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The Many Lives of Adam Yauch

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Yauch was never an enthusiastic student, and at 14, he switched from the small, private Brooklyn Friends School to Edward R. Murrow High School, a huge public institution deep in Brooklyn. "I felt I was leading too much of a sheltered life," he said in 1998. But as one friend remembers it, the real issue was that the private school's combination of high expectations and loose structure had left him academically floundering.

As he entered high school, Yauch and his friends discovered punk rock – and he soon started dressing the part. He'd spike his hair (or, later, just shave it), put on combat boots and wear a trench coat with the Clash song title "White Riot" painted on it.

Yauch pulled off the look well enough that his future bandmate Horovitz was deeply impressed when he spotted him for the first time at a record store: "I was just looking at him, thinking, 'That's what we're supposed to look like, be like.' He was pissed off, this fucked-up kid." But the working-class, Italian-American students at Yauch's high school were less appreciative, harassing him with shouts of "Ey, rock lobster! Ey, punk rock!" In the face of that open hostility, Yauch eventually switched out again, this time to a lenient experimental school in Manhattan – but he based his real curriculum around the electric bass and hardcore punk, especially the frantic, Washington, D.C., act Bad Brains, an all-African-American band whose fuzzed-out low-end sound he would later put to use on "Sabotage" and other Beasties songs.

At one Bad Brains show, when he was about 16, Yauch met Michael Diamond, a younger, self-described "incredibly awkward punk kid" – they instantly became friends. "After that point on, every weekend, it was, 'What are the shows?' or we'd go dancing at Rock Lounge or Danceteria," Diamond recalls. "Adam actually taught me the ropes. He taught me how to make my own buttons for my jacket. He was really good at showing me how to fake hand-stamps to get into shows. That was an important skill! Even then he had this focus."

With their reggae chops and hyperspeed grooves, Bad Brains were intimidatingly skilled – it was hard for Yauch to imagine ever playing that well. But then he and Diamond attended a show at the Peppermint Lounge by California's far-more primitive Black Flag. "It was the first time we'd seen moshing and stage diving," says Diamond, who was already playing in bands with another friend, John Berry. "After that Black Flag show, Yauch came back to John's house and said, 'OK, we're starting a band and you two guys are in it.' It was the same energy of his – that focus and ability to never take no as an answer, to will something to happen."

Even as Yauch spent a couple of years at Bard College, two hours north of the city, the early, hardcore version of the Beastie Boys gained a local following and recorded an EP; eventually, their friend Adam Horovitz took over for Berry on guitar.

But the sound of early hip-hop was all over the downtown clubs, and the Beasties found it at least as exciting as punk. In their scene, the line between the two genres was oddly permeable: One night at a roller rink, the Beasties and other punk kids gathered to watch a screening of the Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle – and then stuck around to watch rehearsals by early B-boys the Rock Steady Crew at the same venue.

In his bedroom at home, Yauch would casually rap along to the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" – a song that grabbed him the moment he heard it blasting in a pizza parlor. When his friend Jill Cunniff heard him, she was astonished: "I remember him being able to really rap," she says. "Oh, my God, here's this punk bass player, and then he comes out with this gravelly voice and totally legit flow. That was a turning point in terms of what he knew he could do."

Adds another Eighties pal, Tom Cushman, "It came out of nowhere. All of a sudden it was just this other talent that just emerged." Yauch studied rap pioneer Spoonie Gee's rhymes the way he had absorbed Bad Brains' bass lines, and the band's transformation loomed. "We just grew up listening to rap records," says Horovitz. "So we just said, 'Fuck it, why don't we try it, see what happens?'"

It was "Cooky Puss," an amusing novelty single built around a beat, a bass line and a crank call to a Carvel ice cream parlor, that opened the door – even though it was closer to proto-Jerky Boys than actual hip-hop. NYU student Rick Rubin, an acquaintance from the hardcore scene, heard possibilities in the single, and began nudging the Beastie Boys to drop their instruments and focus on becoming the first white rap group. "Hip-hop, in that moment in time, sounded fresher than the punk rock that we were all listening to," says Rubin – who briefly became the Beasties' DJ, and helped push drummer Kate Schellenbach out of the group in the process.

The Rubin connection would lead to a record deal with his burgeoning label, Def Jam. Label employee Andre Harrell nicknamed Yauch "Black Rap" because his voice was so authentically "black" – while the other two sounded high, nasal and unabashedly Caucasian. "Horovitz and I could be a little more interchangeable, a little harder to distinguish between the two of us," says Mike D. "Yauch was coming from this other place, this gruff thing. When we were 19 or 20, he sounded like a gruff 40-year-old. He was kind of the Bobby Womack of rap."

Label co-founder Russell Simmons' strategy was to win over black audiences first. "Breaking them as rappers and crossing them over as rockers was absolutely key to their early success," says former Def Jam publicist Bill Adler. "It's why you've got Chuck D and LL Cool J inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Rubin became their producer, and beginning with the "Back in Black"-biting single "Rock Hard," they started sliding loud guitars and rock-drum tracks underneath their increasingly nimble rapping – with Yauch imitating Jimi Hendrix's studio trickery by creating the reverse drum machine sound on "Paul Revere" and personally assembling tape loops of John Bonham drum parts.

It all worked better than anyone expected: Licensed to Ill, released in November 1986, was the first hip-hop record to hit Number One, selling 4 million units in a year, far more than any rap or punk album had managed by that point. Their videos were inescapable, especially the gleefully loutish "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" – in which these three ultra-urbane New Yorkers played the part of white-trash party-crashers.

By the time they were done touring for the album, their success left Yauch feeling like he was trapped in a cage – much like the girls they had dancing onstage every night.

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