Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Beastie Boys and the Meaning of Life: An Ode to MCA

It would be impossible for me to remain silent following Adam Yauch’s passing. The Beastie Boys meant more to me than any other musical group ever has or ever will. They hit me at a time in my life when music, self-identity and youth were swirling around in a nebulous morass, and they provided a bit of a roadmap on how to view the world and how to act in it. It may seem like I am overstating things, but they really meant that much to me. They really did.

I grew up straddling two different worlds. On one side was the mostly white, working-class, Italian-American town I grew up in. Not a half-mile down the road was one of the roughest cities in Massachusetts, largely Latino and immigrant. It wasn’t like living in a cosmopolitan cultural hub such as New York City, but it made me more worldly than you’d expect, and it exposed me to various aspects of each culture. One of those aspects was music.

From the white kids in my hometown, I encountered 80s pop and hard rock. I fell in love with hair metal and cheesy 80s hits, both of which I adore today. From the Puerto Rican and Dominican kids (and from Yo! MTV Raps), I heard hip hop and rap music. I felt like I was one of a select group of people whose taste inhabited both worlds. During my early teenage years (a time when music is an integral part of your self-identity), I wasn’t sure how to navigate these contradictory tastes. I wasn’t one thing or another; I was a lot of both. When Check Your Head dropped in 1992, everything suddenly started to make sense.

One of the most enduring memories I have of junior high is me and two friends running around my house with the TV cranked up full blast dancing and rapping along to So What Cha Want. Here was a band I could finally relate to. They not only rapped, but also played their own instruments. It felt almost revolutionary at the time.

This is all well and good, but what did the Beasties teach me?

Follow your muses. Be true to yourself. Do some good in the world. And have a little fun doing it. Aren’t these lessons we could all learn from?

One story has always stood out for me that highlights this lesson. This is from DMC writing about the Beasties in Rolling Stone:

“The first time we toured with the Beastie Boys was the Raising Hell tour in 1986: Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. We were playing the Deep South — Crunkville, before there was crunk — and it was just black people at those shows. The first night was somewhere in Georgia, and we were thinking, "I hope people don't leave when they see them." But the crowd loved them, because they weren't trying to be black rappers. They rapped about shit they knew about: skateboarding, going to White Castle, angel dust and television. Real recognizes real.

It may seem like a cliché, but I saw that staying true to yourself and following your interests in an authentic way was a great step toward finding yourself and gaining respect. This is critical for any teenager, or even any human being, to learn. 

I wasn’t a hip hop guy, I wasn’t a rock guy, I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t a nerd. I was a mix of all those things. So were they. They rapped about Isaac Newton, doing illicit things to girls with whiffle ball bats, the New York Knicks and even tried to free Tibet.

This mix led them to become perhaps the most influential tastemakers in pop music in the 90s. They released a criminally underrated magazine (Grand Royal) that popularized the term ‘mullet’ for the haircut, they had their own record label and influenced fashion to the point that I looked like Mike D for a good 8 year stretch.

But let’s bring things back to Adam Yauch. He wasn’t necessarily my favorite Beastie; that was always Ad Rock. But in reading the obituaries and listening to the interviews with other members of the Beastie Boys and people close to them, it has become clear that Adam was the beating heart of the group. And in the end, Adam was the one I probably came to respect the most.

He started off just as wild as the other two, if not the most wild. Although they were parodying the frat boy lifestyle, they eventually embraced it. MCA was perhaps the first to see how empty it could be. While recording Paul’s Boutique, he began to take hallucinogenics and explored his spirituality. This eventually led him on a journey to Asia, where he encountered Buddhism.

The wildest of the Beastie Boys was now on a spiritual quest. Part of this was discovering the plight of the Tibetan people in China. He organized the now-legendary Tibetan Freedom Concerts that helped the issue attain a prominence in America that surprised many observers. But when the cause started to overwhelm him, he knew to step back and return to his first love, music.

Despite this increasing spirituality and attention paid to social justice issues, Adam never lost his sense of humor. He created a Humpty Hump-esque alter ego, the famed director Nathaniel Hornblower, who supposedly hailed from a nook in the Swiss Alps. He even crashed the stage at the MTV movie awards dressed as Nathaniel when Sabotage didn’t win best video of the year in 1994:

Adam also embraced growing up and maturity without ever losing that sense of playfulness. He rapped about having grey hair. He felt contrite about some of his antics and misogynism he displayed as a youth. In response, he dropped a few legendary lines on Ill Communication’s 'Sure Shot' about having respect for women, something you don’t hear much of in hip hop, a fact even a lover of the genre such as me has to admit.

Perhaps the thing that really stands out to me now is that he kept trying to stretch his artistic boundaries and follow his interests where they led him. He started to branch out into film, making a well-received documentary about standout high school basketball players in 2008 called Gunnin for that #1 Spot. His production company Oscillascope helped distribute the ill-as-hell Banksy “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop in 2010. Yauch was also behind the incredible Beastie concert film “Awesome, I Fuckin Shot That”, which was put together using hand held cameras from the audience.

That’s probably the last lesson the Beasties gave me, and maybe the most important. Never stop growing. I’m 34 and I just started to teach myself piano. I made a vow to start writing more. There are plans to learn another language. We may grow up, we may grow older, but we have to keep challenging ourselves and embracing what life throws at us. We need to put ourselves out there, but also know when to withdraw and move on. And maybe most critically of all, we need to have a sense of humor about everything. Life is too short to take ourselves too seriously. Maybe you shouldn’t dress up like someone from the Swiss Alps on MTV, but definitely have some fun once in awhile.

So Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys: thank you for everything. You helped me make sense of my life during a pretty confusing time. You showed me that things would be OK if I stayed true to myself and followed what I loved. You taught me that it’s essential to keep searching. And, most critically, to have a sense of humor about it.

 RIP Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathaniel Hornblower. You certainly left the world a better place. Namaste. 

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