Adam Yauch aka MCA, who has died aged 47, was one of hip-hop’s wildest visionaries, a musical chameleon who – along with fellow Beastie Boys Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz and Mike ‘Mike D’ Diamond – tested the boundaries of what three young rappers could do, then snapped them and hung them around their necks.
While Ad-Rock had his squawk and Mike D had his sneer, MCA’s gruff bark was the man’s voice. He looked a bit different too. He had stubble – and I’m not sure Ad-Rock and Mike D could boast that even now – and he wore a leather jacket while the others dressed like discount B-boys. When ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ was released in 1987 I’d just snuck into my teens. For me and my mates they were the perfect band. We’d missed the early stuff, the Polly Wog Stews and Cooky Pusses, but here was something we understood. Porno mags! Smoking! Homework! Bad hair! This was our entire existence in one shouty riot.
The Beastie Boys couldn’t be more like us if they were waggling a massive inflatable penis about. And suddenly they were. They were the only thing that made wearing a trucker cap acceptable in the late 80s – as long as it was emblazoned with their diamond logo – so I did. But as we grew up, so did the Beasties, broadening their palette astonishingly and switching with dramatic speed from rap-metal oiks to psych-jazz hip-hop dons.
It’s stunning to think ‘Paul’s Boutique’ turned up just two years after the Beasties had been the tabloids’ favourite demons. Suddenly they were pioneering polymaths, stretching the limits of sampling and weaving intricate rhymes through dizzying layers of sound – but more was to come. Another two years on and Yauch had picked up the bass, Ad-Rock the guitar, Mike D the drums and with Money Mark on keyboards they were a rhyme-spitting funk band in time for ‘Check Your Head’.
Although a clutch of great albums were still to come in the ultra-smooth ‘Hello Nasty’ (1998) and the old-skool ‘To The 5 Boroughs’ (2004), the true distillation of the Beastie Boys’ sound is probably 1994’s ‘Ill Communication’. Here their formative thrash metal meets the absurd rhymes of ‘Get It Together’ and the funky swagger of ‘Root Down’ and – most intriguingly – a new Tibetan influence.
The sea-change had come when Yauch visited Kathmandu a couple of years earlier and became immersed in the culture and the Tibetans’ plight, eventually converting to Buddhism. The immediate effect on the Beasties was a couple of tracks – ‘Shambala’ and ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ – on ‘Ill Communication’ but Yauch would soon organise the Free Tibet concert and continue to stage benefits for the rest of his life.
In the consciousness of your mums, dads and Daily Express readers, the Beastie Boys will always be those snotty-nosed frat boys winching a colossal phallus, but through Yauch’s vision they changed hip-hop’s mindset and as a collective with a ridiculous lack of inhibitions they influenced everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Eminem, Guru to Gorillaz, Beck to blimmin’ Limp Bizkit. Yauch, you were the funkiest of bosses and you’ll be missed.