Adam Yauch of the rap group the Beastie Boys has died after a three-year battle with cancer. In 2009, the pioneering hip-hop trio had to cancel shows and push back their album (then called "The Hot Sauce Committee Part 1?) so that Yauch could get treatment for a cancerous tumor on a gland in his throat. Yauch made the announcement via YouTube, with fellow Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz by his side for support.
The Beastie Boys had been on a high lately, having just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few weeks ago. Yauch did not attend. Their last album, the finally released (and renamed) "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2," came out last year to positive reviews. (It was #13 on my list of the Top 50 Best albums of 2011.)
The Beastie Boys formed as a hardcore punk band in 1979. They were young, scrappy and full of attitude. Yauch was the bassist, Michael "Mike D" Diamond was the lead singer, and Kate Schellenbach (later of Luscious Jackson) was on drums. The original guitarist, John Berry, was soon replaced by Horovitz.
In 1982 they released "Pollywog Stew," which contained the early classics, "Egg Raid On Mojo" and "Transit Cop." The following year, the group reconvened and recorded the humorously infamous "Cooky Puss" EP. The title track consisted of Mike D making prank calls to Carvel asking to speak to the famous cake. The group had switched gears, using early hip-hop beats and turntables. (Both of these EPs became available on CD in 1994 as "Some Old Bulls**t.") Schellenbach left the group and they reemerged in 1986 as a full-fledged hip-hop group.
As one of the pioneering Def Jam acts, they were trendsetters. They were the first white rap group to be fully embraced. They were jokey and crass on their full-length debut, "Licensed To Ill," but it was obvious something was happening. Listening to the Beasties was like hearing a three-pronged, call-and-response rap attack. They had lyrical precision and timing down to an art. They made up a persona as obnoxious pranksters. This was later dropped for a more sensitive, politically and socially-minded image.
In 1989, they left Def Jam and jumped to Capitol Records to release the cut-and-paste landmark, "Paul's Boutique." This record not only proved they were serious about their craft, but it also essentially introduced the world to the production team the Dust Brothers, who have since helmed records by Beck, They Might Be Giants and others. Initially, the public didn't know what to do with "Paul's Boutique," a sonically complex, mesmerizing record, but now it is rightfully revered as a classic.
Three years later came 1992's "Check Your Head." Here, the Beasties set the tone for the rest of their career. They became a full-fledged band again, showcasing three musical genres. Hip-hop was the center and hardcore was back in the fold, but now both genres were augmented by a newly-found, fresh, instrumental funk side. Influenced by the likes of organ legend Jimmy Smith, they recruited keyboardist "Money Mark" Ramos-Nishita to boost their sound and create a lush, chilled-out sonic stew.
Around this time, the band had started their own imprint, Grand Royal Records, signing Luscious Jackson, Ben Lee and others.
In 1994, they released "Ill Communication," which continued playing off of the dynamics of "Check Your Head." Its standout single, "Sabotage," was different from just about any song that had ever hit the commercial radio airwaves, anchored by an amazing video directed by Spike Jonze.
"Hello Nasty" in 1998 was even more of a genre-defying collection. On that record, the trio experimented with new electro-sounds and even soft balladry. "Intergalactic" was a quintessential example of the group's defining sound.
In 2004, still dealing with the aftermath of the events of 9/11 on their beloved home, New York City, the trio released a straightforward hip-hop record, "To the 5 Boroughs," essentially a love letter to the city. It was also their most politically charged record.
Three years later came the sadly underrated instrumental album, "The Mix Up." There they were in full, funked out effect. This record is essential for any true Beasties fan.
So, sadly, with the death of Yauch, the Beasties' long and treasured legacy may come to a close with "The Hot Sauce Committee Part 2." One cannot imagine a Beastie Boys record without his booming baritone yell in the mix. Like many longtime fans of the group, I hope this really isn't the end. I hope that Ad-Rock and Mike D continue to work together under a different name.
The loss of MCA is heartbreaking. I remember when "Hello Nasty" came out and I was walking across the U-Mass campus. I could hear the album blasting out of multiple windows. The Beastie Boys made happy music. They were fun jokesters. It's weird that today I put on their song "Make Some Noise" from last year's record and immediately choked up. It's strange that one of them is now gone. He was 47. The Beasties were supposed to be one of the pioneering hip-hop groups still working the circuit 30 years from now. But now, that won't happen.
They had their own style. They had their own vernacular. There was only one group with the scope and personality of the Beastie Boys, and now their three-pronged attack is one prong short.
MCA, you were a legend. It's so sad to see you go. I'm glad you knew you got into the Hall of Fame and I'm thankful for every record you put out. Listening to a new Beastie Boys record was always a surprise-filled event. You will be greatly missed. Rest in peace.