Adam 'MCA' Yauch
One of Walt Whitman’s most famous lines is, “I am large, I contain multitudes” and nowhere is this more evident than in Adam Yauch.
He was MCA – one-third of legendary hip hop troika, Beastie Boys. He was Nathanial Hornblower, Sir Stewart Wallace and Nathan Wind as Cochese. He was an MC, a bassist, a director, a film distributor, a punk, a hip hop head, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a practicing Buddhist and a staunch advocate of civil rights and the Free Tibet movement. He was a son, a husband, a father, and (despite being an only child) a brother. He was cooler than a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce.
Born in Brookyn, NY on August 5, 1964 (forty-nine years ago today), Yauch formed the Beastie Boys in his teens. A hardcore punk act, Beastie Boys 1.0 were a completely different outfit than the iconic trio we think of today. Eventually, the Beasties started experimenting more with hip hop, and in 1981 they recorded their first hip hop track, “Cooky Puss” – an disc-scratching ode to crank calls made to Carvel Ice Cream.
In 1986, the success of their first studio album Licensed To Ill catapulted the band to the top of the Billboard charts, fueled in part by producer Rick Rubin’s incorporation of bone-crushing hard rock samples from bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as well as the album’s irrepressibly blunt and obnoxious jam, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
With Mike D and Ad-Rock’s nasal delivery of lyrics about smoking angel dust, girls to do the dishes, classy hos, and cheap liquor, it would have been easy to dismiss the band as three decidedly white knuckleheads just goofing off on tape, but MCA’s gravelly inflections about his license to kill grounded the group and brought to seed the notion that they might actually be dropping some truth. As they rhymed in “The New Style,” “Some voices got treble / Some voices got bass / We got the kind of voices that are in your face.” This was proven evident when Licensed To Ill was awarded a five-mic review by The Source, a prestigious feat that no white hip hop act has been able to replicate since.
In his later years, Yauch recanted the misogynistic lyrics from the band’s early days and defined himself as much more of a feminist and advocate for LGBT rights. Nowhere is this more visible than the song “Sure Shot,” in which Yauch rhymes: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.”
It was around this time that Yauch’s interest in Tibet amplified. He started the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit organization that promotes awareness and raises funds for the Tibetan Freedom Movement and in 1995, he met his wife, Tibetan freedom activist Dechen Wangdu, at a Harvard University speech given by the Dalai Lama.
Yauch’s social activism didn’t just stop with the Free Tibet movement. He used both his publicity and his music to denounce racial profiling and sexual assault. Along with Beastie Boys, he organized and headlined the New Yorkers Against Violence Concert following the September 11, 2001 attacks and in 2003, the band released In A World Gone Mad, a scathing indictment of the Iraq War featuring the lyrics, “But you build more bombs as you get more bold/As your mid-life crisis war unfolds/All you want to do is take control/Now put that axis of evil bullshit on hold.”
Music and social activism weren’t Yauch’s only passions. Fascinated by motion pictures, he founded independent film distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories and directed several Beastie Boys videos (“Sure Shot,” “Intergalactic,” “Body Movin’,” “Shake Your Rump,” and “So Whatcha Want?”) under the pseudonym Nathanial Hornblower, as well as two documentaries – Gunning For That #1 Spot, a documentary about high school basketball, and Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That, a live performance Beastie Boys documentary which featured the audience as cameramen.
In 2009, Yauch was diagnosed with cancer of the parotid gland, a salivary gland of the throat. The diagnosis delayed the release of the band’s eighth studio album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, and the subsequent tour. Despite initial optimism, Yauch’s condition deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t attend Beastie Boys’ induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Bandmates Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond read a letter he had written for the occasion. It began, “I’d like to dedicate this award to my brothers, Adam and Mike, who’ve walked the globe with me. To anyone who’s been touched by our band, who our music has meant something to, this induction is as much ours as it is yours.”
Three weeks later, on May 4, 2012, Yauch lost his battle with cancer. He was 47 years old.
Too sweet to be sour, too nice to be mean, Adam Yauch’s contributions to the ever-evolving artform of hip hop can’t stop, won’t stop. MCA plotted and schemed to change the world and through the legacy of his music, his art and his social activism – he achieved this end. He may be out and gone, but thanks to the wealth he left, MCA keeps it on and on.
RIP MCA. 1964-2012.
First published at Cover Me.