Rap music pioneer Adam Yauch, better known as MCA from the Beastie Boys, died today at age 47 from cancer. Rock stars die almost every week it seems, but in the case of Adam Yauch, this rock star death is more significant.
Yauch was a co-founder of the Beastie Boys back in 1982 when the group was a four-piece hardcore group. As they ditched hardcore and discovered rap, the B-Boys became one of the most significant groups in pop music history. Their importance, not only to me, but to the world, is hard to overstate.
As a suburban kid growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I was not exposed to much "urban" or "street" culture (translation: black people stuff). I grew up on classic rock like KISS, Led Zep, and AC/DC, and by the mid 80's, I was definitely a metal kid. My first exposure to rap music, technically, came from Blondie's "Rapture;" but I was too young to really understand the references to Fab Five Freddy and all that. I remember seeing Run-DMC late one night on television, probably '85 or so, and not knowing what to think. But a year later, it all made sense.
The Beastie Boys really did take rap music from an urban, underground phenomenon to a mainstream one. This, obviously, had a lot to do with being white, and therefore getting more access to non-urban radio stations and to MTV. But the Beasties' whiteness, for lack of a better term, should not be equated with a watering down of authentic hip-hop to make it more palatable to whites. The Beasties were the real deal, and by the time of their second album, Paul's Boutique, you could not find a credible rap source - black or white - who did not agree.
In the early days of the B-Boys, many mocked the group and considered them to be either a joke or an insult to what had been an entirely black dominated style of music. But the band slowly changed its image over the years to reflect who they really were, as opposed to who they were trying to be. Their music and message evolved to such a degree that it is almost impossible to believe that it is the same three guys that created both 1985's "She's On It" and the 2011 album, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2.
Unlike many of the band's peers, however, the Beastie Boys were able to have a long and successful career. The group's albums began incorporating elements of and samples from jazz, rock, dance, disco, R&B, and pop. Lyrically, they were all over the place, too. The band effortlessly moved from the party rock themes of their first album, to more serious topics like 9/11 and Tibet on later releases. All the while, though, keeping the music fresh, funky and fun. The first single from HSCP2, "Make Some Noise," sounded like vintage B-Boys, like not a day had gone by since 1987. Fantastic stuff!
I have been listening to the music of the Beastie Boys for 25 years -- more than half my life. There are few things that I liked as a sophomore in high school that I still like today, at age 41. But, the Beastie Boys have stayed constant from my walkman days to my ipod days, and I imagine I will still be listening when we move on to the next way to play music. Timeless music is timeless music, and the Beastie Boys are timeless.
I'm going to pour out some of my 40 on the curb tonight in honor of MCA (first, I'll have to buy a 40, assuming I can find one), and play the Beastie Boys all night. I suggest you do the same.
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