I was in 7th grade when I first heard the Beastie Boys’ major label debut Licensed to Ill. By the time the Beastie Boys hit the music scene I had already been listening to rap music for a couple of years. I was first exposed to rap through breakdancing (Breakin’ and Beat Street), and owned Fat Boys and Run DMC cassettes at least a year before Licensed to Ill was released. That being said, there were things that set the Beasties apart from those other acts — the main one being they were white, which helped get them radio play. As a kid growing up in the middle of Oklahoma, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to hip-hip culture (and “Yo! MTV Raps” wouldn’t air for a few more years). The Beastie Boys changed that with the release of the party anthem “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)”. Seemingly overnight the Beastie Boys were everywhere.
The Beastie Boys consisted of three guys from New York: Mike D (Michael Diamond), King Adrock (Adam Horowitz), and MCA (Adam Yauch). MCA was, in my eyes, the coolest of the three. At least in the early days, King Adrock seemed “too goofy” and Mike D always seemed to be trying too hard to be cool, but MCA’s gravelly, baritone voice and laid-back demeanor set him apart from the pack. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate each of them individually, but I still see Mike D as the base on top of which the other two danced around.
Licensed to Ill became an instant classic (it’s on every list of top rap albums and many lists of the top albums of all time), but it’s not the best example of the Beasties’ personalities. The album is one brag after another; there are so many rhymes about the girls they get or the guns they’ve got that the guys’ personalities get buried. The talent was there, but the content wasn’t.
It eventually came, though. On Licensed to Ill rhymes are started and finished so rapidly that it’s tough to attribute lyrics to any single person, but as time went on the guys developed their own style. This is one of my favorite rhymes from MCA. I love the visual of being as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce.
“Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,
You’ve got the rhyme and reason but no cause,
Well if you’re hot to trot, you think you’re slicker than grease,
I’ve got news for you crews you’ll be sucking like a leech.”
You can hear the lyric at 2:51 in this clip:
I also think this lyric from MCA is great.
“If you can feel what I’m feeling then it’s a musical masterpiece,
If you can hear what I’m dealing well then that’s cool at least,
What’s running through my mind comes through in my walk,
True feelings are shown from the way that I talk.”
It’s the first section from this song:
MCA’s frequently pulled comparisons from pop culture.
“If you try to knock me you’ll get mocked,
I’ll stir fry you in my wok,
Your knees’ll start shaking and your fingers pop,
Like a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock.”
(Most of these videos were also directed by MCA.)
In 1990, after hearing the Dali Lama speak and visiting Napal, MCA converted to Buddhism. MCA would go on to co-organize the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. Later in his career, MCA expressed regrets over some of the band’s earlier lyrics. From CNN:
“I didn’t realize how much harm I was doing back then and I think a lot of rap artists probably don’t realize it now,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “I said a lot of stuff fooling around back then, and I saw it do a lot of harm. I had kids coming up to me and saying, ‘Yo, I listen to your records while I’m smoking dust, man.’ And I’d say, ‘Hey, man, we’re just kidding. I don’t smoke dust.’ People need to be more aware of how they’re affecting people.”
MCA’s change of attitude was also reflected in his lyrics. From “Sure Shot”:
“I want to say something that’s long overdue,
the disrespect to women has got to be through,
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends,
I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
If you want to read more about the Beastie Boys or Adam Yauch, I highly recommend the following books, all three of which I have read:
Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography (The Story of the Band): This is pretty much everything about the band.
Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies: This book has a lengthy chapter dedicated to the foundation of Grand Royale and the studio the Boys built for recording Check Your Head and Ill Communication.
The Men Behind Def Jam: The Radical Rise of Russell Simmons And Rick Rubin: This book focuses more on Def Jam, but much of the band’s early time spent with Rick Rubin is captured here.
I also hear The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (33 1/3) is very good, although I do not own it yet.
Adam “MCA” Yauch — August 5, 1964 – May 4, 2012.