Yeah, as my buddy hammockrus noted, the death of MCA – and thus the death of the Beastie Boys – hit particular hard last week. In some ways Michael Jackson kind of broke the seal – of folks who I had a contemporary experience with passing away. I was discussing this with my buddy T the other day – especially the notion at how the Beastie Boys were just so flippin’ good. Of course he countered with “What about the Beatles? Dylan?” Of course you could say that about the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Britney Spears (ok, maybe not ALL of them), but that’s not the point. The Beastie Boys were different, because they were OF my life. I remember an article about the Beatles I read recently, and one of the comments put it brilliantly:
No one who comes to the Beatles as a completed body of work quite understands what it was like to hear on the radio, for the first time, I Want To Hold Your Hand. It was so obviously different from anything that had come before. All you wanted to do is hear it again. And again. And you wondered — what the heck is that? And then you started to hear about them, and you started to hear a few more songs like She Loves You and All My Loving and Please Please Me and you bought Meet The Beatles and that was it — you were hooked.
That was what the Beastie Boys were to me – though it took until Check Your Head for me to fully GET it. Indeed, Paul’s Boutique is one of the few truly “ahead of its time albums”, a brilliant commercial failure of which 11 year old me, being such a philistine with music at that point, of the reasons that it failed so. I knew hip hop of course, but I did not know THIS. You had the samples and influences – plundering a rich tradition, mashing both true old school and Bob Dylan and even (in “Intergalactic”) themselves. Sampling is so often lazy – taking an old song and changing very small aspects to repackage it – but the Beasties took it to the sort of rich area that professional DJs like Shadow or Cut Chemist know. They saw the samples as instruments themselves, and since they started out as rock musicians themselves, they saw it as a complement to the old classic stuff. In Check Your Head you see that amalgamation of old school hip hop and instrumental rock.
Listening to old Beastie Boys material recently, in addition to the musical stuff mentioned above though, what is striking – and a remnant of the hip hop groups of yore – is what a team sport it was – and how important harmony still was, even if they were rapping? I mean, other bands the lead singer often is the “front man” and really he or she becomes the identity of the band – Mick Jagger, Gwen Stefani, take your pick – or possibly folks take turns leading (The Eagles). Of course with the Beastie Boys, it was never a vehicle for Mike or the Adams to become soloists – indeed most of their songs were woven with each guy having a role in the main rhyme and when they came together for the chorus, they supplied vocal diversity. Yauch of course, provided the bass/baritone voice to go with AdRock’s squealing voice and Mike D’s midrange. That touch of harmony – yeah not Beach Boys but – elevated the rhyme and helped create their distinctive sound. It also spoke to the sense of togetherness that the band fostered in each other – you never got the sense that there was a Metallica Some Kind of Monster level of dysfunction there at all.
Of course, all this does is make the Beastie Boys a vestige of my youth, like Michael Jackson or Bon Jovi or whomever. But of course the Beastie Boys kept evolving, and Yauch in particular was a leader in this. How many rap artists openly question the implications of their material? How many not just adopt Eastern religion but live it for real – with the Tibetan freedom concerts and with Tibetan freedom movement in general? How many become lauded filmmakers? And how many Jewish anybodys could be prescient enough to understand the second classness of Muslims in America well before most people have caught on? Adam Yauch remained a creative and thoughtful force throughout the last 30 years, including of course the Beastie Boys continuing to deliver quality material, hip hop and instrumental, right up until his passing.
Adam Yauch lived as he believed – advancing notions of gentleness and compassion and commonwealth. The Beastie Boys started as a band punk band, evolved into a great rap act and finished as just a great band – one of the few of my childhood who continued to grow and challenge itself. Yeah they have not been in my conscious musical brain in recent years but when they did something new, I always checked it out, and it was always quality. My life has been chock full of bands and acts which will go down as being truly great, and the Beastie Boys and MCA will be near the very very top.