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Pioneer – Adam Yauch 1964 – 2012

Time dulls the shock of the new. It”s almost impossible now, given the ubiquity of rap in our collective consciousness, to recall how shocking it seemed it the 80s. It was abrasive, violent and direct. The predominantly white music press of the time either recoiled in disgust or clumsily patronised it – in all senses of the word. All this did was further prove that they just didn’t get it, and neither did the masses. In fact, it wasn’t until three middle-class white Jewish kids came along that the mainstream found a route in. That’s probably Adam Yauch’s – known to millions as MCA of the Beastie Boys – most important legacy.

When Ill Communication became an essential album for the thinking indie kid in 1994,  I remember being flummoxed. Having not followed the career of the Beastie Boys at all since their late 80s heyday, it seemed odd to me that people were lionising what, to my rexcollection, was a novelty band. That’s how the Beasties had been portrayed in the late 80s, as their travelling show attracted the ire of just about every right-wing commentator in an era filled with them (this was in the heights of the Reagan-Thatcher school of politics bookending the Atlantic.) Dancing girls, inflatable penises, that Volkswagen thing…couldn’t be serious, right?

And their debut Licensed to Ill probably wasn’t, no. But now, a quarter of a century later, it stands up as one of the best pop-rock albums of the decade. Sure, the lyrics are puerile, but isn’t that what pop is? When the light of enquiry faded, the Beasties developed. By the mid-90s they were as serious as a heart attack, beloved by critics and selling millions with each release. Their albums got wilder, weirder and never less than fascinating.

The music evolved, as did Yauch as a person. No longer the snotty punk kid of 80s lore, he grew into the role of reluctant rock statesman. His interest in film-making – he directed many of the band’s videos to much acclaim – offered another outlet for his creativity.

Yauch converted to Buddhism in the early 1990s, after travelling to Tibet and Nepal. In 1994 heco-founded the Milarepa Fund, to promote awareness of the unjust treatment of native Tibetans by the region’s Chinese occupiers.

The following year he met his wife, activist Dechen Wangdu, at a talk given by the Dalai Lama at Harvard University. They married in 1998, in a traditional Tibetan ceremony, but with Yauch’s favourite hardcore punk band, Rancid, playing at the reception. Milarepa promoted a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts, and marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11 by organising New Yorkers Against Violence in aid of victims of violence.

Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in a salivary gland in July 2009, but didn’t seek to fight the battle in the public glare. Rumours of the seriousness of his condition gathered steam when he was unable to attend the Beastie Boys’ induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame last month. He passed away at only 48, no age at all, and is survived by his wife and daughter.

The Beastie Boys represented effortless New York cool to millions of fans. They were incendiary, explosive, laid-back, funny, angry and always one step ahead of their contemporaries. There were reports that you couldn’t open a door in Brooklyn this Sunday without hearing their trademark sound blasting from a car or an open window. That’s somehow the most fitting epitaph for MCA imaginable. He’ll be missed.


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