As the Beasties worked on what would become Check Your Head – their first album built around both rapping and live musicianship – Yauch and his girlfriend headed on a trip to India. "His curiosity told him he needed to go there," says Caldato. "He seemed drawn to it. When he came back, he started wearing different clothes, started growing a beard, and changed his diet. During Paul's Boutique, we ate at Lawry's Prime Rib every night, but then during Check Your Head, he became a vegetarian." He wrote the dreamy closing track, "Namaste," about the trip.
Yauch began seeing an L.A.-based holistic healer named Quentin Rodemeyer, who helped him quit drugs and alcohol, and to find ways of tapping into spiritual energy without pot or acid. "He was just ready to make some changes," says Rodemeyer, "and he jumped into it with this courage and this strength and dedication to changing his life. I think it was a feeling inside of him that there was a need to grow past where he was."
In 1993, Yauch returned to the Far East, visiting Nepal, where he met Tibetan Buddhists in exile who taught him about both their religion and their perilous political situation. Their beliefs felt congruent with the ideas he was hearing from Rodemeyer – and by 1996, Yauch started to consider himself a Buddhist.
Yauch was increasingly eager to make amends for the blatantly sexist lyrics and behavior of the early Beastie years. "He had some kind of personal change that had happened," says Cunniff. "He felt like he needed to redeem himself a bit. He was playing down any macho behavior, and became very sweet and gentle." Well before his conversion, Yauch had Caldato film him smashing his gun with a sledgehammer, and the scene appears in a 1992 music video – once the weapon is cracked beyond repair, Yauch offers a broad, relieved smile.
On Check Your Head and especially Ill Communication – the album that fully reestablished the Beasties' commercial clout – Yauch pushed the Beasties toward more positive messages. "Me and Adam Horovitz weren't entirely comfortable with it," Mike D says of Yauch's newfound mission (which led to a widely praised line on "Sure Shot," Ill Communication's opening track: "Want to say a little something that's long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through").
"It took a little getting used to," Mike adds. "But we also all felt it. It wasn't like he was on his own."
It helped that Yauch always kept his sense of humor intact. A skilled mimic, he admired Peter Sellers and the Monty Python crew as much as any of his musical heroes – and he saw no conflict between his new religion and his penchant for silliness. Says Mike D, "When we were running around smashing up cars, wearing disguises in the 'Sabotage' video, Yauch was like, 'Monks play tricks on each other all the time.'" It was a post-Buddhism Yauch who wore lederhosen and a fake beard to play his filmmaker alter ego, Nathaniel Hornblower – storming the stage at the 1994 VMAs in that guise to spout Swiss-German-accented complaints ("This is a farce!") when R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" beat the Beasties' "Sabotage" video for an award. "He had such a funny mixture of deep humility with deep absurdity and playfulness," says his "Sabotage" director, Spike Jonze.
When the Beastie Boys co-headlined the 1994 Lollapalooza festival, Yauch brought a group of Tibetan monks along for the two-month tour. Says Billy Corgan, leader of fellow headliners Smashing Pumpkins, "The initial vibe was like, you know, they're Yauch's monks – what's the angle? But he had a real reverence for them." Corgan was one of the only other musicians on the tour who actually talked to the monks – and, says the Pumpkins frontman, those conversations led to the spiritual awakening that would later save him from suicidal despair.
Yauch had sampled vocals from other Tibetan monks on Ill Communication, and he decided to direct royalties from the songs in question to the Tibetan cause. He formed a charity called the Milarepa Fund for that purpose – but it quickly turned into something much bigger. Yauch was soon putting together the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which aimed to raise awareness of China's oppressive occupation of the nation. Yauch personally made the calls to recruit artists, and the lineups over seven years worth of shows were a tribute to his influence, with headliners including U2, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and the Pumpkins.
Yauch was getting deep enough into Buddhism that he was pondering a life of celibacy, but then he met a Tibetan-American Harvard student named Dechen Wangdu – and got married instead. In a joyous, cross-cultural ceremony that combined traditional Tibetan rituals with a wedding-band performance by Rancid. The couple had a daughter, Losel, in 1998. "The minute he met Dechen, I think his mind was made up that he was gonna spend the rest of his life with her," says longtime Beasties pal Cey Adams. "And if you ever want to see Adam Yauch at his best, look at a photograph of him with his daughter."
Yauch had been directing inventive retro-leaning Beastie Boys videos since 1989, and he became increasingly involved in film in the past decade. He directed Gunnin for That #1 Spot, a well-reviewed documentary about New York high school basketball players – and added movie arms to his company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, to make and distribute deserving movies. Among his distribution picks was 2009's Oscar-nominated The Messenger, whose anti-war message Yauch passionately embraced. "I really didn't know MCA," says that film's director, Oren Moverman. "I knew Adam, a film guy who was humble and low-key and very present."
When Messenger star Woody Harrelson won an Independent Spirit Award for his work in the film, he spaced out at the podium and forgot to thank Oscilloscope. Says Harrelson, "I came back to the table and he was just as nice and as cool as any other time. You didn't see even a hint of someone being slighted. There's just nobody else on the planet who would have reacted that way. He was still completely Zen about it."
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