Namaste to Adam Yauch, the guy who taught me and so many other fans the word. It wasn’t just this Beastie Boy’s wild-style humor and gruff voice that made him one of the music world’s most beloved souls. It was the way he never stopped asking the tough questions, never stopped calling himself on his own bullshit in public, never stopped pushing on to the next new style of musical/spiritual/political awareness, never stopped aiming his harshest challenges at himself and trying to live up to the answers he found. His head was in permanent check mode. And that’s why he will check our heads forever.
If any moment sums him up, it’s his era-defining verse in the Beasties’ 1994 classic “Sure Shot.” MCA was the Beastie who boasted “I got more rhymes than I got grey hairs,” but he was also the one who put his ass on the line with his feminist shout-out, declaring “I wanna say a little something that’s long overdue / Disrespecting women has got to be through,” and sending his love and respect out to “the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends.” He really could have gotten away without coming right out and saying it. But that wouldn’t have been his style.
The Beasties were easily the most important and influential band-qua-band of the past few decades, taking hip-hop and punk rock and stoner-fuzak jazz and raver electro-disco and Brazilian bossa nova and Japanese new wave and stir-frying it all in their wok. And MCA was the one who was most lyrically and vocally overt about the band’s transformations, in terms of feminism, Buddhism, Tibet, etc. But more importantly, he epitomized the idea that loving music puts you in a frame of mind to embrace the whole world with passionate curiosity. He made all his discoveries, from snowboarding to marriage to fatherhood to political activism, sound like they were all part of the same lifelong musical adventure. And it was an adventure where any listener could join him and his brother Beasties, just by shaking rump to “Root Down” or “Unite” or “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” or “Car Thief.”
You can hear Yauch loudest on 1998’s Hello Nasty and 1994’s Ill Communication. He always expressed himself with grace and humor, whether he was rocking a beard like a billy goat, expressing admiration for groupies crafty enough to steal his skateboard, or asking, “Will someone on the Knicks please drive the lane?” And when he changed his mind about something along the way, he wasn’t scared to say so. As he rapped all over the radio in the summer-’98 smash “Intergalactic,” “On tough-guy style I’m not too keen / To change the world I will plot and scheme.”
His illest solo showcase might be “A Year and a Day,” from Paul’s Boutique, where he mixes the Bass Ale with the Guinness Stout, rasping mystic visions on the subway over a scratched-up loop of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady.” But he left so many unforgettable moments, live and on record, or even in the Beasties’ fanzine Grand Royal. (Remember his essay about driving around in L.A., late at night, and helping Seventies songwriter Paul Williams push his car out of a ditch? Knowledge is king.)
I will never forget him leading “Hello Brooklyn” at the Beasties’ one and only Brooklyn gig, in August 2007, everyone bouncing along and losing their collective shit to sing along with the Johnny Cash line, or doing the wop at the New Yorkers Against Violence benefit concerts the Beasties organized in October 2001, where fellow musicians from Yoko to Bono to the Roots to the B-52’s showed up for a intergalactic anti-war jam. And he was still king of the castle on the Beasties’ final album, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee, rhyming and stealing in “Funky Donkey” and “Super Disco Powerpack.”
But the MCA song I keep playing today is “I Don’t Know,” from Hello Nasty, an acoustic samba duet with Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori. He sings, for once, about reaching for the light: “I’m walking through time / Deluded as the next guy / Pretending and hoping to find / That distant peace of mind.” He never claimed he found any final answers, but he never stopped moving. As he said, “There is no other worthy quest,” and he showed the way for all who cared to follow, which is why party people across the world are mourning him today, from Miami to Xenon to 14th Street to Brooklyn and beyond.
And she said, ‘Dark is not the opposite of light. It’s the absence of light.’ And I thought to myself, she knows what she’s talking about. And for a moment, I knew what it was all about. Namaste and gratitude, brother.
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