Written by Steven DiLodovico 2012
Not much else to say; the various social media and smarmy gossip channels have pretty much co-opted the obligatory tribute marathons and flowery prose of remembrance. I ain’t mad; it’s how they sell advertising slots. Still, I feel the need to add a few words of my own about the recent death of Adam Yauch.
Like a lot of people, I first became aware of the Beastie Boys from the New York Thrash compilation that came out in ’82. I won’t even pretend that I knew who they were then; I had a shitty dub of that record on a cheap-ass Clover cassette that had made the boombox rounds of all my friends, and by the time I had my hands on a copy of it the tape was worn so thin that the warbling hiss was louder than the actual music. I had no information as to who or what was on that tape; just a bunch of random, faster-than-the-speed-of-light songs that we would play over and over again. To me, the only recognizable voice on that entire tape was the Bad Brains because… well, it was the Bad Brains, for Christ’s sake. (Also, Adrenalin O.D. was on there, and they were a revolution unto themselves, but that’s for another story at another time). The Beastie Boys were on that album, playing some of the shittiest, sloppiest hardcore you ever heard. My 13-year-old-ears thought it the most glorious chorus of seraphim. We didn’t give a shit how it sounded. It just had to be fucking fast.
Nobody could have guessed at the time what they would eventually become.
By 1986 the oldheads were saying Hardcore was dead, too bad you missed it, blah blah blah. They were saying “you should have been there back in the day.” If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that even back in the day was never as good as “back in the day.” Again, we didn’t give a fuck; we were the kids carrying it on. We weren’t lucky enough to be born in New York. We weren’t lucky enough to be there for the birth of it, but we were fanatical and utterly devoted. Let the oldheads have their moment of glory; let them have their memories. We were out making music, putting out records, putting on shows, generally fucking up in very loud, creative ways. Hip Hop was huge to us; it was a startling rebellion that was gaining momentum every day and striking absolute fear into the hearts of the squares. Never mind the shock value that Punk Rock had when it first exploded: Hip Hop was the culture that TRULY scared middle America, and we caught hold of that in ways that only middle class, white suburban kids could. Check any East Coast Hardcore band from that era: every demo, every live set had some kind of Hip Hop-inspired “intro bust.” Every homemade demo/7” cover had some kind of grafitti logo art. Hip Hop revived American Hardcore. Long before Anthrax was wearing Public Enemy shirts on Mtv, Hip Hop was crossing over into the world of Hardcore. It was everywhere.
That year License to Ill dropped. It was the biggest thing in the world. I was knee-deep in Slayer, and here you had this B-Boy shit coming out with Kerry King on guitars. What could be better? Of course, the “White Rapper Phenomenon” took off and many dismissed the Beastie Boys as a cheap gimmick. License to Ill was a rock record; a fusion of heavy Zeppelin/Beatles sampling replete with satanic lead riffs and sophomoric party-metal lyrics. It was the perfect recipe for an ‘80s mega-hit and was the perfect elixer for a 14 year old just discovered the joys of smoking dust in a heavy metal parking lot.
Dusted to the nines, riding giant, inflatable penises, The Beastie Boys were mostly written off by critics and “music journalists” (who are the lowest form of scum, next to “record collectors”) as misanthropic Neanderthals. Their exploits were legendary. Brash, snotty, ballsy… the headlines were fodder for rumor and ample ammunition for decency campaigns. Kids everywhere ate it up. You had cornball wannabes learning every lyric (whether they were hip to the slang or not) and rocking Adidas and Fila and dookie ropes. Again, the debate of “real” Hip Hop raged over this group.
Eventually the furor died down. Even in the ‘80s we were an ADD culture, and people quickly forgot. 3 years is a long time between albums, and when your first introduction to most of the world goes viral before that term even had any meaning, your follow-up is going to be scrutinized mercilessly. Remember the internet-free times and how information was not readily spoon-fed to you in drippy blogs and easy-to-swallow sound bytes. Early in ’88 there were whisperings of the next Beasties record. Had they actually left New York, the city that raised them? What? They went to Cali? Oh, that can’t be good. That’s not “keeping it real.” We waited. People started realizing that there was a history to this group; a pre-’86 life, and the bootlegs came fast and furious. Oh, you could still find some original Ratcage pressings; you could still get a used copy of Cookie Puss in moldy record store basements, if you were really interested. But, for the most part, the Boys were those wacky clown princes of Def Jam and Mtv. They were still being written off as a joke by the sacred pundits and musical know-it-alls. Not many were concerned with their humble roots. They were waiting for the next “Brass Monkey.”
1989 was the launch for Paul’s Boutique, and I will always remember that as a summertime parking lot album. The first single was “Hey Ladies” released (if I remember correctly) prior to the album. Gone were the heavy guitars; in their place were funk loops and deftly sampled records that most white kids had never heard. The wordplay: brilliant. Triple tag-team rhymes that were precise and poetic and beyond clever. There was a fly, ‘70s vibe that permeated their steeze. The entire album was baked in a polyester haze of hallucination and elevated on surreal platform shoes. Heads didn’t know what to make of it. The “industry” saw it as a commercial flop; a total bust. People expecting the party rhymes and heavy sound passed over it. We fucking loved it.
Paul’s Boutique quickly disappeared from pop culture’s radar. We kept bumping it. It was so dense that you really could listen to it for a year or two straight and still find new wonders in it. It was the definition of a masterpiece: a work that capably and directly demonstrates its author’s ascension to master status. 1990 saw the birth of that soporific virus known as “Vanilla Ice” and it was so palatable that true MCs like the Beasties, like 3rd Bass, were, once again, relegated to “novelty” status and brushed aside. For us it was great. Let us have them back, if only for a little while. The stadium and arena tours stopped; the constant barrage of videos stopped. I remember little to no mainstream press about the Beastie Boys for a couple of years. Again, rumors abounded.
The ‘90s broke, and with the breaking came flannel shirts and hybrid “rock rap.” It was a dark, dark time draped in poetic emo boys and sensitive, souldful troubadors. Word began to spread about a new Beastie Boys album. The Beastie Boys? Are they still alive? I remember them from the ‘80s. “Hold it Now,’”yeah, that was my jam, dude!
That was the outside attitude. We, on the other hand, just waited. It was around this time that I got to catch them live in a small venue. They played a Philly club called the Trocadero. It was a far cry from playing hockey arenas with Madonna. It was small, sweaty. It was intimate. A few hundred people. More squares than heads, but we didn’t care. To this day, many people still talk about that show. It still stands as one of the tightest, most devastating shows I’ve ever seen. They ripped through classic material; dove heavily into the Paul’s Boutique catalogue. I remember versions of “Car Thief” and “Shadrach” as particularly gratifying. Ask someone who was there to paint a picture of artistic output at its creative prime and I’d be willing to bet they’d reference this show. There was a slew of new, unfamiliar material. It fit right in.
“Pass the Mic” was a heavy hand; a spark of strange sounds and somewhat psychedelic leanings. It was the first shot fired from what the critics and bandwagoneers would call their “finest work.” Check Your Head dropped in the Spring of ’92 and was fueled by the “alternative revolution.” What that really meant was that The Beastie Boys’ videos now got heavy rotation on “alternative” shows and playlists, rather than just trying to squeeze them into episodes of “Yo! Mtv Raps.” Fuck it; it was a good album, even if it signaled the end of my love affair with their music. It happens all the time: sometimes you just have to give up an artist and let the masses have them.
Check Your Head catapulted them back into limelight status, and as big festival tours became the trend (again), The Beastie Boys were right out in front and sharing bills with acts like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and others of their ilk. What was funny, to me, was the reversal of opinion on the three members’ personalities. Suddenly Adrock, MCA, and Mike D were “cutting-edge.” They were no longer the meathead imbeciles that trashed hotel rooms and smashed groupies with the zealousness of Wilt Chamberlain. They were “arty” and “intelligent.” Press darlings, as it were. It would have been laughable if it were not for the semblance of truth.
See, here’s the thing: they did grow up. They did become “men.” Yauch with his Buddhist leanings; the other two with the furthering of artistic ambition. They redefined the simplistic format of the music video, taking it from the insipid platform of mere marketing and turning into something epically creative. Look at the video for “Shadrach,” where each frame was painted individually by Yauch, giving it the look and feel of an impressionist painting constantly in movement. It still stands as one of the most beautiful forays into the genre that has ever been produced. As writers they strove for a clever intellectualism: arcane references sat iambically within metaphors of deep consideration; tightly-worded inside jokes ran, stride-for-stride, alongside the braggadocio. And, through it all, they honored and elevated the truest aspects of the culture.
The mark of a true artist is felt in the effects and the evolution of expansion. We watched them grow; they were a part of how we came up. A big part. Adam Yauch was only 7 years older than I. He didn’t die of an overdose or from excess and dissolution. He didn’t die violently in some grisly Rap beef. He didn’t die crashing a hundred thousand dollar car; and he did not die a martyr. He died of an ugly disease that equalizes us all. It doesn’t spare the kings any more than it does the working man. This is what is scary and senseless. This is what forces us to recognize that our heroes; that those who inspired the early versions of our lives, are getting older. As are we. There is a lesson in here somewhere, and if I could process it right now I would. We face our own mortality every single day, no matter how we try to deny it.
The wild man grew up; learned gentility and humility and was better for it. He found purpose and cause. And, in the end, he still succumbed to the most mundane of diseases. That’s true tragedy. I never knew the man. I only know what he let us know about him. I liked him; liked everything about his public self. It seems strange to me to feel a loss that is almost personal. And, yet, there it is. I am thankful that his music passed through my life at some point.
A most important point.