Adam Yauch: The Beastie Boys' MCA remembered on YouTube
With news still settling around the death of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, known to fans as MCA, the shock and remorse is spreading like a firestorm around Twitter and Facebook. Given that the Beastie Boys' "License to Ill" was a starter hip-hop record for a whole generation, legions of people who were young and alive in 1986 have a conversion story.
For me it was stomping around a suburban California neighborhood as a high school freshman with friends in the middle of the night, screaming about there being "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" (though none of us had much of an idea precisely where that was). It didn't matter, the Beastie Boys made it cool, goofy and just a little dangerous. The dangerous part -- at least in the early days -- was MCA, whose guttural voice and bad-guy leather-jacket persona gave the group some gravitas. He also helped establish the Beasties Boys' on-screen look by directing many of the group's videos.
Here we take a look at the group's progression via its music video presence. Not all of these are Yauch's, of course, but we get a good feel for a group developing deep sophistication and understanding its role as pop culture avatars.
As far as serious hip-hop goes, this video looks cringingly cartoonish; at this early stage in their career, the Beastie Boys were to the rap game what the Three Stooges were to movies. This was 1986, and there are still people today who look at an LP with some confusion when it's described as an "instrument." Plus this video's Spinal Tap-esque lampooning of hair metal costumes and posturing came years before "alternative" music brought the whole hairsprayed mess crashing down. Oh, and the guy underlining the point by taking a machine gun to a Marshall stack while wearing Chuck Norris shades? Adam Yauch.
The manic sound-collage "Paul's Boutique" was greeted with a bit of confusion on its release in 1989, particularly the disco-fetishizing video for "Hey Ladies" that predated the 1970s mini-revival during the '90s. But the record is a masterpiece, and the stripped-down, mostly single-camera clip here for "Shake Your Rump" -- directed by Yauch under his pseudonym Nathaniel Hörnblowér -- showed the Beasties could stand alone with their music by mixing up samples of Led Zeppelin, Sugarhill Gang and Ronnie Laws into one delirious track (and the kitty-on-a-turntable cameo helps).
The comeback record of sorts, 1992's "Check Your Head" placed the Beastie Boys front and center in the alt-rock era, and they did it with a fairly straight-ahead trading of verses over a booming, heavy-footed drum beat. With the three of them crowding around the camera (at one point reflected in a spinning VW hubcap) on another of Yauch's directoral efforts, the group had never sounded better -- and Yauch got off some of the song's best lines.
You can have your "Thriller," your Kanye West mini-epics, but has MTV hosted a more fun, pitch-perfect three minutes than the Spike Jonze-directed "Sabotage" from 1994? Back behind the mirrored shades, Yauch turns up as the handlebar-moustached "Cochise," one of the no-nonsense cops who probably walked the beat with "Starsky and Hutch." More important, this song was one of the many that split the differences between the Beastie Boys' rock and hip-hop leanings. That's Yauch's remarkable, fuzzed-out bass line anchoring the song's bottom end. (The band even brought back the moustaches and ties to play the song on SNL in 1998, which you can watch four minutes into this clip.)
Another Yauch-directed clip, this time offering a tweaked yet loving homage to vintage Japanese monster movies. Complete with more bizarre costumes (Yauch at one point appears with an impressive Einstein-like wig and moustache) and some stop-motion karate, the video is another blast to watch. Yauch's lyrics include what could be a nod to his activism with the Milarepa Fund and the Tibetan Freedom concerts with the line, "Trying to change the world, I will plot and scheme."
What were the odds in 2011 that the Beastie Boys were going to release a record as fun as "Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2"? Unfortunately delayed since its planned release date in 2009 since Yauch's cancer diagnosis, you can still hear him sounding more gravel-voiced than ever on this track, which carries an addictive bounce with the addition of Santigold. This Spike Jonze-directed clip features the band as GI Joe-styled action figures, and it ends with what now seems a disconcertingly down note as MCA's figure clutches his chest as the zombies close in.
Fortunately, he's been airlifted to safety in the clip's epilogue. If only. Rest in peace, Yauch.
-- Chris Barton
Photo: 1989 publicity photo of the Beastie Boys. Adam "Adrock" Horovitz, left, Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "MCA" Yauch. Credit: Associated Press