LOS ANGELES — Most fans of the Beastie Boys’ early hits know Adam Yauch, or MCA as he was known, for a few choice boasts, like “I got more juice than Picasso’s got paint” (from the 1986 song “The New Style”). Despite the group’s early reputation as party animals, however, peace, mindfulness and positive energy were subjects the rapper wanted to represent in his work.
Any remembrance of Yauch has to focus on the more spiritual lines he wrote, as on 1998’s “Intergalactic,” where he perfectly described himself with: “Well I got to keep it going keep it going full steam/ Too sweet to be sour too nice to be mean/ On the tough guy style I’m not too keen/ To try to change the world I will plot and scheme.”
The most tethered and thoughtful of a trio of New York rappers who became the Beastie Boys, Yauch died Friday after a three-year struggle with cancer. He was 47, and in that half-century he managed to carve a path at once so admirable and unlikely that his contributions should serve as a model for a life worth living.
But from a cultural perspective, his biggest influence came as one-third of a group whose debut album, 1986’s “Licensed to Ill,” landed at the top of the Billboard 200, the first hip-hop album to achieve that milestone, and sold 9 million copies. The group changed rap at that moment, and over the next quarter century continually pushed at the boundaries of a music they helped define.
That early success, in turn, helped establish the budding Def Jam Records as a cultural juggernaut. After the Beasties’ success, the label would go on to release seminal records by LL Cool J, Public Enemy, EPMD and Warren G. Equally important, the Beasties’ follow-up, “Paul’s Boutique,” remains, 23 years after its release, one of the most artistically accomplished hip-hop albums ever recorded, a surreal, tripped-out sample-fest that’s been rightly called the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of hip-hop.
At the center of it all, pushing for self-transformation, was MCA, whose gruff bark stuck out amid Ad Rock’s whine and Mike D’s straight-ahead honesty. America’s introduction to Yauch wasn’t great for his image as a peacemaker: In the breakout video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” we watch as he and his fellow Beasties enter a tame party, where Yauch steals someone’s beer, takes a swig, spits it in someone’s face, then crunches the can on his victim’s head. It’s probably not the first impression he would have preferred, given his later enlightenment. He was, after all, the member of the group who made the biggest arc from party animal to Buddhist peace activist.
The history doesn’t lie: Over the course of eight studio albums, the most recent being the acclaimed “Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2,” Beastie Boys sold more than 40 million records, released four No. 1 albums and created some of the most iconic videos in the history of the medium, one of which, for “Sabotage,” helped launch the career of a young skate punk named Spike Jonze.
They injected punk rock antics into hip-hop with the utterly weird 1983 single, “Cooky Puss,” and of course, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” an anthem to teenage angst spouting from the mouths of three white kids with ridiculously big chains and cockeyed baseball caps — and a hit not only with the rising rap crowd digging into Run DMC, Whodini and Kurtis Blow, but also frat houses the nation over.
Ridiculous antics can carry an act only so far, but the Beastie Boys harnessed their newfound industry power to create freedom to experiment, and over the next decade the trio released a string of records that continually rewrote the books. After “Paul’s Boutique,” the group softened much of its early misogyny and general misanthropy.
One of Yauch’s key mid-career verses, in “Sure Shot,” in fact, directly addresses some of his early rhymes: “I want to say a little 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.”
He expressed these kinds of sentiments whenever he got a chance, through his rhymes and his actions. As the Beasties grew older, Yauch stretched to form the successful production company Oscilloscope Pictures, which released acclaimed films such as “Wendy and Lucy,” “Burma VJ” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The Tibetan Freedom Concerts, which between 1996 and 2003 helped raise money for Tibetan independence, were the product of his work with the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group.
His passion is most apparent in the gorgeous song-poem “Namaste,” which closes the band’s 1992 album “Check Your Head.” A Zen ode to living in which Yauch acknowledges “riding on a thought to see where it’s from/ Gliding through a memory of a time yet to come” on a sunlit afternoon, he recites the work while a smooth, ethereal funk jam plays along. A woman’s voice drifts into his head: “She said, dark is not the opposite of light; it’s the absence of light.”
And with Yauch’s passing, that absence has become a little more pronounced.