is poorer for his loss but richer for the contributions he made.