Adam Yauch, the raspy-voiced rapper known as MCA of the Beastie Boys, died Friday in New York at the age of 47. Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and had been largely out of the spotlight since.
Yauch and bandmates Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) are credited with helping push hip-hop into the mainstream. The Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, but Yauch was not in attendance.
Founded as a punk act when Yauch was 17, the Beastie Boys began fusing elements of rap and rock on their 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill, released by the then-brand-new Def Jam Recordings. The album — created by an all-white trio that formed when rap was still made by and marketed toward black audiences — was the first hip-hop album to make it to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
According to Bill Adler, the Beasties' publicist at Def Jam records during the Licensed to Ill era, the album "defined ... American pop and international pop for the calendar year of 1987.
"They demonstrated that you did not have to be black to make a credible record," Adler told NPR's Sami Yenigun. (You can hear Yenigun's full report for All Things Considered by clicking the audio player on this page.)
On Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys created a cartoonish signature image: hard-partying neighborhood guys looking for a drink and a girl, and not much else (unless vandalism counted). In an interview with NPR in 2011, producer Rick Rubin, who worked with the band on the album, said, that's who the Beastie Boys were.
"[The group] had a punk rock-slash-pro-wrestling attitude of just ridiculous hip-hop boasting and aggression," he said.
But the group's early image incited a backlash and charges of misogyny.
In 1985, the group opened for Madonna on an arena tour. In a 2006 interview with WHYY's Fresh Air, Yauch told host Terri Gross that the pop singer's fans didn't like them much, but the image was a put on, at least at first.
"You know, it's almost like we started out goofing on it, and then sort of became it in a way," he said. In the same interview, the Beasties admitted they later changed sexist lyrics from the first album in later performances.
Licensed to Ill and other albums, including Paul's Boutique (1989) and Ill Communication (1994), are now hailed as classics for their adventurous production techniques, genre-mashing experiments and the cheeky — but more thoughtful — lyricism practiced by the three MCs. A lyric from Yauch on "Sure Shot," from Ill Communication, reflects the group's changes: "I want to say 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."
Yauch's career diversified as the band's image moved toward political awareness.
"As a younger man, he was very angry," Adler says. "As he went on, he got into spiritual pursuits [that] calmed him down and brought him peace."
Yauch co-founded the Milarepa Fund in 1994 and helped organize the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996 to advocate on behalf of Tibetan independence. The Beastie Boys also led him to filmmaking: Under the pseudonym Nathanial Hornblower, he began shooting some of the group's music videos before starting Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film production company. In 2008, he directed a full-length documentary about street basketball called Gunnin' for That #1 Spot.
Diamond and Horovitz appeared without Yauch on Morning Edition in 2011 to promote Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 2, the Beasties' first proper album in seven years (the release of which was delayed during Yauch's battle with cancer). Speaking to NPR's Steve Inskeep, Diamond explained they were handling their friend's illness one day at a time.
"[We're] just holding on," he said. "He's obviously our lifelong best friend. You have to just sort of hope for the best."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A member of the Beastie Boys has died. Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, was an anchor of one of the most enduring acts in hip-hop music. The Beastie Boys had more than a quarter century of critical and commercial success.
Adam Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. He died this morning at the age of 47. NPR's Sami Yenigun has this remembrance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT")
BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) You gotta fight for your right to party.
SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Brash, loud and punk, "Fight For Your Right" was the party anthem that launched Beastie Boys. It was the first commercially successful white hip-hop group. They started out as a hardcore punk band in the early '80s and when their debut album, "Licensed to Ill," hit the air, it knocked the industry on its side.
BILL ADLER: That, you know, defined, you know, American pop and international pop the calendar year of 1987. They demonstrated that you did not have to be black to make a credible record.
YENIGUN: Bill Adler was the founding publicist of Def Jam recordings and the Beastie Boys' publicist when "Licensed to Ill" dropped. At a time when rock music was bloated and boring, he says, the Beastie Boys' debut was a welcome blast of attitude.
ADLER: You know, you can go back and listen to it now and it still sounds, you know, very vital, very fresh, very funny, very hard-hitting, all of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN")
BOYS: (Singing) No sleep till Brooklyn.
YENIGUN: "Licensed to Ill" was the first hip-hop album to hit number one on the backs of tracks like "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," "Fight For Your Right" and "Brass Monkey," but they were accused of having sexist lyrics and others called them white imposters taking advantage of the hip-hop sound. But as their producer, Rick Rubin, told NPR in 2011, their flamboyant attitudes and raucous style were central to their success.
RICK RUBIN: That's what the Beastie Boys was. It was like it had a punk rock/pro wrestling attitude of just ridiculous hip-hop boasting and aggression.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN")
BOYS: (Singing) Beastie Boys at the Garden cold kicking it live.
YENIGUN: Adam Yauch addressed this issue directly on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2006. He said that they were just playing at being frat boys.
ADAM YAUCH: You know, it's almost like we started out kind of like goofing on it, but then just sort of became it, in a way.
YENIGUN: But, as the years went on, Adam Yauch grew up, says former publicist Bill Adler.
ADLER: As a younger man, he was very angry. As he went on, you know, he got into kind of spiritual pursuits and meditation and I think Buddhism and that made a big, big difference in his life. It really, really calmed him down and brought him peace.
YENIGUN: Bill Adler says that Adam Yauch brought that change into their music, as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG)
YENIGUN: Throughout their decades-long collaboration, their music depended on the band's chemistry.
ADLER: The three of them were brothers and they got along like brothers. And, you know, he was, you know, like the other two guys, you know, he wrote his own rhymes and also, you know, he had a musical background, an instrumental background, so he could play instruments. And he took a particular interest, I think, in the production side of things.
YENIGUN: Yauch was also interested in film. He founded his own film company and directed music videos and a documentary about basketball. He also dove into some philanthropic projects, raising money for Tibetan Freedom.
In 2009, Yauch announced via YouTube that he had cancer and would have to cancel some scheduled shows.
YAUCH: The reason that we're here talking to you is because I have some pretty heavy news, I guess, to say. Unfortunately...
YENIGUN: Last month, Yauch and the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Adam Yauch died this morning in his native New York City.
Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.