The outpouring of grief when Adam Yauch died Friday showed the incredible reach of his band's music.
Last fall Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin convened at the New York Public Library for a public conversation about Def Jam Records, the musical venture they famously birthed in an NYU dorm room in 1984. Describing the invention of a label that would become one of the most significant in American history, Simmons remarked, beautifully: "It was us, intentionally being young."
The Beastie Boys recorded only one album for Def Jam—their monstrously successful 1986 breakthrough Licensed To Ill—but in the 26 years since it's hard to think of another group that's more uniquely embodied this idea. There was a numbing shock to the news that Adam Yauch, known to the world as MCA, died of cancer on Friday at the age of 47. This was a man who approached the world with all the energy and curiosity of a precocious teenager, taken from us well before his time. It's a cliché to remark that a celebrity death makes one feel old, but it's hard to think of another artist who spent so long making us feel so young.
Yauch founded the Beastie Boys as a New York City hardcore band in 1981, with friends Mike Diamond, John Berry, and Kate Schellenbach. In 1982 they released Polliwog Stew, a cultishly beloved EP that is not "good" in any remotely conventional sense of the term. Yauch and Diamond soon lost Berry and Schellenbach (the latter would later find success as the drummer in Luscious Jackson) and added Adam Horovitz. As a trio they began moving away from hardcore toward hip-hop, because even as teenagers Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA were the only three people in the world to whom such a transition would seem entirely logical. In 1983 they released the single "Cooky Puss," the best song ever written about a prank phone call to Carvel and the first indication that their reinvention as a rap group might actually have legs.
They hooked up with Def Jam, quickly fashioning a hit single and a heroic CV of disastrous live shows. By the time Licensed to Ill was released in 1986 they'd gained a reputation as the Sex Pistols of rap: charismatic, loutish, gleefully reprehensible. Licensed to Ill lived up to this, its catchy party jams infused with ridiculous levels of sex, violence, and general decadence. Critics killed it, parental groups tried to ban it, Def Jam got rich off of it. Licensed to Ill was a stupid record that was smart enough to recognize its stupidity—in other words, just smart enough to be really fun and also smart enough that it should know better.
The Beastie Boys' artistic transformation seemed to happen so naturally that it was easy to forget that nothing like it had ever happened before.
The Beastie Boys, to their endless credit, were smart enough to know better. They bolted from Def Jam and released Paul's Boutique for Capitol in 1989, a shockingly ambitious album that was a watershed in sample-driven music. Magically eclectic and unbelievably intelligent, it was such a profound departure from Licensed to Ill that it felt like an ethical statement. It also alienated much of their fanbase, and the Beastie Boys went from the most successful and reviled group in rap to commercially ineffective critical darlings.