By Daniel May
Adam Yauch (aka MCA), who died last week at 47, was vocally and aesthetically probably the least memorable of the Beastie Boys. He had neither the striking handsomeness and sharp delivery of Ad-Rock, nor Mike D’s overt dorkiness and nasal flow. Yet his passing marks the end of the Beastie Boys, and not just because the Beasties are impossible to imagine absent a single member. By virtue of his relative plainness, MCA made it seem as though an average-looking nominally talented Jewish dude could be seriously and legitimately down. And it was this quality that accounts for the hugeness of the Beasties and explains their massive impact on American culture.
My adolescence began the day I bought my first cassette, “License to Ill.” I knew instantly that it was… bad. I’d make sure my parents weren’t in the next room before putting it in the tape deck. I knew I wasn’t supposed to like “Girls,” so I memorized every word. The tape proved to be a gateway drug. I soon bought Public Enemy’s ”Nation of Millions” and before long was listening to X Clan and trying to convince my confused parents to buy me a red, green and yellow Africa pendant. Over the next 10 years, 90 percent of whatever I earned went to hip-hop. And through it all, the Beasties were there, looking down at me from a poster on my bedroom – and later dorm room – wall.
Listening to “License to Ill” today, it’s hard to fathom how well those kids aged. And while Yauch died at a very young 47, the Beasties were, in hip-hop terms, a scientific miracle. No one else from hip-hop’s first class of the early 80s was releasing records you’d want to listen to as recently as last year, nor rocking shows that were more than nostalgia tours. (seen Doug E Fresh recently?) They did this with hardly a single hit song. (Their two biggest post-Ill tracks, “So What’cha Want,” and “Intergalatic” only reached #93 and #28, respectively, on Billboards top 100 singles. No other cracked the top 100.) They stayed interesting and important by making the sub-text of hip-hop their text. Starting with “Paul’s Boutique” and brought to perfect form with ”Ill Communication,” their albums were chaotic and loose collages of jazz, grunge and punk – testaments to the pastiche that grounds all of rap music.
In so doing, they transformed the boundaries not so much of what hip-hop was or who it was by but who it was for. They took music that was inseparable from African American culture and economic struggle and made it something that white kids could listen to without jeopardizing that quality prized above all others in adolescence: authenticity. The Beasties seemed to be rocking all the tracks that you, as your run-of-the-mill American white teenager, were discovering. While you thought Ad-Rock probably knew every line of EPMD’s latest record and figured Mike D was probably listening to Gil Scott Heron B-sides, you knew MCA was blasting “Nevermind.” If hip-hop was by and for a guy like Adam Yauch, it was also by and for the rest of us.
It is no coincidence that the group that would pull off this feat of artistic appropriation and cultural integration were a trio of Jewish kids from New York. While American Jews have become consummate insiders in every arena of domestic financial and political power, we define ourselves, culturally, as outsiders. The Beasties wore this contradiction with grace, at a time when doing so seemed impossible. And so even as my hip-hop tastes broadened beyond the Beasties, they stayed plastered on my wall. They remained the gateway into that world; they let me know it could be mine, as well.
There was a downside to this achievement. That Beastie poster finally came down my junior year when I realized that I found most everyone else with a similar poster rather insufferable. The genre bending that the Beasties pioneered gave rise to some of the worst music of the last 20 years. (Avoid a “Beastie Boys” Pandora station unless you’re up for a serious dose of Sublime and Linkin Park.) Nor is it clear to me that hearing 17-year-old white kids call each other “nigger” on the train is a sign of racial progress.
But the fact of hip-hop’s integration into contemporary culture is one of the defining features of contemporary American life. Jay-Z raps about texting Obama while Obama jokes about his kids liking “Drop it Like it’s Hot.” One of Coke’s best selling drinks is named after one of raps biggest stars. Nearly all pop music, from rock to dance, is inflected with hip-hop.
Hip-hop could never have integrated so fully into mainstream culture were it not for a generation of listeners from that culture who were willing to claim it. The Beastie’s – and MCA in particular – let us feel it was ours for the taking. This is their complex and massive legacy: we are all Beasties, whether we like it or not.
Daniel May is the Director of J Street U. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.