Monday, May 7, 2012


Like everyone else, I was so sad to hear about the passing of Adam Yauch, aka MCA of The Beastie Boys. I wrote an obit on the man for work, but it didn't cover the way I felt at all, it was a professional duty. Let me share my history of The Beasties through my eyes, and tell you the effect Adam had on me.

When I first heard The Beastie Boys in 1986 or 1987, Licensed To Ill was hitting, I was in high school.  The song, of course, was "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)."  I got the Ill album (on cassette). I liked it.  I didn't love it, and I wasn't sure this band would be around for long. I thought they were kind of a novelty.

By 1989, I was in college. When they released Paul's Boutique, I was surprised they were still around. I remember thinking it was a lot funkier than the Ill stuff. I picked up the album (on CD!), it kind of blew my mind.  I hadn't heard anything like it before.  It was so dense and thick, but fun, and funny, and clever. Songs like "Johnny Ryall" and even "Egg Man" had maturity, depth and empathy. I listened to the CD over and over and eventually had to replace it, more than once. I wasn't around when Dylan went electric, but this felt like almost as drastic of a progression. The album tanked (at the time), they didn't tour, and again, I kind of thought that this time, the band really was over. Still, it was the first time in my experience that a band I really liked made such a dramatic change.

1992's Check Your Head came out just as I was finishing college.  I saw the video for "Gratitude," and was kind of shocked.  Wow! It was like "Fight For Your Right" or "Brooklyn," except they were playing their own instruments, and it was a lot cooler. Check Your Head really captured the time: punk-influenced alternative rock and hip-hop were moving ever closer, but The Beastie Boys seemed like the only group who could actually play both sides of the line. They added in hardcore punk on "Time For Livin'" (although the lyrics were taken from a Sly & The Family Stone song), and the funky instrumental jam "Pow." And it ends with "Namaste," the first time I'd ever seen or heard that word. The lyrics were a bit deeper than what you'd expect. It's Adam Yauch doing a kind of spoken word thing over a mellow, funky groove.  "A voice spoke in my head, and she said, 'Dark is not the opposite of light, it's the absence of light.'" I didn't know if Yauch was just smoking too much pot or getting into a more spiritual area. Looking back, probably both.

1994's Ill Communication followed Check Your Head's template of hip-hop jams (including "Get It Together" with Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, pointing out that they could still MC with the best in the game), rock-rap hybrids, hardcore punk and instrumental jams.  But they now had a sort of confidence and a type of swagger: they were huge cultural influencers, and they knew it. They were working with up-and-coming filmmaker Spike Jonze: the "Sabotage" video was the epitome of retro-cool. They were a lot cooler than the "bad brothers" who recorded Licensed To Ill, and if you wanted to be a fan, you kind of had to be also.

They started the whole Grand Royal empire.  The GR record label launched Luscious Jackson, and also put out records by hipster favorites including Ben Lee and Sean Lennon. The Grand Royal fanzine (this was before blogs) was a hotly sought-after item.  It reflected the Beasties' own interests: '70s movies, funk, hip-hop, hard core punk and of course the act of punking other people.  I remember reading an "interview" with Russell Simmons where it seemed like they just called him out of the blue.  I remember an interview with Ted Nugent where the interviewer (rightly) called him out for not having recorded a good song in years. And of course, the magazine was credited with coining the term "mullet."

The other thing Ill Communication did, like Check Your Head,  was to end in a spiritual way, with the trifecta of "Shambala," "Bodhisattva Vow" and "Transitions" closing the album. It turned out that this was more than just some pot-inspired depth. Yauch was exploring Tibetan Buddhism, and he'd do more than just explore it:  on the Lollapalooza '94 tour, he had Buddhist monks bless the stage before shows, and I seem to remember a Buddhist looking backdrop to their stage during that tour (which was the first time I'd seen them in concert).  They were doing this while promoting the album that featured the "Sabotage" video.  Yauch was totally serious about his religion and about Tibet, but he never got so serious that he lost his sense of humor.

In 1995, Yauch put on the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco. Other than The Beasties, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Tribe Called Quest, Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, John Lee Hooker, Foo Fighters, Beck and The Fugees were all on the bill. I didn't know a thing about Tibet or Buddhism, but my girlfriend (now my wife) was graduating from college, and I figured a trip to SF and tickets for this concert would be a great gift. It was, but not just because of the music.

I was working in the music industry at that point, and had some friends at the Beasties' P.R. firm Nasty Little Man, and got press passes for the show. My girlfriend and I went to the press conferences and events and heard Adam Yauch and the other artists talk about the Tibetan people, their struggle against China, the importance of non-violent resistance and also the difference you can make with your wallet. There were a lot of anti- "Made In China" logos around, and it made me realize for the first time, that if I care about things like human rights, I should check the labels of the things that I buy. When I spend my money on anything, I should think about where that money is going to. It's not something I'd given much thought to before that.

It also made me interested in the Tibetan people and the culture. I'm not Buddhist, and I'm not converting to Buddhism. But the strength in their peaceful existence, the strength in conviction that they should oppose tyranny with non-violence really made an impression on me. To quote Bob Dylan (since the Beastie Boys have done so), it changed my way of thinkin'.  I started considering the food that I eat, where it comes from and how it gets to me.  Today, I'm a vegetarian and have been for over ten years.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to interview Adam Yauch. Once, by himself, which was the only way to really talk to him. He was so strong in his belief that non-violence was the only way to improve Tibet's situation. That takes a lot of discipline: after all, it would be easier to want to respond to violence with violence. But his intensity and sincerity took me a bit off guard.  At the same time, he was really nice.

A few years after that, I was interviewing The Beastie Boys for their very underrated To The 5 Boroughs album. It was difficult to interview them together... you could only hope that you were in on the joke and not the butt of it (my eventual replacement at VH1 and dear friend Miss Wingman just wrote something very similar on her blog). There was a lot of talk about challah and Shazam, but I knew I could regain control by asking about the Bush administraion. I finally got some real answers... at that point, I think Mike D and Yauch both had kids and were worried about the future, and what a future under George jr. would mean.  Soon after that, though, the interview went sideways - it was as if they still had to prove that they were brats.  I did thank Adam after the interview, quickly telling him about the impact he'd made on me.  He looked a bit surprised and smiled and said thanks.

I loved the Beasties' subsequent albums, but I'm not going to go on talking about each one. Nor will I go into Adam's career as a filmmaker/producer, or as a musician (besides his monster bass playing, don't forget that he produced Bad Brains' 2007 Build A Nation album, his name bringing a lot of extra attention to the record). He'd probably be uncomfortable with the length of this eulogy (or probably any eulogy).

So what did I learn from Adam Yauch?  That you can change.  That you can become a better person because you want to. That kindness is not just an important thing, it may be the most important thing. But no matter how much you change, don't lose your sense of humor. Speaking of humor, the great Rainn Wilson tweeted something about Adam on Friday that really stuck with me: "RIP Adam Yauch (MCA of the Beastie Boys). He was a super-genius, a visionary and, most importantly, a really good person." Most of us aren't a part of a seminal rap crew, most of us don't direct hilarious videos, most of us can't play the bass like Adam could. But you can honor his memory by being a really good person. Do your best. Don't hurt people, but make them laugh. Namaste Adam, thanks for the music and for the impact that you made.

thank you Adam

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is a very powerful message. It would be a better world if more people "tried a little kindnes".