Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Remembering Adam Yauch, the Beastie we all wanted to be

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

It is possible to have an unmemorable voice and be a very good rapper, but it's impossible to be a great one.

Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boy known to hip-hop fans around the world as MCA, was a great one.

Yauch died Friday at the age of 47. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer of a salivary gland since 2009.

In the Beastie Boys, a tripod that has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz played the wise-acre leader and Mike "Mike D" Diamond was the mogul.

But Yauch was THE MC.

Sure, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born rapper had tight rhymes and tighter flow, but it was Yauch's voice that put him over the top, one of hip-hop's all-time coolest: sexy without seeming soft, gritty and booming in equal measure.

Listen to the way he shouts "Nothing wrong with my leg/ just B-boy limpin' " and almost bellows "is the disco caaaall" after the "whoo whoo" sound on "Shake Your Rump" off "Paul's Boutique." Just awesome.

Listen to the echoed-out thunder of "I keep my underwear UP with a piece of elastic/ I use a bull(beep) mic that's made out of plastic/ to send my rhymes out to all nations/ like Ma Bell, I've got the ill communications" from "Sure Shot" on "Ill Communication." Still awesome.

In later years, Yauch's voice was a little gnarlier, due to age and perhaps illness but, man, he still had it on the first verse of "Too Many Rappers" from last year's "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two."

"Like an exorCIST, goin' home to roost ... So pass me the sword — I'll start swingin/ Just randomly choppin' on a crazy-ass vision." Still totally excellent.

That's the Beastie Boys story. It wasn't enough that they became rap's first superstars on "License to Ill." It wasn't enough that they were production innovators on "Paul's Boutique."

Nope — they just kept innovating in weird directions, spot-welding hip-hop and alt-rock on "Check Your Head" in 1991. Suddenly, everyone knew they could play their instruments and that Yauch was the best musician.

By the time "Ill Communication" dropped in 1994, they were cultural shot-callers like few others, and seemed to pull a flair for genuinely awesome punk rock out of thin air. Their early, sloppy hard-core punk records were fine, but nothing on there prepared people for the stunning, hard-swinging bass riff that kicked off "Sabotage." Everyone who heard it had the same thought: "THIS is the Beastie Boys? Holy (beep)."

They always seemed to be wherever There was, or There would be, about 10 minutes before everyone else, and it is impossible to think of contemporary pop anything without them.

The idea that Eminem could be a mainstream act? Impossible without the Beastie Boys. Sampledelic mash-ups? See also "Paul's Boutique." The Vice Media empire? As direct a child (for good and ill) of the Beasties' amazing magazine "Grand Royal" as one might find. Take a look at any given hipster in Brooklyn or Austin or Portland or Hong Kong or London and there's some Beasties in there somewhere.

Yauch was crucial to all of this, directing such Beastie Boys videos as "So Whatcha Want," "Intergalactic," "Body Movin' " and "Ch-Check It Out," as well as the 2006 Beastie Boys concert film "Awesome; I (Beepin') Shot That!"

He founded Oscilloscope Laboratories, which was both a recording studio (in which he produced the Bad Brains' "Build A Nation") and film distributor, which produced his basketball documentary "Gunnin' For That #1 Spot" and distributed titles such as Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" and Banksy's "Exit Through the Gift Shop," among others.

Fans may have valued Horovitz's endless wit and frontman status or Diamond's ambition, but we all wanted to BE Yauch, the half-Jewish, hard-core punk bassist turned gloriously obnoxious, ground-breaking rapper turned hip-hop elder statesman Buddhist.

It is perhaps easy to forget just how dangerous some people thought the Beastie Boys were in 1987, as "Licensed to Ill" became a smash.

They were white rappers at a time when that seemed unthinkable; they were rude; they cavorted on stage with inflatable genitalia. The guy who gave the finger to the camera and seemed like the hardest-core partier in the crew (see also any account of the making of "Paul's Boutque") seemed to transform into the most publicly progressive Beastie. In 1996, Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert, a two-day festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco that attracted 100,000 people and remained an activist until the end of his life. It was an image transformation worthy of George Foreman, and Yauch lead the charge.

There are dozens of great Yauch moments on wax, and everyone has their favorites, but check out the way he rips the first verse from "Pass The Mic," which is worth reprinting in full: "If you can feel what I'm feeling, then it's a musical masterpiece/ but if you can hear what I'm dealing with, then that's cool at least/ what's running through my mind comes through in my walk/ true feelings are shown from the way that I talk."

That's as good a definition as any of hip-hop, as good a definition as any of how pop culture works, and as much as anyone in their generation, Yauch and the Beasties made culture more like them.

Pass him the mic.

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926.

If you subscribe to Spotify you can check out the American-Statesman’s playlist of favorite Beastie Boys songs and add your own favorites: http://spoti.fi/JyC2jo