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RIP MCA: In memory of an ill communicator

 by Jake Ten Pas

 

Beastie Boys

The Beasties all grown up, and probably looking better than the author of this blog will in another decade.

Today I lost a hero. I never knew him, and I’m not one who normally jumps on the celebrity death hysteria bandwagon. But when I call Adam Yauch, aka the Beastie Boys’ MCA, a hero, as in one I looked up to and who helped me to define my course in life, I’m serious as the cancer that claimed his life at the age of 47. We lost one ill communicator.

There’s a Beastie Boys album for every season of my life. I bought their first major label release, “Licensed to Ill,” in 1986, along with Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell.” They were the first two tapes I’d ever purchased with my own money, and while I’d dabble briefly in hair metal before grade school was through, it was hip-hop that would define the next decade of my life.

In middle school, I bought “Paul’s Boutique,” and I took it to a football game, only to have my friends make fun of me for continuing to buy music by a band many thought of as one-hit-wonders. After “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” became a runaway success, many looked at them as a novelty act, the great white hip-hope.

I ignored them, popped the green plastic tape in my Sony Sports Walkman and had my mind well and truly altered forever. Time and critical opinion have proven me right to buy that record, which is now known as one of the classics of the genre. But the personal impact was far greater. While the self-destruction in evidence on “Licensed” wasn’t gone, it had been transmuted into something funkier and more full of life. The music reflected their new So-Cal-infused perspective. The pastiche of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” that closed out side two was absolutely revolutionary, and the funk dripping off songs like “Shake Your Rump” has yet to be matched.

 

Paul's Boutique

“Paul’s Boutique,” an album that changed lives.

In high school, The Beasties added live instruments to the mix on the albums “Check Your Head” and “Ill Communication.” Similarly, my tastes had begun to expand, and I was listening to the likes of Pink Floyd, Parliament-Funkadelic and the hardcore punk of the Dead Kennedys. A song like “Sabotage” perfectly brought so many of these strains together, and the video inspired pretty much every bad student film I tried to pass off as a class project during my junior and senior years.

But the Beastie Boys’ perspectives were changing, too, and from what I know, it was largely due to MCA. His awareness of Tibet’s struggle for freedom and the way women were treated in earlier lyrics by the band resulted in songs that were as smart and critical – both of themselves as individuals and society – as they were funky and funny. Just listen to “Bodhisattva Vow” and try not to reach a higher state of being.

At the same time, I was beginning to question my own political views. Was I really the little libertarian I’d always thought, or was there a compassionate streak in me that went beyond my firm commitment to social freedoms? Around that time, I saw a Sonic Youth poster that read, “I believe Anita Hill,” and learning more about that band’s views on women, and the Beastie Boys’ own changing perspective, helped me to realize that, even though I wasn’t yet, I wanted to be a feminist.

In college, there was “Hello Nasty,” a record that kind of got lost in the shuffle for me as my musical tastes blossomed like a mushroom crowd. Of course, the fact that those tastes had been so informed by the Beasties was lost on me at the time, but not now. I was scarfing down records by Can, Bootsy, Gong, Lee Perry and so many other groups I might never have been prepared for if not for the Beasties.

“To The 5 Boroughs” caught me in my post-college malaise, when I needed those stripped-down old-school sounds to remind me of who I was and what I wanted out of life. It and the soulful, groovy instrumentals of “The Mix-Up” propelled me through refining my writing and copyediting abilities at the local newspaper, a period that saw me realize just how important the written word was to my life. Really, words and the ability to communicate with other humans saved me from a deep hole in myself. Words and music, the two things the Beastie Boys gave me time and again.

 

Licensed to Ill

The Beastie Boys in the “Licensed to Ill” years. In retrospect, photos like this stand as proof that today’s punks might just be tomorrow’s philosophers.

The group’s last album, “The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” came out last year, and I watched the epic 11-minute video for “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” at my desk at AM:PM PR, the public relations company that is my newest endeavor. It was the video I’d dreamed of making as a kid, full of action figures, zombies, explosions and dope beats. It was probably the video they always dreamed of making as kids, too. Well, they did it.

MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D lived their dreams, and they lived my dreams, too. Plus, when my life wasn’t as cool as theirs, they always reminded me to stay true, keep trying and never stop growing. If those seem like trite expressions of an infinitely more complex truth, well, there’s a reason I’ve never gone on a world tour with Run-DMC or met with the Dalai Lama.

When I heard the news today, oh Boys. I had to storm out of my office like Ben Stiller at the end of “There’s Something About Mary.” The tears were streaming no matter how soft I felt for not being able to stifle them. In a weird way, I think MCA would have been OK with that. In a genre known for absurd posturing, he was a voice of enlightenment and sensitivity, even when he was handing out lyrical beatdowns.

I’m not one to get all choked up over celebrity deaths. I don’t feel the need to mourn somebody just because everybody else is or because they made one single that I slow danced to one time at a middle school party.

But when somebody made songs – or films or books – that helped to define damn near every age of your life? That’s something much bigger. That’s somebody who grew with you, who grew as an artist as you grew as a person. I don’t know where MCA’s music ends and my life begins sometimes, and I wish I didn’t know where his life ended. How the hell am I supposed to face my 40s without a Beastie Boys record to help me make sense of it all? Namaste, you gruff-voiced truth spewer.