Somewhere in my vast archives—though I’m not sure where—I have an interview with Adam Yauch, best known to the world as MCA of the Beastie Boys. Earlier today news broke that Yauch has died at age 48 after a long battle with cancer. I interviewed Yauch back in 2006 for the release of the Beastie Boys concert film, Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That. Under the name Nathaniel Hornblower, Yauch had directed Awesome, as well as some of the Beastie Boys best music videos. During the interview I told him that I’d first seen the Beastie Boys in concert back in 1987 during their License to Ill tour, which was in support of the album that placed them on the map 25 years ago. I’ll never forget Yauch’s response: “Yeah, sorry about that. We sucked back then.”
In all honesty, the Beastie Boys pretty much did suck back then. License to Ill was a fun album in a one-off joke sort of way, but their live shows were terrible. And if License to Ill was all the Beastie Boys had ever done, then they most likely would’ve been part of the long where-are-they-now roster of former hip-hop all-stars. But then they recorded Paul’s Boutique, and the Beasties proved themselves to be more than they joke they had started out as. Over the years they got better, the albums got better, and their live shows got better. And a group that I had initially dismissed evolved as one of my favorites.
In thinking about the death of MCA, I’ve been thinking about what the Beastie Boys mean to me—and no doubt many others. Hip-hop (or rap, as the two are somewhat synonymous—at least in somewhat capitalistic, commercialized sense of meaning) is not a musical form that is conducive to growth or evolution. When you look at most hip-hop acts from the 1980s and even the 1990s, very few are still viable forces in the world of entertainment. Some performers, like Ice Cube, Will Smith, Queen Latifah and a handful of others have remained relevant, but primarily through film and television. But when you look at the vast catalog of groups and performers who have emerged in the world of rap and hip-hop, most have a very short life. That was not the case with the Beastie Boys.
At this moment in time, as I sit here writing this, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a list of rappers/hip-hoppers who have had the longevity of the Beastie Boys. More important, it’s hard to come up with a list that has grown and evolved so much over the last twenty-five years—seemingly before our eyes. And that’s what makes the Beastie Boys special—many of us grew up with them. License to Ill dropped my freshman year in college. It was very much the party album fusion or rap and punk rock, celebrating beer and girls. It was, at the time, perfect for so many of us as we were breaking free from the confines of high school, parents, and teenage angst. But most music like that and the groups that create it either remain frozen in time, or simply become little better than one-hit-wonders, which is the same as being frozen in time. The music and the groups that create the music do not really grow up, and as we grow older, all the music does is remind us of “way back in the day.” And in another reality, that’s all License to Ill would have been—a reminder of freshman year in college, or being in high school and throwing a party when you’re parents are out, or simply raging against whatever was fashionable to rage against but not really knowing what it was so it all comes out like a joke.
Younger hip-hop heads know what it is to be robbed of a voice of their particular generation—which in hip-hop is measured in about two-year cycles. The untimely deaths of Tupac and Biggie define that particular generation. But for those of use who discovered rap and hip-hop in the early 1980s, or even those who discovered it during the late 80s, the death of Adam Yauch is very different from the deaths of Tupac or Biggie. He wasn’t gunned down. MCA was taken by cancer, at 48 years old—and age when you’re not supposed to relevant in hip-hop anymore. But he was still relevant. The Beastie Boys had grown alongside many of us, starting out as our high school or college friends, and maturing into people who had something relevant to say. And I think that’s why the Beastie Boys mean so much to so many people—they never fully grew up, but they did grow up. Just a little. Enough to remind us that we all get older. Some get wiser. But despite the responsibility and hopefully wisdom that comes with age, sometimes you’ve just got to fight for your right to party.