Friday afternoon brought the terribly sad news that Adam Yauch (aka MCA, aka Nathaniel Hornblower) had passed following a three year bout with cancer. While a lot of media are rightly looking back on Yauch’s incredible career as a musician, rapper, artist, director, and activist, I’ll not spend too much time here rehashing his litany of accomplishments over the last 26 years. Instead, I thought I’d chime in with a little reflection on Yauch’s impact on your old pal Dr. Gonzo.
I probably knew about the Beastie Boys before I knew what hip-hop was. I didn’t own Licensed to Ill until years after the fact. But many of the now-classic tracks on the album worked their way into my consciousness via friends’ siblings and a close friend of the family who was a little more in tune with hip-hop culture than I. I clearly remember said family friend hipping me to jams like “Paul Revere,” “Brass Monkey,” and “Girls.” So in some regard, Yauch and the Beasties were my entree into hip-hop, and I thank them for that.
Years later as a few friends and I were trying to form our own sound in a high school band, the Beastie Boys were who we collectively looked up to probably more than any other group. We fancied ourselves as drawing from a few distinct genres (rock, funk, hip-hop); we looked to the Beastie Boys as a group who was in constant evolution, yet consistent in quality. Indeed, although hip-hop initially seems a far cry from hardcore and punk (where the Beasties cut their teeth), they never totally divorced themselves from those roots, which no doubt contributed to how they approached hip-hop. And by that point in their careers (mid-late 1990s), the Beastie Boys had continued to absorb the sounds of other genres while reforumulating their own. That awareness of art as an ongoing evolution was something that we valued highly (and frankly, I still do).
This was also around the time that Yauch initiated his activist work in relation to the Tibetan struggle. Popular musicians have a history of using their fame to raise awareness of social causes, with mixed results. But here too, Yauch was successful. I can’t have been the only American teenager whose depth of knowledge went from “What the hell is Tibet?” to a more informed understanding about the drive for Tibetan independence. Granted, it may not have been a particularly nuanced understanding at that age, but Yauch was able to successfully get his political message across to thick-headed teenagers, which says a great deal about his figurative voice.
I admit not being a huge fan of some of the group’s later work such as Hello Nasty and To the Five Boroughs. But when Hot Sauce Committee Part Two came out in 2009, I was pleased not just with the group’s artistic return to form, but also seeing my students enthusiastically take to the album. It was a full-circle moment. Some time after the album’s release and accompanying artistic rebirth, word on the street was that Yauch had beaten cancer. The future looked bright for the longest-running hip-hop group of all time.
That bright future was obviously cut far too short.
Our pal D.W. Dunphy over at Popdose.com points to a theme in the recent run of celebrity deaths that is all too accurate. For those of us who grew up in the ’80s, our childhood icons are slowly starting to leave us. More than other celebrity deaths, those who were such a part of our youth hit a little closer to home. As with the deaths of MJ, Whitney, and Heavy D., it feels like pieces of our childhood are slipping away. Similarly, as Dunphy points out the deaths of our childhood icons remind us of our own mortality. That can be fairly frightening. Yauch presents a slightly different case, however. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Yauch didn’t spend his career harboring destructive addictions. Rather, he chose to supplement his creative energy with activism aimed at raising awareness and working to establish a better reality. So perhaps rather than taking Yauch’s death as a grim reminder that our time is limited, we should look to Yauch’s life and aspire to be as passionate – and compassionate – in our own.