On the death of MCA

22:58, May 06 2012

I woke up on Saturday morning to the sad news that MCA had died. Many of you probably woke up and saw that news too - via Twitter or Facebook perhaps. There were already tribute posts, eloquent eulogies to trawl. I looked at a few. And opened up the sealed copy of the 180g vinyl Check Your Head that was a relatively recent purchase.

I haven't specifically written about the Beastie Boys in the nearly five years that I have been sending out Blog on the Tracks each weekday. I've linked to some of the band's music - mentioned some of the albums here and there - Paul's Boutique is the one I'm sure I've mentioned the most. It's the one I return to most often.

And so now, before I took up the chance to celebrate the band's music - and all it has meant to me - I'm at that point where I have to attempt my own eulogy-post, my own version of what the man born Adam Yauch meant to me; the part he played in my life.

You will read better tributes elsewhere - I haven't read that many of them yet but I can be certain of that. So I won't get all heavy with the talk of him being a pioneer and the spiritual centre of the trio (even though he was most certainly that). I'll just tell you about my life with the Beastie Boys' music - and how MCA was part of that. I never met the man. But there's no joy in discussing the death of a 47-year-old man who succumbed to cancer. A man who grew up in public and transformed from snotty punk and silly rapping brat to thoughtful film-maker, philanthropist, philosopher and a man who was constantly searching for enlightenment and happiness through music, media, travel - through life.

So I'll try to find some joy in how that impacted my life.

As a teenager - in fact from age 12 - I was hooked. Licensed To Ill was something new - I felt as though I had discovered it for myself. It wasn't something my parents or older brother listened to. That was clearly part of the appeal (even if I only see that now). And then Paul's Boutique. I used to hang with my friend Aaron Thompson. His folks had an orchard. And a trampoline. Quad-bikes too. One time I drove straight into one of the branches. We ruined part of the tree. Had to go apologise to his parents, saw off the branch and paint it with something that felt like road-tar. I felt awful. But then we had games on the Commodore 64, we watched quality cinema (Bloodsport, Hellraiser) and we blasted Paul's Boutique and Licensed To Ill.


By the time of Check Your Head and then Ill Communication the Beasties had a new sound. They were playing instruments. And there was funk. There were instrumental jams. But they still rapped. And then via this album I heard some of their early rap and hardcore.

In trips across to Napier for hockey games, Ill Communication was almost always in the tape-deck.

In my final year of high school Ill Communication was one of the party-albums of the year. We were behaving more like the Beasties of Licensed To Ill (if and when we could) but Ill Communication was our soundtrack.

Friends even had a go at making their own version of the Sabotage video.

Through university I carried on with the Beasties - the instrumental album, a compilation of key cuts from Check Your Head and Ill Communication (The In Sound from Way Out!) was huge for me. It was also an album I had a lot of luck with in terms of passing it on to people, putting non-fans in touch with some of the talent the Beastie Boys had beyond "that rap-crap".

Hello Nasty was great - even if it wasn't quite ever up there with Ill Communication and Paul's Boutique - but it was certainly special for the fact that it brought the Beasties to New Zealand to tour. So I got to see them. A band I'd been listening to for a decade at this point.

And in this decade they had gone from being silly frat-boy rap (a lot of fun but irresponsible and often thoughtless lyrically) to sophisticated soul-jazz/funk players - all three of the members showing a wonderful feel instrumentally. Yauch was a great bass-player powering the punk songs and standing back on the upright to offer a warm, slinky sound, empathetic moans to complement wah-guitar and organs.

They were the Beastie Boys always - a name that would always suggest puerility but they were just three normal white guys who had grown up and become sophisticated. They seemed like people you would want to meet, would want to get to know. They had grown up through their music. And so had I. It was a big part of the soundtrack of my adolescence.

A whole case can be made for their musical innovations - and that's now another blog-post for another time (one I should have probably written a lot sooner - and one that will already exist in many versions by other, better writers). But right now I feel sad. Sad to think that a man of 47 - a good man (from what I can tell), a man who offered music and film to the world, who offered his time and concerns, who gave more than he took - is gone.

Adam Yauch is dead - and that means that MCA has been killed. And the Beastie Boys have been killed.

Their last three albums - counting the second instrumental collection along with To the 5 Boroughs and the most recent Hot Sauce Committee Part Two - were not a patch on the group's best work. It was the band simply playing along with being the group that people wanted to appreciate. They were method-actors researching the further role of the Beastie Boys. And the music on those albums is enjoyable. But that could never be the group's legacy.

The musical legacy is in Paul's Boutique, a remarkable collection of found-sounds appropriated and recontextualised to make a pop-happy hip-hop album brimming with hooks and ideas. And Ill Communication, the refinement of Check Your Head; an indie rock album, hardcore-punk album, hip-hop album and soul-jazz/lite-funk album all in one.

And now there won't be any more music - much less innovations.

MCA has been silenced. And that silences the group. And that's very sad. The Beastie Boys achieved longevity and greatness across genres of music - and eras of music - so often defined by the passing fads. They meant a lot to plenty of people. And I was (am) one of those people.

The Beastie Boys might have become a form of shorthand for white-boy rappers, an obvious measuring stick but they transcended the genre, transcended the inane comparisons, their influence was huge and in their constant evolution, as musicians, as people, they perhaps defined hip-hop as an ideal; creating their own cut'n'paste style and culture by taking ideas and being informed from so many walks of life. And then by passing that influence on.

I really love the Beastie Boys' music - all of it. The last three albums don't mean anywhere as much to me as the five that came before them but I can still play any of the band's albums at any time and I'm happy. I don't cringe. I'm not disappointed. In that sense it's so very close to a perfect discography. And it's one that I grew up with - in real time. I anticipated new Beastie albums. Looked forward to them. There won't be another. And just for a second, selfishly of course, I'm sad about that.

I guess most of all I just liked the idea of the Beastie Boys existing - the music had become secondary really (in terms of new music, new innovations). It was about them as a group: existing. The three of them - no one member more important than the others. A team. A band.

And it was a band I cared so much about, for helping to shape my identity. The music soundtracked so many good times in my life. I hope that, at some stage, that will be the case again. But right now it all seems very sad. Saturday's news was so final.

Here's Chuck D paying tribute to the "three bad brothers".


If you have found some great tribute pieces online share the links below. And of course share your own thoughts on MCA and the Beastie Boys below.

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