Friday, May 04, 2012

RIP Adam "MCA" Yauch

Well, this sucks.
Adam Yauch, one-third of the pioneering hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, has died at the age of 47, Rolling Stone has learned. Yauch, also known as MCA, had been in treatment for cancer since 2009. The rapper was diagnosed in 2009 after discovering a tumor in his salivary gland. 
"It is with great sadness that we confirm that musician, rapper, activist and director Adam 'MCA' Yauch, founding member of Beastie Boys and also of the Milarepa Foundation that produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits, and film production and distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, passed away in his native New York City this morning after a near-three-year battle with cancer," reads an official statement from the Beastie Boys. "He was 47 years old." 
Yauch sat out the Beastie Boys' induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, and his treatments delayed the release of the group's most recent album, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2. The Beastie Boys had not performed live since the summer of 2009, and Yauch's illness prevented the group from appearing in music videos for Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2.

There was a time in the spring of 1987 - I was in eighth grade - when I probably would have been able to recite every lyric of every track on Licensed to Ill: an album that could easily have been written off as a parody record suitable for playing only at fraternity parties (seriously, a trio of middle-class Jewish kids from Brooklyn making a rap album?) but would instead become the first hip-hop album to reach #1 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums chart and eventually become the biggest selling rap album of the 1980s.

Licensed to Ill's sample-laden fusion of rock and rap was unlike anything any of us at my inner-city middle school had ever heard before; its self-assured, bombastic rebelliousness was thematic for the mid-80s adolescent. The white kids at my inner-city middle school almost universally loved the album when it came out. Most of my black classmates seemed to enjoy it as well, although a few argued at the time that it was a lame attempt by a group of white poseurs to appropriate a form of music that until then had been the exclusive purview of the African-American community. The resulting classroom dialogue was as interesting, in retrospect, as it was contentious.

Music critics, furthermore, generally seem to agree that Licensed to Ill was far from the Beasties' best album. That accolade usually goes to the criminally under-appreciated Paul's Boutique, and their '90s work - Check Your Head, Ill Communication, Hello Nasty - was regarded by the musical intelligentsia to be artistically stronger and more mature as well.

I don't disagree, and songs like "High Plains Drifter," "Hey Ladies," "So What'cha Want," "Sabotage" and "Intergalactic" will always be favorites of mine. But, from an emotional and nostalgic standpoint, they will never be quite as meaningful to me as tracks such as "Paul Revere," "Brass Monkey," "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Fight For Your Right (to Party)." My affinity for Licensed to Ill is one of those things that I just can't explain to people not of my generation: you had to have "been there" in order to fully appreciate it.

Yauch and his bandmates, Mike "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, are now regarded as a integral part of rap's rise to mainstream acceptance. as Time's Touré notes, "The Beasties were a seminal early hip hop group that the genre needed to grow into a phenomenon because they served as an entry point for millions of white fans and because they helped expand the boundaries of hip hop with their sonic experiments." Licensed to Ill had a lot to do with that: as good as their later work was, does anybody honestly believe that the Beastie Boys would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had that album never been released?

Somewhere among this clutter is a dusty old CD of Licensed to Ill. Tomorrow I'm going to dig it (along with Paul's Boutique) out, dust it off and play it through for the first time in years. And I bet I'll still be able to remember most of the lyrics.

Rest in peace, MCA. You will be missed.

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