My knees went weak when I heard MCA had died. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t simply the death of a man but of a piece of my youth — and of a time when hip hop itself was young. He was 47, and I knew he had battled cancer since 2009, but he was Adam Yauch, one of the Beastie Boys and something about them said eternally young. 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.
The Beasties were never constrained by the ‘keep it real and be hard’ ethos of hip hop. They gave us three unassuming Jewish kids from New York City who didn’t take themselves terribly seriously at a time when most of hip hop was deadly serious. They started out as hip hop’s frat boys who told us “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party.” But as time went on they showed us they were serious about music.
Where Licensed To Ill was a smart parody of hip hop, their legendary sophomore album Paul’s Boutique was ahead of its time with its sophisticated collage of samples and sounds. With Ill Communication and other later albums they brought in the punk sounds they messed with before stumbling into hip hop as well as funk. They never seemed to do what they thought the people would want but what moved them, and all the while they grew artistically from album to album as much as any hip hop group ever. They experimented in their videos, playing with the form to create one of the greatest oeuvres of any group of the video era. Much of that was because of Yauch, who directed many of their videos and went on to become a talented documentary filmmaker.
The Beasties also let us see them grow as humans. Yauch expanded into causes that weren’t commercially sexy but were things that moved him: Tibetan human rights, the exile of the Dalai Lama, the wrongful stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists. Rolling Stone once lovingly said of Licensed To Ill, “Three idiots Make A Masterpiece.” It was a classic, though not quite a masterpiece, just as MCA, like Ad Rock and Mike D, were as far from idiots as you could get.
Touré is the author of four books, including Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, and a professor at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Recorded Music.