Beastie Boys co-founder Adam "MCA" Yauch – whose band transformed hip-hop in the 1980s and was among the leaders of the alt-rock revolution in the 1990s – died of complications from cancer on May 4th. He was 47. "Yauch was the spiritual leader of the group," says his friend Questlove. "Michael Jackson wasn't allowed to grow up. The Beastie Boys did."
Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in his salivary gland and a lymph node in 2009, undergoing surgery that year. The cancer continued to spread over the past three years as Yauch tried holistic treatments and chemotherapy. He was admitted on April 14th to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he died surrounded by his parents, his wife, Dechen, and their 13-year-old daughter, Tenzin Losel.
Yauch was the Beasties' oldest member, their distinctive growling voice and (as his co-medic alter ego, Nathanial Hornblower) the director of many of their iconic videos. Starting in 1996, he organized the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, helping to make political activism a central concern of the Lollapalooza generation.
The news of his loss sent shock waves through the music world. Public Enemy's Chuck D – who inducted the Beasties into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, when Yauch was too ill to attend – declared he was "teary-eyed." Eminem said Yauch "brought a lot of positivity into the world."
Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels first met the Beasties in the mid-Eighties after being introduced to them by producer Rick Rubin – immediately pegging Yauch as the "mature" member of the trio. "He was one of the top 10 voices in hip-hop," DMC says. "He was the one who made you go, 'These dudes are for real.' Now I know how people felt when Jimi and Janis and Elvis passed away."
Born in Brooklyn in 1964, Yauch was the son of an architect, Noel, and a public school administrator, Frances. He learned to play bass as a teenager, founding the Beasties as a hardcore band with members including childhood friend Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D) and, later, Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock). But hip-hop was inescapable in early-Eighties New York, and soon the trio began rapping. After hooking up with Rubin, they made music history with 1986's Licensed to Ill – the first rap album to top the charts, eventually selling 9 million copies.
Yauch initially embodied the trio's bratty, beer-soaked image on hits like "Fight for Your Right" and "Paul Revere." But after the 1991 overdose death of old friend Dave Scilken, he began searching for something deeper, embarking on a spiritual quest that eventually led him to become a practicing Buddhist by the mid-Nineties. "What Western society teaches us is that if you get enough money, power and beautiful people to have sex with, that's going to bring you happiness," he told RS in 1998. "That's a fallacy."
He consistently put his beliefs into action. In 1994, Yauch launched the Milarepa Fund, which produced the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. In songs like 1994's "Sure Shot," Yauch spoke out against sexism; he was also an early vocal opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's not like he became a Buddhist and alienated himself from friends and family," says DMC. "At the Tibetan concert, he was calm offstage – but then he went ballistic onstage. He was still Adam Yauch."
Yauch played a pivotal role in the band's visual aesthetic, directing videos including "So What'cha Want" and "Body Movin'." In 2008, he founded the production and distribution company Oscilloscope Pictures – working with filmmakers like Spike Jonze. "He was one of the great believers and champions of indie film," says Woody Harrelson, who scored an Oscar nomination for Oscilloscope's The Messenger. Last year, Yauch directed comedy all-stars including Will Ferrell, Jack Black and Seth Rogen in the Beasties' short film Fight for Your Right Revisited.
After Yauch became ill in 2009, the Beasties never toured again. "I'd been kind of trying to connect with Adam to get him to do another Lollapalooza," says his friend Perry Farrell. "He would text me really sad things, like, 'We're giving up our studio, you can use it.' After a while I just stopped hearing back from him."
In a bittersweet turn of events, Yauch was inducted into the Hall of Fame just weeks before the end. Backstage, Mike D said, "Obviously, if we could trade anything, it would be to have Adam here with us. The thing we're most thankful for is the relationship the three of us have with each other."
This story is from the May 24th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.