Today, we lost the great MCA, at the way-too-young age of 47. We knew he’d been fighting cancer for years, but this is still the sort of news that wrenches you around and leaves you dizzy. It’s nearly impossible to capture or quantify the sort of impact that Yauch and the Beasties had on music and pop culture over the last few decades. But we decided to do something else here: Celebrating the man’s career by picking 20 great, isolated moments from his professional life. There’s nothing definitive about this list, and we’re surely missing some big ones, so add your own in the comments section. Some of these moments are big and some are small, but they all add up to give us at least some idea how special a person Adam Yauch was.
1. THE FIRST TIBETAN FREEDOM CONCERT
Legend has it that Yauch became dedicated to Tibetan rights after learning about the issues on a 1993 snowboarding trip to the Himalayas. And he spent years working hard on raising public awareness of Tibet’s plight. But the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, the gigantic stadium shows he organized to help raise money and awareness on the issue, were also by far the best music festivals of their day. At the initial 1996 concert in San Francisco, the Beasties headlined on a bill that included Rage Against The Machine, Pavement, Sonic Youth, a Tribe Called Quest, Björk, Beck, and John Lee Hooker. I went to the 1998 show in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks after graduating high school. That was the one where the stadium got evacuated because lightning struck somebody, but my memories of the show are still mostly musical ones: Michael Stipe joining Radiohead on “Lucky,” KRS-One barking through some Boogie Down Productions classics, Pulp’s set ending, heartbreakingly, before they could get to “Common People.” These were incredible, moment-defining shows, and they came to happen because of Yauch’s passion for this one issue and his desire to help a population that needed it badly. A decade and a half later, Tibet remains under Chinese rule. But in that moment, it really felt like Yauch was pushing my generation toward doing something.
2. NATHANIEL HORNBLOWER INVADES THE VMA’S
Under his Nathaniel Hornblower alias, Yauch directed some of the best Beasties videos: “Shadrach,” “So What Cha Want,” “Intergalactic.” But Hornblower’s greatest moment actually came in defense of another director: Spike Jonze. At the 1994 VMAs, Jonze’s “Sabotage” video indefensibly lost the Best Director VMA to Jake Scott, who did “Everybody Hurts” for R.E.M. Yauch’s in-character reaction, which starts around 2:50 in the video below, is an absolute all-time classic awards-show interruption.
3. THE MACHINE GUN IN THE “NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN” VIDEO
The entire video is priceless, but you won’t find a better visual metaphor for rap’s commercial takeover than the moment, at 1:48, where MCA aims his tommy gun at some Marshall stacks. The Rambo yell is just the icing on the cake. I’m still not sure why they let him in the club with that thing. And when you’re done with that, you should also enjoy the moment from the “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” video where he spits beer on a beatnik.
4. THE “SABOTAGE” BASS RIFF
Yauch was a monster of a bass player. He was great on the band’s Meters-y instrumental funk tunes, but he was even better when they turned into a ’70s bongwater-rock juggernaut, as on “Gratitude” or, especially, “Sabotage.” Back to the 1994 VMAs: Seriously, look at this motherfucker at the 1:52 mark.
5. MARCHING WITH OCCUPY WALL STREET
In one of the last public acts of his lifetime, Yauch marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters over the Brooklyn Bridge in November. He remained committed to social causes and across-the-board equality until the very end of his life.
6. GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT
This dizzily fun 2008 documentary wasn’t Yauch’s feature directorial debut — that’d be 2006’s concert film Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That. But it’s the movie where he really came into his own as a director, showing a warm and giddy portrait of a group of all-star high school basketball players coming together for a game at Harlem’s Rucker Park. Among many other things, the video gives us a chance to see present-day Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Love and Michael Beasley playing against each other. You should really read what David Roth, my colleague at the sports site The Classical, has to say about it. And then you should Netflix the movie, because it’s really very good.
7. THE REPORTEDLY RIDICULOUS WEDDING
In 1998, Yauch married the Tibetan activist Dechen Wangdu. Rancid, Wangdu’s favorite band, played the wedding, a fact that still fills me with jealousy. This was somehow not the goofiest thing about the wedding. Here’s former Beasties tour manager the Captain talking about it in Spin‘s great 1998 oral history of the band: “It was the Jews from Brooklyn meets the Buddhists from Tibet. Things like the Jews dragging the Buddhists out onto the floor to do ‘Hava Nagila.’ And then a traditional Tibetan band played and they dragged all the Jews out to do this weird chanting-stomping thing. Her family got up and gave very regal, kind of Zen speeches. And then Yauch’s family got up and embarrassed the fuck out of him.” Several Yauch relatively reportedly referenced “Fight For Your Right” in their toasts. I really wish I’d been at that thing. But Yauch wedding stories underscore the saddest thing about his death: He leaves behind a teenage daughter, and I want to cry just thinking about that.
8. THE TIME HE MADE OUT WITH MADONNA
This is mid-’80s Madonna we’re talking about here. Basically the most desired woman in the world. The Beasties opened her Like A Virgin tour, almost getting kicked out because Madonna’s audience hated them. Here’s Yauch in that Spin oral history: “Russell [Simmons] came up to me and said, ‘They’re going to kick you off the tour. If you want to stay, you need to go ask Madonna.’ I went into Madonna’s dressing room and was like, ‘You know, we really like being on the tour. Can we stay?’ And it worked.” And here’s Madonna: “I think I made out with Adam Yauch once in their dressing room.”
9. THE LETTERS HE WROTE WHILE GOING THROUGH CANCER TREATMENTS
While he was being treated for his cancer, Yauch wrote a couple of heart-wrenchingly open and good-natured letters to fans, letting us know everything that was going on with his treatments and radiating a positive outlook. May we all be so strong in times of crisis.
10. THE SINGLE BEST LINE ON ALL OF PAUL’S BOUTIQUE
From “The Three-Minute Rule”: “People come up to me, and they try to talk shit / Maaaaan, I was making records when you were sucking your mother’s dick.” I cannot tell you how hard the middle-school me laughed the first time he heard this.
11. THE FOUNDING OF OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES
I don’t know if I’d call Bellflower, a deeply confounding and visually beautiful indie film, one of my favorites of last year, but it’s definitely the movie I haven’t been able to get out of my head. The film production movie that Yauch founded is the reason I got to see Bellflower and Exit Through The Gift Shop and Wendy And Lucy and a whole lot of other really good movies. This wasn’t some superstar vanity project; this was one of the most dependable and interesting indie film companies in existence.
12. GRAYING PROUDLY
How many people in rap, or in popular music in general, have been self-confident and no-bullshit enough to go out onstage while sporting a full, natural head of gray hair? As David Roth writes, “The gravitas of the aging skate-punk is a weird but real thing.”
13. PRODUCING BAD BRAINS’ BUILD A NATION
Yauch would always tell anyone who would listen that the self-titled debut from the DC Rasta-hardcore legends Bad Brains was his favorite album ever. And then he put his money where his mouth was when he produced Build A Nation, the band’s 2007 reunion album. It wasn’t their best work or anything, but it was a powerful statement of support from a kid who, as a teenager, had opened for his idols.
14. INVENTING PSYCHEDELIC RAP WITH “A YEAR AND A DAY”
I’m obviously exaggerating there. But “A Year And A Day,” one of the many short tracks from the “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” suite at the end of Paul’s Boutique, might be MCA’s finest on-record moment. A dazed lo-fi yammer over distorted locomotive drums and sky-high guitar riffage. You can barely understand a word he says, and it’s gorgeous.
15. BEING AROUND FOR THE BIRTH OF NEW YORK HARDCORE
A friend of mine owns a Roir cassette compilation from the early ’80s that has some of the leading lights of the city’s trashcan-punk scene: Bad Brains, the Fiends, Reagan Youth, and the Beastie Boys. The extremely early Beasties certainly weren’t a great punk band, but they were there. Unlike a lot of other cities, NY didn’t have an especially healthy hardcore scene early on, and the teenagers who worked on their craft in the city’s rat-infested basement venues deserve serious credit. Yauch founded the Beasties with John Berry and Kate Schellenbach and Michael Diamond early on; Adam Horovitz was just a kid in the ground before Berry flaked out. And just look at these kids! Listen to that terrible Quiet Riot cover!
16. COMMANDEERING JOAN RIVERS’ DESK
In 1987, the Beasties made a fantastically drunk appearance on Joan Rivers’ Late Show, coming across as more punk than they did when they were actual punks. Yauch evicted Rivers from behind her desk. It’s worth watching this entire ridiculous thing:
17. THE TREMENDOUS ONSTAGE TANTRUM
Touring behind License To Ill while they were blowing up, the Beasties came close to breaking up more than once. In one more quote from that Spin oral history, here’s the Captain again: “Yauch decided that he didn’t want to go onstage. Mike and Ad-Rock ran out like maniacs, but Yauch sat on a flight case off to the side and delivered his lines. Then he dumped a bucket of beer into the middle of the stage and stomped up and down on it. In the middle of the song, he threw a little temper tantrum, going, ‘Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored.'” That is some Sid Vicious shit. He also started a band called Brooklyn that played one show. According to Bad Brains’ Darryl Jenifer, another member, “It sounded sort of like Bachman-Turner Overdrive.”
18. THE DELIVERY ON “POSSE IN EFFECT”
All through the Beasties’ career, Yauch’s basso voice helped ground the adenoidal whines of his two bandmates. And for a brief mid-’80s moment, MCA didn’t just sound like the toughest Beasties. He sounded like the toughest guy in rap. On this one License To Ill track, he sounds harder than LL Cool J or Run or any of his peers, with the possible exception of Schooly-D. I love this MCA: “Pay attention, my intention is to bust a move.”
19. THE LINEUP OF THE CANCELED 2000 SUMMER STADIUM TOUR
This isn’t exactly Yauch-specific, but before Mike D broke his leg while riding his bike, the Beasties were planning a massive summer tour. Their announced tourmates: Rage Against The Machine, Busta Rhymes, the Roots, and At The Drive-In. When they toured behind Ill Communication, they brought the Roots and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with them. On the Check Your Head tour, it was Cypress Hill and the Rollins Band. I can’t think of any better indication of the way this group bridged divides in the ’90s. They just did not give a fuck about any dividing lines. That’s more common now, but it wasn’t then.
20. THE “MAKE SOME NOISE” VIDEO
A year before he died, in a final burst of public joy, Yauch rounded up just about every kinda-cool celebrity in Hollywood and got them to appear in this appealingly nuts sequel to the “Fight For Your Right” sequel. I’m sure I’m projecting here, but I like to imagine that this was Yauch making peace with his past and giving us one last burst of public joy before moving on.