Adam Yauch led a life well lived




Like many of a certain age, the Beastie Boys takes me back to high school.

Hello Nasty, and its irresistible lead single “Intergalactic,” was released the summer before my junior year. That album, like its immediate predecessor Ill Communication smashed genres, jokes and styles together into a mash of songs spread out over two sides of a cassette. Their albums were as complex as their singles were hooky, and they were always undeniably cool.

I don’t enjoy looming back to such a weird, transitional period, but news of the death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, brought back a flash of some of the best memories of that time, along with a wave of grief. And judging by the outpouring of emotion and love by millions in the wake, I wasn’t alone.

Even for folks who weren’t terribly big hip-hop fans (like myself), the Beastie Boys crossed over so many planes they were impossible to ignore. Yes, early in their career they had been written off as three brats cashing in on the new-found spotlight on hip-hop. But their work extended far beyond that, and their accomplishments were undeniable.

Their first real statement was 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, a manual on how sonic textures and complex structures could be achieved by sampling. That template was kept and augmented throughout their career, which saw them mixing in punk guitars, drums and bass, with guests flying in and surprises always the order of the day.

The surprises weren’t limited to the records. The Beastie Boys sort of set the template on how to operate on the outskirts of the music business while remaining relevant. They established their Grand Royal imprint, maintaining creative control and signing new artists (including Sean Lennon and At The Drive-In).

Yauch, in particular, was adamant about turning his influence on popular culture into a positive, holding the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the late 1990s, bringing awareness to the plight of Tibet at the hands of the Chinese government.

Those concerts, especially a storm-shortened one in 1998 partially broadcast on MTV in Washington, D.C., was the first memory triggered when I heard that Yauch had died. This wasn’t just an artist holed away in his studio creating beats and basslines. This was a positive force in the world, one who obviously had a real impact beyond his inner circle.

Yauch always seemed to be the conscious of the band. While Ad-Rock’s screeching vocals punctuated most of their songs, MCA hung lower, lending a touch of the serious with his gravelly voice, as in his verse in 1994’s “Sure Shot” that called, “the disrespect for women has got to be through.”

I didn’t know Yauch. I’ve never even seen the Beastie Boys live. But his death struck a chord, a monumental person cut down far too young. We all have to go, but a moment like this still forces an awful, self-absorbed question: why do we have to go?

It doesn’t matter. Someday, we will all go. In the meantime, we can only work hard and hope to have left more good than bad in the world the day our number is called.

Yauch left much more good than bad. His work and influence will live on long past any of us. He is, now and forever, an example of a life well lived.

May 7, 2012

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