Passing the Mic: What Adam Yauch Meant to a Generation

To a certain generation of people, the Beastie Boys were as monumental and important as the Beatles, as groundbreaking, as formative, as sweeping and meaningful in their celebrity but also in their music, always the music.

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To a certain generation of people, the Beastie Boys were as monumental and important as the Beatles, as groundbreaking, as formative, as sweeping and meaningful in their celebrity but also in their music, always the music.

Personally, there are milliseconds of certain Beastie Boys songs that have the power to transport me to another time and place: With "So What'cha Want," I'm riding around in the back of a friend's new car packed with four other girls—I can't remember the car, but I can almost smell the seats—the tape deck (yes, tape deck) turned up to full volume, us sing-chanting along. With "Professor Booty" I'm listening to tapes with my brother as my mom yells at us to come down to dinner. With "Fight for Your Right," I'm jumping up and down at a party with friends after trying my first sip of vodka. Those of us of around the same age, and those of us still younger and also older, have similar stories and experiences with the music of the Beastie Boys. As evidence of our connection with the band and the Boys-turned-men in it, more than 20 years later, "Fight for Your Right Revisited" is no less transportive. At the same time it's highly applicable on a meta level, as perfect for our Internet time now as it was for its original release in 1986.

The Internet reacts to the news of celebrity death in a particular way, with a fast wave of responses and #RIPs and acknowledgements of sadness and how, even though generally we didn't actually "know" these people, we were affected by them deeply. But the response to the untimely death of MCA, who has died nearly three years after a tumor was discovered in his parotid gland, is somehow bigger than usual, the grief more pronounced. His representation, Nasty Little Man, imparts the news: "It is with great sadness that we confirm that musician, rapper, activist and director Adam 'MCA' Yauch, founding member of Beastie Boys and also of the Milarepa Foundation that produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits, and film production and distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, passed away in his native New York City this morning after a near-three-year battle with cancer. He was 47 years old."

Yauch was born in Brooklyn, and the Beastie Boys represented a particular brand of New York cool that, more nationally and even globally, the world embraced. In some ways, the band was a form of musical New York PR—at least, a "PR" based in coolness, a new style of music, a new form of flouting the rules, a new kind of joy and energy. For those of us who did not grow up here, this was the New York we wanted to live in; for those of us who did, these were our hometown heroes. The Beasties created songs that were also inside jokes reflective of our collective imagination, memes before we were throwing around the word meme. This was something that captured the imagination in its uniqueness and unlikelihood, in the way it challenged the norms. As Brian Braiker writes in the Guardian, "Their lyrics were packed with goofy couplets, in-jokes and pop-culture references. And each of the Beasties cultivated distinct personas and vocal deliveries that meshed well together and could stand alone." He continues, "After eschewing punk for an exaggerated fratty b-boy posture, the trio would go on to become the unlikely first white rap group to achieve massive mainstream success – to the initial chagrin of hip-hop purists." These guys, they were rebels. They were awesome.

Yauch formed the band for his 17th birthday party with Mike "Mike D" Diamond, drummer Kate Schellenbach, and guitarist John Berry; they started out in the underground scene in New York City. Eventually Berry and Schellenbach would leave, with Adam "Ad-Rock" Horowitz joining in their stead. The band went on to sell more than 40 million records, release four #1 albums (Licensed to Ill, the band's 1986 debut, was the first hip hop album to top the Billboard 200), win three Grammys, win the MTV Video Vanguard Lifetime Achievement award, and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A little more than thirty years later, much too soon, we're mourning the loss of this key player in our collective musical memory. Yauch went on to direct, including several of the band's videos—most recently, "Fight For Your Right Revisited," in which Elijah Wood, Danny McBride, and Seth Rogen face "the Beastie Boys of the future"—an idea now more poignant than ever—played by Jack Black, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly.

Standing as he did for the music we grew up on and also continue to listen to, the tributes have been coming fast and furiously. At The New Yorker, Ben Greenman has put together a video playlist of our favorites. Spotify playlists are also circulating. The Village Voice's Camille Dodero tweeted a gorgeous, now terribly sad photo of Yauch and his now 13-year-old daughter Tenzin: He was a dad, too. The refrain of "Fuck Cancer" has been heard around the Internet (as has the charge to do something, to donate to cancer research, to use this moment to make a difference). Sara Benincasa tweeted, "Every small business worth its salt in NYC is blasting Beastie Boys today." Similarly, every Beastie Boys fan worth his or her salt has their favorite albums or songs on repeat today, and tonight. The way DListed writer Michael K. introduced the news of Yauch's death is telling: "Well, this one's going to hurt like a piece of your childhood is getting ripped away." And as Matt Langer, 32, a New York Times product developer, put it, "Those albums tack perfectly with the years of my life—this hits harder than [the death of] Michael Jackson." A key difference: we never saw Yauch go down the troubled road Jackson traveled; we never saw him fall apart in front of us, though we noticed his absence, his thinness, as he battled cancer, and we worried. To us, he stood for not only a particular time in our lives, but the ability to grow up and become adults and still keep doing what we loved, living on our own terms.

Maura Johnston, music editor for The Village Voice, told The Atlantic Wire, "One of the things that I think makes the loss of one of the Beastie Boys so hard is that at their best moments they had this vitality about them -- their big breakthrough hit was about fighting for their right to party, it's true. But even as they aged and got more into supporting causes than cat-calling 'Girls,'  They matured along with their audience, and I think that's a big part of what's making this such a hard loss to process -- it's a really strong reminder of everyone's mortality."

That song "Girls" is worth pausing on, since MCA himself rebuked its sexist message in "Sure Shot," saying, "I want to say a little something that's long overdue/ The disrespect to women has got to be through/ To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends I want to offer my love and respect to the end." Later in their careers, the band renounced their loutish earlier antics, showing a generation how to grow up with grace and go from Boys to men and women.

That Yauch would be felled at 47 by cancer, a disease that we as a generation have grown up to fear, makes the loss all the more tragic and resonant. As Hypervocal's Slade Sohmer writes, "It’s disheartening when the heroes of your youth, too young themselves, pass away. You almost want it to be from drugs, from an accident, from growing old. But disease? Universe, you’re awful."

The universe, you'd imagine, rather agrees.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.