MCA Still Do What You Please

RIP Adam Yauch aka MCA.

I first heard the Beastie Boys in the late 1980s (via Licensed to Ill). Their sound was unfamiliar; their sensibility seemed to peg them as immature, loud, juvenile, trash-talking ‘wiggers‘ taking the piss out of rap. (What sorts of props did they have on tour? Girls in cages and a giant motorized inflatable penis. And yes, they wore giant clocks around their necks.) But their lyrics were still catchy:

Your pops caught you smokin’ and he said “NO WAY!”/That hypocrite smokes two packs a day/Man living at home is such a drag/Now your mom threw away your best porno mag

If Paul’s Boutique reinforced that sneak peek at their musical brilliance, then Check Your Head firmly established those credentials and made me into a fan for life. Easily one of the most innovative albums of all time, it conveyed an image antithetical in many ways to that of Licensed to Ill: sonically dense, endlessly varied, featuring a bewildering array of samples, vocal styles, instrumentations, and musical genres. Yauch is ever-present in the midst of that album-length display of technical and musical virtuosity. I played Check Your Head endlessly in my pickup truck while driving to Tennessee for Thanksgiving in 1992; by the time I returned from the trip, I had the track sequences memorized. I didn’t appreciate the follow-up–Ill Communicationany less.  I can’t think of any other trio of albums–Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head and Ill Communication–that quite so consistently coruscates. Hip-hop Heebs rule!

Yauch was one of those celebrities that I brushed up against more than once. In the summer of 1996, after returning from a hike to Point Reyes Seashore, I stopped off in San Francisco to meet a friend before catching my flight back to New York. We went to a Tibetan food restaurant to grab a quick meal and found ourselves sitting next to Yauch, clad in Tibetan garments and conversing with a monk. (My friend knew little about the Beastie Boys and was mystified by my reaction to Yauch’s presence.) Later, as I lived in Little Italy/Soho (Mulberry Street, between Prince and Spring Streets), I would often see him in a local Tibetan arts and crafts store, chatting with the owners. This sense of living in the Beastie Boys’ neighborhood was further reinforced by my finding out that the barbershop where I went to get my hair cut–just south of Canal Street on Lispenard–was featured in the photo montage on Check Your Head!

A year later, in 1997, when my brother visited the US, I took him to the Tibetan Freedom Concert that Yauch had been instrumental in organizing; we plonked down our money for a good cause; it was a siblings day out together, a chance to see a live concert, free of the scheduling worries of my brother’s vacation. Unfortunately, I had the dates wrong, and we missed seeing the Beastie Boys perform (we did see Sonic Youth though, some consolation). Little did I realize that it had been my best chance to see them live. I never did, a fact I regret bitterly to this day.

I hope the end came painlessly for MCA; thanks so much for all the good times.

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