May 7, 2012
Obituary: Remembering Adam Yauch [1964 – 2012]
“If you knock me, you’ll get mocked / I’ll stir fry you in my wok / Your knees will start shaking and your fingers pop / Like a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock” goes one of the more memorable couplets on the Beastie Boys’ 1997 hit ‘Intergalactic’. It may not be one of Adam Yauch’s best (and it certainly isn’t one of his worst), but it’s a classic example of the playful braggadocio he – under his MCA moniker – and the group excelled in from their formative years in the early ’80s through to Yauch’s untimely passing, on Friday, at the age of 47.
As a founder member of the Beastie Boys – originally a punk rock rabble that would be streamlined into a rap trio – Yauch channelled his idolatry of hardcore acts like Black Flag into the band, taking on bass and vocal duties. Undergoing various early lineup changes, the group finally settled into the trio of Yauch, school friend Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond, and Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horowitz. A throwaway ‘rap’ single, 1983’s ‘Cooky Puss’, which mainly consisted of various prank calls made by the group to a nearby Carvel Ice Cream franchise set to lively funk samples, was the Beastie Boys’ first tentative hint at what they would become. Surprisingly, the track became an underground hit around the New York clubs, and led to the gradual incorporation of more and more rap styling into the group’s live sets. Local NYU student Rick Rubin was in attendance at an early show, and spotted potential in the trio, poaching them for his recently formed Def Jam label. The group’s 1986 Def Jam debut, the incomparable Licensed to Ill, distilled their hard rock and rap approaches into an MTV-friendly set, complete with calling card singles like ‘No Sleep till Brooklyn’ and the frat-house anthem ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’.
Both critical acclaim and outraged controversy followed the group throughout the remainder of the ’80s and into the ’90s, with the creative highs of the crate-digging classic Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head‘s b-boy aesthetics in contrast to the group’s provocative live shows. Caged female dancers and an infamous giant, inflatable penis caused outpourings of indignation at whichever town the Beastie Boys circus pulled up in, and accusations of chauvinistic childishness eclipsed the developing maturity of their recorded output. It’s an issue that obviously affected the group, with Yauch using a verse on ‘Sure Shot’ from 1994’s Ill Communication to proclaim “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 the sisters and the wives and the friends / I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.”
That same album was home to one of the Beastie Boys’ finest moment on wax: the explosive ‘Sabotage’, whose ’70s cop show-inspired video, directed by Spike Jonze, was beaten to the top prize in the Best Direction category at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards by REM. Yauch, who had recently moved into the world of video directing himself, took to the stage in protest, dressed as his Swiss filmmaker alter-ego Nathanial Hörnblowér in full lederhosen, beard and feathered hat getup. It was a typically humorous stunt, one that not only won ‘Sabotage’ the newly created Best Video (That Should Have Won a Moonman) award at the 2009 ceremony, but began the long and worthy tradition of stage invasions at industry award shows in the following years.
Continuing his foray into directing, Yauch took control of many of the group’s videos, including the infamous boiler-suited clip for ‘Intergalactic’ from 1998’s Hello, Nasty album – a release with a mix of ferocious aural assault and subtle, jazz-inflected head-nodders, due in part to the virtuosic turntabalism of new addition DJ Mix Master Mike. The construction of Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film production company and recording studio in New York, gave Yauch a base for his creative explorations from where he embarked on a number of projects, both film and music-based (fittingly, the studio’s first task was to produce the comeback album from hardcore punk group Bad Brains – heroes of Yauch’s formative years).
But it is for his lyrical skills that Yauch will mostly be remembered; his voice an important component of the Beastie’s sound, its slightly gruffer tones working as a counterpoint to the Brooklyn screech of Diamond and Horowitz. As Sasha Frere-Jones describes in his touching memorial in the New Yorker, “Yauch’s is one of the voices that can signify hip-hop within three syllables – rough, low and strained.”
The fact that Yauch was battling cancer, stemming from a tumour in his parotid gland, had been well known since 2009, yet it failed to derail his work as musician and video producer, as well as his active support of Buddhist Tibet – something Yauch had been involved with since converting to Buddhism in the early ’90s. Most recent Beastie’s album, last year’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, is a strong set of progressive hip-hop made remarkable by the fact that it came from a group with over 20 years in the game, while Oscilloscope Laboratories continued to back successful independent releases such as Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and the recent adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Despite the plaudits (Licensed to Ill recently topped 9 million copies sold, and this year the group were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), Yauch’s legacy will be multi-faceted, as musician, director and humanitarian; one third of a group that indefinitely altered a whole genre, addressing its culture from a number of different angles, and doing it all with a mix of bravado, a lack of pretence and willingness to self-mock for the cause of a great couplet: “I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs / And that’s a lot because I’ve got my share” (‘Sure Shot’, 1994).
Adam Nathaniel Yauch died from complications with cancer of the parotid gland, at the age of 47. He is survived by his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch.
Read this obituary in context over at THE 405