Adam Yauch, better known as MCA and one of founding members of the excellent and influential rap group Beastie Boys, died on Friday. (This obituary is especially good.)
Hearing that MCA had died made me really sad. Listening to his music nonstop since then has made me a bit happier, but I’ve been listening to the Beasties ever since I saw their seminal video for “Shadrach” on Yo! MTV Raps in 1989 – well over half my life ago. Yauch died after a battle with cancer, which is perhaps a better way to die than Kurt Cobain’s. Cobain and Yauch are – so far – the two biggest losses in my musical pantheon, but I suppose that I’m at a point in my life at which I can expect every few years to lose someone whose art I’ve enjoyed.
The Beastie Boys were important to me because they represented – or at least presented – a kind of life that I couldn’t imagine: free living, hard partying, rebellious, intentionally stupid, and above all New York. Their accents alone! I remember thinking as I watched an interview with them, “People really do talk like that!”
But the music was much more than any of that. Along with Public Enemy – whose music I discovered at just about the same time – the Beasties changed the way I listened to music and changed the kind of music I prefer.
Prior to getting into the Beasties and PE, I was only really into REM, though I also listened to whatever was on FM radio in the U.P. But after hearing the way MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D could create urgent, heart-pounding music out of dense layers of sound – samples, original music, raps – I realized that music didn’t have to be guitars, a bass, drums, and a singer. When I slowly made my way toward jazz a decade later, I found that I dug the music that somehow resembled PE/BB-style rap: kaleidoscopic free jazz like Ornette Coleman, kinetic trios like the Bad Plus or Jason Moran, even classic big-band like Ellington and Basie.
And the Beasties’ hardcore-meets-hip hop tracks – try “Gratitude” – showed me that rock was a broader category than the hair-band metal on the radio. This spun me off toward a ton of music that I still enjoy, from hardcore groups like Fugazi to, eventually, Uncle Tupelo, which eventually turned into Wilco – which can make densely layered music that appeals to me for the same reason the Beastie Boys’ music did.
MCA’s death brings an end to the Beasties’ career. R.I.P., Adam Yauch. I hope you’re passing the mic.