I was very sad today to hear about the passing of Adam Yauch, better known as "MCA" to fans of the Beastie Boys. I was also very surprised to see how many people on Facebook, older and younger, were also struck by the news. The story even made NBC Nightly News. As it turns out, the Beastie Boys are still a big deal to a lot of people.
It's a little hard to explain to non-fans why they're a big deal, and I have to admit that there's a lot of nostalgia I connect with them (more on that momentarily). But I think it's interesting to look at the scope of their work and how it has changed, while staying the same. One of my favorite MCA lyrics is:
"People come up to me, and they try to talk shit, man? I was makin' records when you were suckin' your mother's dick."
That's wonderfully vulgar, circa 1988. It's not particularly clever by B-Boys standards, but it made me smile when I was 14, and it makes me smile now. Consider that this is also the group that, years later, recorded these words in the song, "An Open Letter to NYC:"
"Dear New York, I know a lot has changed
Two towers down but you're still in the game
Home to many, rejecting no one
Accepting peoples of all places, wherever they're from
Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten
From the Battery to the top of Manhattan
Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin
Black, White, New York you make it happen"
In fact, they did a lot of growing up (never letting go of f-bombs, fortunately), and were engaged in politics. MCA was a Buddhist, and very much into efforts to make Tibet an independent state.
More importantly, they helped define and mainstream the rap/hip-hop genre, as part of a relatively small club that includes Run-DMC, LL Cool J and maybe Public Enemy. They were big into sampling, but in a way that they made something totally new from it. Yeah, I'm pretty much calling out all of the crap out today as unimaginative junk. The genre has been getting continuously worse for 15 years, with few bright spots. And yet, through all of that time, the Beastie Boys have been innovative and entertaining. (That's not old man nostalgia talking... I've recognized and enjoyed several resurgences in other genres.)
Lyrically, these cats have packed more pop culture references into their songs than anyone else. I don't even know what most of them are, and I could spend hours looking at the annotated lyric Web site learning about what it is they're talking about.
In terms of the music, they've worked with brilliant DJ's and producers. Again, it's one thing to sample, but quite another to use samples that sound like something new. They've done this consistently. They also fancy themselves as instrumentalists, and while I'm not really into much of that music, I definitely respect it.
And you can't forget the music videos. MTV as Music Television is becoming a distant memory, but a new Beastie Boys video was always a treat. "Sabotage" alone might be one of the best videos of all time.
I was in middle school when Licensed to Ill came out. Honestly, I didn't even understand half the lyrics in "Fight For Your Right." I mean, what's a "porno mag" and why would my mom throw it away? (I don't think any future generation will get it either.) I bet that album was huge in college dorm rooms and at frat house parties.
My favorite is probably Paul's Boutique. I listened to that thing a thousand times. I remember being on a camping trip with my family the summer it came out, and on a rainy day we went to a mall in Zanesville, Ohio. There I had to beg my brother to loan me a dollar so I could buy the cassette, for $8. It was a red tape, too. I listened to it over and over on headphones. I can still feel the warm breezes on the end of the pop-up camper while I listened.
Putting the nostalgia aside, I probably would have to rank Hello Nasty as their best album. It's completely brilliant, start to finish. "Body Movin'" in particular is one of my favorite songs, and I still know around 80% of the words. I very much associate that album with the start (and end) of my broadcast career, leading up to the turn of the century. I can't pin it down to any one moment, but I associate it with driving my blue Corolla, visits to Cedar Point and cranked air conditioning in my cable studio office.
There's no telling what happens now, but honestly, the Beastie Boys without MCA is just weird. Their finish-each-others-line style has been emulated a thousand times over, but no one could ever do it like they did. I think we're all lucky to have had this group in our lifetime.