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Adam Yauch: “This is a type of kinda like a formal dedication.”

Adam Yauch: “This is a type of kinda like a formal dedication.”

The premiere of a Beastie Boys video was always a big deal. Every video was like an inside joke in an action movie of awesomeness. Their three most famous videos Fight For Your Right, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and Sabotage all conveyed a sense of absurdity with Sabotage being a direct parody of a late 70’s action flick or “cop show.” Everyone has their own personal favorite. Mine is Netty’s Girl. They became known for their irreverence and indeed much of their mystique remains mired in their raucous Licensed To Ill days. But for me they became much more than jokesters and even the pioneers that brought hip-hop to the masses (of white people) as they came to be known for. The Beasties ended up transcending all of that and even the music itself and maybe more than anyone, Adam Yauch was the driving force.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the death of Adam Yauch, founder of the Beastie Boys and the independent film studio Oscilloscope Laboratories after his three year battle with cancer. Most everyone unfortunately, seems to have some relationship with cancer at this point. Anyone who has had to witness a family member or friend go through this knows how painful it is both for the person who is sick and everyone else in their lives. When you watch someone battle through the treatment, which is brutal only to slowly die as if your fight meant nothing it can definitely make you question everything you think you know.

Adam Yauch’s death is a tough one because he touched lives. Many of them. One thing I’ve found disappointing in the coverage of his death and in the tributes like Coldplay’s cover of Fight For Your Right, is that the deeper meaning seems to have been lost already. For anyone who has had a to deal with a death, particularly an early death, this has become my greatest fear. For some reason life just goes on for everyone else, even though you changed.  Luckily when tragedy and death happens to me now, I have a better perspective. One of the reasons I can say that is because of the Beastie Boys, who have seemingly been there for my entire life.

The Beastie Boys were a big deal to kids in the 80’s and 90’s. In that early era they were known for their raucous live shows with girls dancing in cages and a giant penis alongside them on stage. Their music reflected a juvenile sense of delight in mayhem. In other words nothing was shocking…enough. But the Beasties didn’t stop making music after Licensed to Ill as much of the news coverage has focused on their initial success. In fact, Paul’s Boutique, their second album was all but forgotten until the last decade when everyone realized how awesome it was. It was a landmark experiment in sound. It basically on it’s own validated sampling as an artform. But by 1989, the Beasties in many ways had worn out their welcome. They were viewed as brats and hooligans. This review from Rolling Stone about Paul’s Boutique says it all:

Sure, Paul’s Boutique is littered with bullshit tough-guy bravado, but it’s clever and hilarious bullshit: Who can be put off by claims like “I got more hits than Sadaharu Oh” and “I got more suits than Jacoby and Myers”?

—Rolling Stone, August 10, 1989

It’s hard to fathom but even at this point, Hip Hop was not a legitimate form of music despite MC Hammer’s claims in 1991 that it was 2 Legit 2 Quit. Nothing short of the immense commercial success of the early 90’s fueled by west coast acts like mainstream-friendly Hammer but in particular Dr. Dre and Snoop who blew the scene up with infectious beats and rhymes, all delivered in a laid back style a la east coast legends like Rakim and EPMD. The west coast also attracted Tupac amidst a renaissance of sorts on the east coast with the likes of Wu Tang Clan and Biggie. Many people know this time as one filled with violent lyrical content, particularly in the wake of the Rodney King beating and the riot that followed when the perpetrators were acquitted. “Gangster Rap” was the order of the day at this point, although the form predated the whole Rodney King incident. Even a kid on the east coast like me knew that this is what happened in L.A. How could you not know if you listened to a N.W.A. or Ice T record?

When you grow up in crappy conditions and hate is all around you it doesn’t feel good. Initially the Beasties were an outlet for people who just wanted to cut loose and forget about the b.s. I was very young so I didn’t have the luxury of compartmentalizing my hopes and fears like adults did. So I was figuring it out as I went along. The 80’s for all intents and purposes represented a wasteland to me on the radio dial. It is very difficult to quantify how bizarre it was. In rock music, which as a “white boy” was supposed to be my music, people were dressed in drag singing about girls, girls, girls, and drinking, and doing drugs. Others were singing about dragons and trolls in a hall belonging to the “mountain king.” Although I grew up listening to my parents music, which was 60’s and 70’s rock like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as well as Motown, this 80’s version of rock seemed foreign. Then hip-hop entered the mainstream. RUN-DMC and the Beastie Boys delivered all the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffs I could handle along with a bevy of other forms of music ranging from folk to funk, which seemed much more enjoyable. The lyrics were from the streets, like the ones you saw everyday and it wasn’t about a fantasy that didn’t or couldn’t exist.

But the content of your average Beastie Boys’ song from 1987 to 1989 was no better and in many ways worse than what you might expect from other acts as the Rolling Stone review painfully denigrates. In a way, their bad behavior made the whole thing more sincere because it really seemed that like most people you met, they didn’t really care. That is until they started to care. That’s what makes what happened next so shocking and so important for me. Because when you are a young kid asking questions that no one, not the teacher at school, not the priest in your church, and not even your parents have the answer to, the last people on Earth you would think to ask are the Beastie Boys. That’s when Check Your Head came out in 1992.

In an era of “gangsterism” and posturing that would later lead to it’s two main icons’ assassinations, the Beasties released a treatise on the human condition that no one saw coming. Much was made of their return to live instrumentation and their punk roots from their time as a hardcore band, but even more impressive was their transformation as people. From the first lines of Jimmy James you could feel your mind change.

People how you doing there’s a new day dawning
For the Earth Mother it’s a brand new morning
For such a long while there’s been such a longing
But now the sun is shining let’s roll back the awning

Adam Yauch to me seemed like the driving force on this album and the follow-up Ill Communication. He became known for his conversion to Buddhism and his support of Tibet, which led to a series of large scale benefit concerts. But for me on the micro scale, these two albums were a way that could help you walk down the street and have a sense of self-worth and importance, when seemingly no one cared. School sucked. The walk home sucked. Home sucked. Beastie Boys playing on the headphones of my Walkman became a form of salvation or at least an extra civics class tacked on to the school day. The sheer amount of other music I was exposed to led to other obsessions. They were integral in getting me interested in punk rock. Many of the bands they loved as kids like Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the Bad Brains became mandatory listening.

The Beasties were a big deal to me. Adam Yauch’s passing has been really difficult to believe. The whole group was so irreverent that it didn’t seem like anything could touch them. In an early episode of Futurama, their jarred heads were still rapping way in the future. In Fight For Your Right Revisited, an older version steps out of a Delorean. The Beasties even donned old man make-up as seen on the cover of Sounds of Science and in one video can be seen playing basketball as if they were 80 years old. It just seemed it was destined to be that way. Like their music, when reality hits it hits hard. I just want it to be known that Adam Yauch for a large amount of people who came of age at the moment the Beastie Boys became akin to Buddha in America, that he dropped knowledge on an unknowing mass of people who were and still are fighting for their rights. The Beasties are so much bigger than their early shenanigans and Adam Yauch was bigger than that. That’s why I still “have a beard like a billy goat.”

2 Comments

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  1. Eeon says
    2012/05/15, 09:10

    His beats were so nasty we needed a sneeze guard.

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