Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, one-third of the Beastie Boys, died today. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2009; earlier this year, he was absent when his two brothers (you know so well), Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock), accepted the band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
From the track “No Sleep Til Brookyn” on their debut, Licensed to Ill, to their post-9/11 album, To the 5 Boroughs, this was a quintessentially New York act. Though they began as a hardcore punk band, they quickly moved to hip-hop, where in the mid- and late-1980s, with the Rick Rubin-produced Licensed and their seminal sophomore album Paul’s Boutique (whose cover featured a Lower East Side corner), they helped define the genre itself.
Their style was to develop their own identities and alternate verses, within verses, and even within lines (“Aw, mom you’re just jealous it’s the” “Bea” “stie” “Boys”). The triangle is that most delicate of shapes, the only one where altering one side forces the alteration of all other sides. Take one side away, and what do you have?
And the subtext to the Beastie Boys phenomenon was that these hip-hop maestros and geniuses, whose macho posturing seemed never to be lacking a tongue in cheek (“Mike D grabbed the money, MCA stashed the gold,/I grabbed two girlies and a beer that’s cold,” are the final lines in “Paul Revere,” which should give you some sense of the brand of “gangsta rap” they peddled), were white boys. More: they were middle-class Jewish kids from the Tristate Area.
You’re 13 and they’re already big, and “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party” is already anthemic and the Spike Jonze-directed “Sabotage” video (the best video ever) is on heavy rotation, and you assume it’s too cheesy to take pride in this aspect of one of the greatest musical acts of the 20th century. The clip below, from the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, instructed me that I was wrong. The performance is great; but note most of all the introduction. My feelings about the Beastie Boys weren’t anomalous or bizarre. Because the Beastie Boys were ours, and they were the coolest.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.