Singling out Adam “MCA” Yauch from the rest of the Beastie Boys because he died today is weird. Like most great rap crews, the Beasties had a way of bouncing off one another, trading bars, and interrupting each other’s rhymes that made them feel like an inextricable trio. But Yauch, a Buddhist, appeared to be the guiding force in turning the group from hilarious, annoying pricks to hilarious, enlightened, annoying pricks. As so many others have reminded you today, on “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication, Yauch rapped these poignant, ballsy lines: “I wanna 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 friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
There’s nothing cloying or back-patting about what he’s saying or how he’s saying it. Like all of Yauch’s humanitarian work, it felt natural and sincere. The reverberations of that aside, though, were massive and worthy of some grandstanding. For kids around my age and a little older, who, whether we knew it or not, digested Riot Grrl by way of Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, and Tami from Real World: Los Angeles, MCA’s brash aside was one more thing to convince regular-ass dudes of my generation that feminism was not only cool, but just plain fucking reasonable. “Sure Shot” is the album opener, which adds even more weight to Yauch’s words, and on the next song, the Beasties reject meathead masculinity via hardcore lark “Tough Guy,” about elbow-throwing whiteboy Bill Laimbeer. Notice how it never gets too serious. Patriarchal challenges sit comfortably next to references to Cheech Wizard and basketball in-jokes.
Yauch just had the most commanding voice in the group — a pissed-off rasp that added some weight to the group’s album-length dives into pop-culture detritus and the Old School. Listen to how he keeps up with Nas on 2011’s “Too Many Rappers” from The Hot Sauce Committee Part 2. He still had it! His best pure rapping moment, though, might be from the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady Pt. 1 & 2″ swirl of “A Year and a Day,” part four of “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” off 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. Wrapping his lyrics around Ernie Isley’s Big Muff guitar whine, Yauch starts and doesn’t let up, double-timing rhymes to the manic cutting and scratching underneath. Thankfully, the 20th anniversary edition of Paul’s Boutique finally sliced the song into its parts so you can jump right to his casual virtuosity.
And listen to the way Yauch bounds back into “So What Cha Want” when he raps, “But little do you know about something that I talk about / I’m tired of driving, it’s due time that I walk about / But in the meantime, I’m wise to the demise / I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, so I realize.” A second later, Ad-Rock says something equally nonsensical — some rhyming-for-the-sake-of-riddling about Dr. Spock — but it somehow feels lighter than when Yauch does it. Maybe it’s just the mourning talking here, but listening to the Beasties this afternoon made me realize how much of the time I was just waiting for MCA to step up for a few lines and kick the song to the next level.
Yauch was also a filmmaker — a legit filmmaker. He directed many of the Beastie’s best videos as Nathaniel Hornblower (who made a legendary stage bumrush in disguise in support of Spike Jonze’s “Sabotage,” which lost to R.E.M.’s sad-sack Fellini flip “Everybody Hurts” at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards); founded the production company Oscilloscope Laboratories (responsible for releasing Bellflower, A Film Unfinished, The Unloved, and Wendy & Lucy, just to name a few of my favorites); and he made the documentaries Awesome I Fuckin’ Shot That, a crowd-sourced Beasties concert film, and the basketball love letter, Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot.
Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot is thoughtful, ecstatically flashy street-ball documentary that profiles eight of 2006’s highest-ranked high-school players and follows them to the “Boost Mobile Elite 24 Hoops Classic” in Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park. Imagine a less condescending Hoop Dreams meets one of those AND1 video mixtapes, but way more awesome, and you’ll get the picture. All that matters in the movie is basketball, right then and there, and it’s all lovingly filmed with simple, kinetic camerawork and scored with of-the-moment rap hits like the Game’s “Hate It Or Love It.” It’s the rare, smart sports doc that its subjects might actually enjoy.
Still, the image of Yauch, with fuzzy five o’clock shadow, in a leather jacket, stealing a beer from some pencil-necked dweeb, then chugging it, turning, and spitting it in the face of some douche in a beret from the “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” is particularly vivid. An animated gif of it is clogging up my Tumblr dashboard. As it should be. That’s important too.