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The last time I saw Adam Yauch was in late spring 2008. I was walking in the West Village, heard my name, turned around, and there he was with his then-10-year-old daughter, Losel.
It was six months before he announced that he had cancer (detected on his parotid gland and lymph node) and 26 years since I first discovered the Beastie Boys. As a college radio DJ in New Jersey, I bought their first 7-inch single, “Polly Wog Stew,” in 1982 and a year later added “Cooky Puss” — a 12-inch of a prank phone call they made to Carvel Ice Cream played over a loop — to the rotation. It was funny as hell and got everyone talking about these downtown New York kids.
That’s what the Beasties were when they started out: kids. They came up through the hardcore punk scene and became fascinated with hip-hop. Fusing rap with rock, it set them apart from everyone else in music. Some people were ready for it, others weren’t, but regardless, they were gaining new fans every minute. By the time License to Ill came out in 1986, landing at No. 1, where it stayed for five weeks, they helped usher in a new genre.
Back then, the Beasties had songs like “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” their breakout hit, and “Girls” — more comedic and surely different than how the band viewed women years later, as Yauch would rap in 1994’s “Sure Shot”: “I wanna say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through.” That lyric was important because the youth of America saw themselves in the Beastie Boys, and here was a message of female empowerment and equality, things Yauch (MCA), Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) came to believe in passionately.
The Beastie Boys were revolutionary in that they were never afraid to take chances. Transcending color and gender lines, it was all about exploration and evolution. From sonic masterpiece Paul’s Boutique in 1989 — at first seen as a disappointment following their debut but later recognized as pioneering in its use of sampling — came Check Your Head in 1992. We played every single off that album. People couldn’t get enough of it. Throughout the ’90s, as they released Ill Communication and Hello Nasty, the Beasties were as relevant and their fans as rabid as ever.
Yauch’s raspy muscular voice made him sound like the toughest of the three, but ultimately, he was the conscience of the band. As he grew older, he saw more of what was going on around him, and at a certain period, all he wanted to do was bring attention to the injustices in the world. He would use what he had built with the band to help people — take that power and attention and do good.
I remember talking to Yauch at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1997, which the Beasties organized. Always a gentle soul, he had become a devout Buddhist and true humanitarian, co-founding the Milarepa Fund to raise money and awareness for Tibetan independence. Yauch wasn’t sure how the vibe would be at Randall’s Island, but once the monks came and blessed the space, then the artists arrived, it was like a wind of change. More than 50,000 saw Foo Fighters, U2, Radiohead and Sonic Youth. Leaving that night, I was in a van with Sarah McLachlan, Lee Scratch Perry and Stephen Malkmus from Pavement. Talk about diversity — only the Beasties could draw that mix of people, and it’s exactly what Yauch represented.
When I ran into Yauch on the street in ’08, I had just started a morning show at New York rock station WRXP that day, and he had just finished directing the basketball doc Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot for his Oscilloscope Laboratories. He was so proud of the film, and I invited him up to the station to talk about it.
He came the next day. Always engaging and to the point, honest and sensitive, we talked about the movie, then I brought up “Fight for Your Right” and “Girls.” Even though it felt like a lifetime from where the Beasties were at musically, I said to Adam: “You go to Knicks games all the time. Does it blow your mind when you hear ‘Girls’ come on all these years later?” He laughed and said: “It’s surreal, man. We were creating and having fun, but we were kids. Did I think it would last that long? Not in a million years. But it’s never gone away.”
I don’t expect to see the Beasties continue without Adam, and in looking back at their incredible accomplishments — including how they always gave back to the hip-hop community and helped nurture so many new artists by forming Grand Royal Records — it’s easy to see why LL Cool J’s description of the band at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction April 14 was so spot-on: “Run-DMC brought rap to the edge of suburbia, Beasties drove it right into the center of town.”
There’s a truth to the saying only the good die young. And at 47, Adam Yauch was young. He was a beautiful man and a strong spirit. It’s a sad day for music — a sad day for the planet.
Matt Pinfield is the host of MTV2’s 120 Minutes and MTV Hive’s The Hivecast With Matt Pinfield on iTunes.
BEASTIE BOYS AS MUSIC VIDEO VISIONARIES: Van Toffler, MTV Music Group president, on four clips that revolutionized the visual medium.
Fight For Your Right (1987) “They managed to literally translate the energy and sense of humor of their music into 3-1/2 minutes. It was like a great action sequence in a movie — you couldn’t take your eyes off it.”
So What’cha Want (1992) “Adam Yauch directed this quirky and compelling video. He had a great visual sense, and this was one of the first to lip-sync in double speed. For the Beasties, rules were made to be broken. That’s how they approached all their videos.”
Sabotage (1994) “With how much we played it on MTV, the Beasties crossed over from smaller novelty hip-hop band to the pop world. ‘Sabotage’ was in a league with ‘Thriller.’ It had a script, and slowly directors started to treat videos like movies.”
Make Some Noise (2011)”At 32 minutes long, with comedians like Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and Danny McBride playing future and present-day Beasties (some of whom Adam called upon himself), it fittingly pushed the format even further.”
OSCILLISCOPE LABORATORIES: ‘Born of Yauch’s Vision’
If Adam Yauch had never rapped a line, he still would be important as founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories, the indie film production and distribution company he started with David Fenkel and Dan Berger in 2008, inspired by indie record labels with integrity. “It was born of Yauch’s vision,” says Berger. “That vision impacted every aspect of O-Scope, from acquisitions and marketing to what tea we had in the kitchen.” The company’s concept was simple, says Fenkel: “If we stick to just working with films we’re into, the rest will come. Theaters, partners and consumers will trust O-Scope’s taste.”
Adds Berger, who now runs Oscilloscope with David Laub (and Fenkel as a consultant): “His taste in films exhibited diversity and passion. He never failed to surprise us.” When movies such as The Garden, The Messenger and Exit Through the Gift Shop earned Oscilloscope six Oscar noms during its first four years, says Laub, “Yauch was ecstatic. It was confirmation of what Yauch already knew: These films were worthy. And who doesn’t like to hear that they’re right?”
Oscilloscope staffers treasure the memory of Yauch at Cannes in 2009, riding a bicycle around the Croisette, goofing and yelling, “Sandwiches for sale!” He was hoping to sell one to Harvey Weinstein and others; instead, he ended up selling movies and became an accomplished indie-film purveyor. “That unique sensibility was always present,” says Fenkel. “And it always will be.” — Tim Appelo
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