Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, who lost his battle with cancer on May 4, 2012.
For reasons I’ll elaborate on shortly, the Beastie Boys were a band that ushered in a sea-change of musical interest for me, going all the way back to 1986 when they released License To Ill.
Twenty seven years later, I’m listening to them now more than ever before. And I’m appreciating the Beastie Boys today in ways I never understood in the 80’s and ’90’s.
I didn’t like the way Adam Yauch died.
I know, most people don’t die in a “good way”, but Yauch’s passing bothered me because it happened so suddenly. Throughout his cancer fight, what little information that did trickle out seemed to be somewhat favorable. The first diagnosis came with the always promising “they’re pretty sure it’s localized and hasn’t spread” and subsequent reports included positive snippets like “my voice hasn’t been affected by any of this” and “the docs think I’m gonna beat this thing”.
In December of 2012, Yauch was unable to attend a ceremony honoring the band because of “poor health”, but no one seemed overly concerned about it other than to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t do everything you want when you’re fighting cancer.
Five months later, I was coming off the Beltway at the Perring Parkway exit when the afternoon host on WTMD said, “I think with today’s news it would be fitting to play this for you…” and I heard the opening wackiness of “Intergalatic” followed by the host simply saying, “Adam Yauch, MCA, dead at the age of 47 today in New York City.”
I had no idea at all Adam Yauch’s condition was that serious, hence the earlier comment of “I didn’t like the way he (Adam) died.” I wasn’t at all prepared for it.
I sat in the drive-thru at the Bank of America right there at Perring and Joppa and tears welled up in my eyes as the song played. Yauch left behind a wife and a young daughter. I’m sure they were heartbroken. As someone who lost his mom at a young age (24), I always have a strong sensitivity for anyone who passes away at an early age, because I know they’re likely leaving behind a young spouse and a young child or children.
And music lost a true pioneer the day Adam Yauch left us.
The Beastie Boys – with Yauch one of its founding members – can certainly be talked about as music’s version of baseball’s Jackie Robinson.
No, the Beasties weren’t forbidden from entering the rap music scene, so the comparison isn’t an exact duplicate, but the general theme of it certainly is the same.
The Beastie Boys – three white Jewish kids from Brooklyn – went AND became successful where no other white kids had gone and claimed success. They went into the world of rap, which later merged, migrated and spawned a genre called “hip hop”. As expected, they were not originally accepted by the rappers of New York, most of whom were, of course, African American and incredibly skeptical of these three nerdy Jewish dudes showing up and “passing the mic”.
But the Beasties were different. They were good, for starters, and they had a stick-to-it-ness that wound up lasting a lifetime. Once Adam Horovitz joined Yauch and fellow founder Mike Diamond, the group never once had a break-up, a public spat or any kind of strife that would lead you to wonder if they were going to make it over the long haul. Mix good music with a passion for sticking together and making it work and you have a recipe that produces a generation of impact, which is what Yauch, Horovitz and Diamond accomplished.
They went into an arena where white musicians typically wouldn’t – and couldn’t – succeed and not only won, they won big. More than once in their early years, they were laughed at, ridiculed and told “you goofs will never make it”. But, they just kept plugging away and didn’t let the traditional color code of rap music stop them from breaking through and proving someone else could also make some noise on the other guy’s turf.
Just like Jackie Robinson.
Chuck D. of Public Enemy was the first of the big time rappers to hear the Beastie Boys and understand they had a place in the industry. He would become perhaps their most outspoken supporter in the profession, joined in future years by hip hop icons Dr. Dre and Eminem.
Those three don’t suffer fools lightly, especially when it comes to making music. If you need an endoresement and you have Chuck D., Dr. Dre and Eminem giving you a thumbs-up, it seems fair to say you got your stamp of approval.
Adam Yauch was a frontiersman.
In 1989, when the Beasties were growing, but hardly financially independent, it was Yauch who suggested and developed a plan for the group to donate $1.00 from every ticket sold to charities in the city in which they were playing that night.
One dollar a ticket might not seem like a big deal, but in 1989 when you were only selling 5,000 tickets and then giving $5,000 of your money away right when the show ended, it really was a helluva gesture.
And that Yauch understood the importance of supporting the people in the community that were supporting him – and the band – that night showed incredible vision from a fresh-faced young 20’s musician.
He would later get actively involved in the Tibetan Freedom Festival and was a regular visitor to Tibet in an effort to aid their people in the on-going struggle with China.
On several occasions over the years when given a platform to speak at an awards event or music show, Yauch would discuss a subject of his choosing that he hoped would lead to more thought and positive action. He spoke freely about the United States’ movement into the Middle East and asked that non-violent means be used to resolve those conflicts.
Yauch and other band members heavily criticized promoters of Woodstock ’99 for the lack of security detail that resulted in numerous women being sexually assaulted throughout the three-day “live-in” concert.
At future “festival shows”, the Beastie Boys made it a contract stipulation that they would be allowed to review the event’s security procedures before finalizing the agreement with the promoter.
While some music groups were busy living the rock star life, the Beastie Boys spent a lot of their time trying to make communities and society better as a whole.
Every Friday, coming back from commercial break, I play snippets of Bruce Springsteen songs and call it “Fridays with the Boss”. I don’t play much, if any, music on the show anymore, except on Friday, when I offer my own tip of the cap to Springsteen.
Today, one day before the anniversary of his death, I’ll play the Beastie Boys instead.
And later this afternoon in Brooklyn, a children’s playground will be re-named “Adam Yauch Park” in honor of one of New York’s favorite sons.
I’ll end this by sharing a great quote from Chuck D. on the night he inducted the Beastie Boys into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame:
“These three guys made a difference. They went where others didn’t. And they came out teaching us all something about staying together and working in the direction of one positive goal. These guys perfected their craft. And let me stress that. There’s a lot of hustling that goes on in music these days. Here today, gone tomorrow. Not these three. There was no hustling. They had a craft, perfected it, and it gave us all a lot of joy.”
And because writing about Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys always ends up writing about their music, here’s one of my favorite clips of them in a terrific show AOL formerly produced called “AOL Sessions”. As the song says — click right here to Ch-ch-ch-check it out. By the way, Yauch is the guy in the gray sweatshirt who starts the song with the mic.