Here’s a crazy story: When the Beastie Boys dropped “The New Style” and seemingly took over my local radio station, which played their songs every hour and sometimes more, I thought they ruined hip-hop. How could the genre continue to exist, I naively thought back then, if three white frat-boys were allowed to skeet all over it?
Here’s another crazy story: Last night, I told this story to my friends, and they laughed at how stupid I was. The Beastie Boys weren’t just a white thing – they resonated with an entire generation of bratty kids. Rappers continue to sample their rowdy anthems to this day. You can hear echoes of the Beasties everywhere, from MGK and Eminem to Waka Flocka Flame and 50 Cent (who depicted himself as a young boy rocking out to the group in the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’).
Yeah, I was a dummy when I was young, though I can’t help but sigh that I debated my initial dismay at the Beastie Boys the night before Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away on May 4 after a years-long battle with cancer. The Beastie Boys were shocking, not just because they rapped like drunken punks, but because they embodied a rock and roll spirit within the strictures of hardcore rap. Run-DMC may have come first, but the Beastie Boys arguably did the rap-rock thing better, and though many have followed in their wake, none (with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine) has ever come close to matching them.
The Beastie Boys boasted three sharply distinctive voices, but MCA was my favorite. He rhymed in a cool rasp that contrasted with the yelping Brooklynese of Adam “King Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Mike “Mike D” Diamond. MCA evoked a true Flatbush thug. “22 automatic on my person,” he casually offered on “The New Style.” He really seemed like the kind of guy that would shoot you over a can of beer on “Paul Revere.”
The Beastie Boys eventually told the world that the White Castle hoodlums of Licensed to Ill was just a put-on. They certainly weren’t the first or last hip-hop act to inflate a small facet of their lives into a brand ripe for parody and profit. Yet to those of us who weren’t clued in to the 80s New York underground scene and only heard of the group through our small-town and suburban radio stations, our imaginations made their personae real.
Nearly a decade later, Yauch threw us another curveball: He had turned to Buddhism, a breakthrough he celebrated in Beastie tracks like “Bodhisattva Vow” and “Shambala.” His spiritual transformation was eerily prescient, fomenting a brief and heady Western interest in East Asian culture, from Hollywood films such as Martin Scorsese’s Kundun to the Bollywood soundtrack-sampling fad and compilations like Bombay the Hard Way. In 1996, the Beastie Boys organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and headlined the two-day event alongside Smashing Pumpkins, A Tribe Called Quest and others. When my friends and I went, we visited a tent where dozens of Tibetan monks prayed inside. I remember feeling embarrassed when my friends giggled nervously, as if they couldn’t process these deeply religious men chanting and meditating in the midst of a typically raucous and debauched music festival.
From a musical standpoint, I don’t think Yauch, Horovitz and Diamond truly balanced their impressively eclectic passions with the fact that the Beastie Boys was, in essence, a joke band. Once the trio stopped acting like jerks, they lost their power to shock us, even though they enriched their subsequent work with jazz-funk arrangements, kitschy videos, and old-school rap roundelays.
Meanwhile, Yauch was arguably becoming more significant as a cultural leader and tastemaker. He launched the Milarepa Fund to raise funds for the Tibetan freedom movement, working with the Dalai Lama to bring international awareness to the monks’ abuse by the Chinese government. After directing several of the Beasties’ videos and DVDs under the alias Nathanial Hornblower, he co-founded Oscilloscope Laboratories, a theatrical and DVD distributor which worked on independent films like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy. He also directed the basketball documentary Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot. One of the tragedies of Yauch’s untimely passing is that he had begun to develop an acclaimed career as a filmmaker.
But while Yauch may have outgrown rhymin’ and stealin’, he still loved hip-hop music. On the Beasties’ 2011 album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, he raps on “Make Some Noise,” “I age like fine wine when I get older.” Those words sound poignant now. Yet the Beasties’ catalog, and MCA’s place in it, will undoubtedly continue to age like fine wine, more classic than the moment we first heard it.