How the Beasties' MCA evolved as artist and activist
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
If the Beastie Boys have long represented the ability of artists to evolve in surprising ways, it was Adam Yauch who truly personified those possibilities. In the group's early, beer-swilling, skirt-chasing days, he was the most obnoxious of the bunch -- the loudest, most swaggering Beastie, with the gruffest voice and worst attitude. Over time, he became not only the conscience of the band, but also one of the leading activists of his musical generation, a vegan Buddhist who spent years spearheading the Tibetan Freedom benefit concerts.
The fact that Yauch did not attend the Beasties' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month probably should have been the tip-off that something was wrong, that the cancerous tumor in his salivary gland that had been diagnosed in 2009 was now taking a turn for the worse. But it was a punch in the gut to hear of his death at the age of 47 on Friday.
The Beastie Boys altered the direction of popular music at least three times. Their 1986 debut album, "Licensed to Ill," was the first hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the charts, and did more than any other recording to introduce the genre to the suburban masses. "Paul's Boutique," the 1989 follow-up, is generally considered the pinnacle of hip-hop's golden era of sampling, and is still viewed as one of the finest rap albums ever made. The Beasties' third album, 1992's "Check Your Head," solidified a truce between the worlds of hip-hop and alternative rock, creating a kind of global hipster coalition that cast a decade-long shadow.
And that wasn't even the end: Michael Diamond (Mike D), Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), and Yauch (MCA) not only continued to make hits and maintain their status as one of hip-hop's finest live acts, they also became pioneers in music video, social activism and street-level entrepreneurship. "One of my favorite groups is the Beasties," no less than Bono himself once said, "Their journey is really one to watch, from just having fun with their own middle-classness to a growing awareness of the way the world is." In 2011, 25 years after their initial assault on high school parking lots and college frats, the "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" disc debuted in Billboard's No. 2 slot and turned up on lists of the year's best albums.
If there was a key to the unexpected longevity of the Beastie Boys, it was probably that over time, each of the three members found his own lane, his own areas of interest and expertise. Diamond was the businessman, overseeing the launch first of their Grand Royal record label, and then the clothing line, magazine, and other extensions that established them as a "brand" when such talk from a musician probably would have earned him a well-deserved smack. Horovitz was always the music guy, working on beats and keeping them focused toward each new album when that time came around.
Yauch developed an interest in the Tibetan cause after his snowboarding obsession led him to Nepal. He was a founder of the Milarepa Foundation, which helped organize a series of annual festivals between 1996 and 2003 to raise money and awareness for the struggle for Tibetan independence -- events that included the biggest bands in the world, including U2, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Wu-Tang Clan and dozens more.
He also pursued his interest in filmmaking, which blossomed from directing videos for the group under the name Nathanial Hornblower -- including such landmarks as "So What'cha Want" and "Intergalactic" -- to founding the Oscilloscope Laboratories film production and distribution company, which was behind many significant movies, including the acclaimed documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," about the mysterious street artist Banksy.
But it was on wax and on stage that MCA showed himself to be one of the greats.
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