Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision
I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitching
Put it in formaldehyde and put it in the shelf
And you can show it to your friends and say “that’s my old self”
-Adam Yauch/Beastie Boys, from ”Make Some Noise”
ADAM YAUCH, a/k/a MCA, was likely inspired to pen those words, that appear in a tossed off couplet in the middle of what would wind up being one of the band’s final singles, by his immersion in the world of illness. He passed away last Thursday after having lived with cancer since 2009; I don’t want to say “after having fought cancer” or “battled cancer,” a semantic distinction I learned from an old colleague of mine who, as it turns out, also passed away this week after having lived with cancer for many years. Like Yauch, she also leaves an amazing legacy, of impressive career accomplishments and a beloved family; and like Yauch, she was taken from us far too young.
The rhyme couplet speaks of shedding one’s old self, of self-improvement, of looking back and honestly assessing the old you. It’s something that Yauch and Co. were remarkably adept at; Beasties Boys, at several key junctures in their rise to prominence, were able to cut out the parts of their prior persona that no longer worked and re-shape the group into something that held more promise for the future-- whether it was their shift from lo-fi punk to rap in the mid-'80s to their late-'80s embracing of sampled-out psychedelia to their '90s live instrument punk/jazz/funk hybrid, the band wasn’t afraid to take a scalpel to their old self in pursuit of a more acceptable musical identity.
What’s remarkable to note upon Yauch’s passing is the universality of his group. Here in 2012, 30 years after the group’s inception, once can query music fans young and old, black and white, whose tastes run the gamet from metal to country to whatever, and somewhere in the grey matter of almost anyone is that moment where the Beasties got to them. Their legacy was one of uniting rather than dividing, of pulling more and more people into the fold versus veering into self-imposed obscurity. The Beasties were that rare thing, a musical act beloved by pretty much everyone that wasn’t bland and boring and predictable.
It wasn’t always that way, of course; their early years were spent frantically trying to find a way to make an impression and/or start a confrontation. They eventually hit paydirt (for the first time) in 1986 with the release of their Def Jam debut, Licensed To Ill, a bratty collision of rap and arena rock with a lingering punk whiff. In subsequent years, the Beasties sought to distance themselves from their early period, writing it off as frat-rap; this back-turning was all part of the moral ascension of the Beasties, particularly Yauch, who became a practicing Buddhist in the '90s, starting the Milarepa Fund in 1994 to promote Tibetan independence. In “Sure Shot”, the band’s massive 1994 hit single from fourth LP Ill Communication, Yauch rhymes “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 sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end”; it was a clear message to the band’s bratty early selves to grow the fuck up.
It’s important, however, to place Licensed To Ill and the brat-attack of the early Beasties in the proper historical context: as a logical outcome of a number of bubbling '80s cultural movements, most notably rap, heavy metal, the rise of both urban and suburban culture, and the re-assessment of the nerd in pop culture. That last one is especially crucial to understanding the Beasties; although in the “Fight For Your Right” video they posit themselves as the opposites of the stereotypical nerds whose party they famously crash, the entire career of the Beasties is formed on a nerdish attention to details and facts and figures and references. That they were able to, in 1987, make geekish movie references and sly allusions into the most badass punk/metal/rap music around, all while sort-of kidding, was a testament to their subversive power.
In the early to mid-'80s, pop culture in America was having a renewed love affair with the concept of science. Maybe it was the success of our space program and the first wave of home computing; perhaps it was the slow acceptance of the synthesizer as the axe of a new age of rock star. In any case, the evidence is abundant: from “She Blinded Me With Science” to Weird Science to Misfits of Science, the early '80s fetishized the concept of the brainiac. As Huey Lewis would eventually croon in his ‘85 hit, it was hip to be square.
But something crucial was missing in the science-obsessed nerd-fest: the idea that nerds were bad-ass, that they "rocked." At the same time that synthesizers and British people on television were taking over the airwaves, a burgeoning anti-New Wave sentiment was building in America, culminating in the mid-'80s hardcore and thrash movements that would come to define punk and metal in the decades to come. But the first major beacon for nerd badassery appeared in 1984, in the form of the film Revenge of the Nerds. Ostensibly a raunchy teen sex comedy in the vein of scads of similar hormonally-charged films of its ilk, Revenge managed to stand apart from its peers in the way that its protagonists, nerds and social pariahs, were able by the third act to give the straight world their comeuppance, in part through being horny goofballs willing to out-prank the normal guys. Or to put it another way, everybody loved them once they proved that they could rap about their devious deeds.
Like most kids my age, the first time I saw Adam Yauch was at the beginning of the “Fight For Your Right” video; I didn’t know it, but he was slapping himself in the head with a gigantic dildo.My thought at the time was that with his Don Johnson stubble and black leather jacket, he was basically the group’s Booger.
Which he kind of was; when he would make boasts in song like “I’ll steal your honey like I stole your bike,” I not only thought that he sounded like the bully I had had to deal with a few years before, but he also kind of had the voice of the older brother I never had. In fact, all three Beasties were kind of older-brother rap for a generation of suburban losers, introducing us to transgressions we didn’t know were forthcoming. Porno mags and rolling woolers, smoking and drinking and sniffing glue, rhyming and stealing in a drunken state, rocking our rhymes all the way to Hell straight.
They also made a pastiche of the things that our world was made of, the junk food and bad tv that were inescapable in those times. The inimitable music writer Chuck Eddy caught on in 1987, having this to say about the band’s lyrical preoccupations in his essay “Lay It Down, Clowns”: “Wiffleball bats and swirlies and Phyllis Diller and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Budweiser and Rice-a-Roni and angel dust are things we live with in this world, and sometimes even things we talk about in real life, but I’ll be damned if anybody else has ever written songs about them, and even if somebody has, they never wrote a couplet as unpretentiously jocular as ‘My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker/Delivered Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones locker’ or ‘Went to the prom, bought a fly blue rental/Got six girlies in my Lincoln Continental.’ It’s all about specificity, I reckon.” (Eddy was early to catch on to the band's brilliance, which of course meant that he was early to being punk'd by the future Buddhists; here he is, for instance, getting pranked by the Beasties, if "pranked" means "being doused with cold water as one sleeps in a hotel bed":)
As I said, it was nerd music made into badass posing in a way that captivated a mass audience. If it doesn’t seem nerdy or seem particularly badass now, it is merely a testament to how thoroughly the that period of the Beasties’ reign has been folded into our subsequent musical culture. Prior to License, rap was party music based on disco and meant for a dancefloor (to at least some extent) and rock and rap never ever ever ever mixed in any real way. That the Beasties melded all of this together and then found a way to convey this bratty image to a truly pop audience (especially when they opened for Madonna’s The Virgin Tour) says something about their aesthetic inclusivity; that this was but one of many poses the band would take on their way to rap enlightenment is a testament to the band’s genius.
Remember, rap in the mid-to-late-'80s was a disreputable genre, with the general consensus amongst most in the industry being that it “wasn’t music”. The band aped this in their genius “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” video, of course, but part of the joy of being a fan of the band at the time was in even being able to conceive of three guys without instruments who couldn’t conventionally sing as a “band” in the first place."You're the band? Where's your instruments?""Yo dude, like, I think we're the band?"These were the days when desktops in schools across the country were festooned with scrawled shrines to Led Zeppelin and other classic rock icons, as new musical styles increasingly had to fight for their right to exist amongst a strong coterie of old bands buoyed by the overpowering commercial success of the recently-developed “classic rock” radio format. But the Beasties sampled Zep and Sabbath and AC/DC, proclaiming “If I played guitar I’d be Jimmy Page, the girlies I like are underage”; since I was 14 when I heard that song, both of those statements were true for me too. They found a roundabout way to make rap music palatable to the rock fan, by making rap that rocks made by rock fans for rock fans. Within a few years, no one asked them where their instruments were, the same way no one cared about synthesizers and samplers anymore. These tools and styles allowed our pop stars to be seemingly-regular people just like us, and Yauch and Co. seemed like just a trio of normal guy best friends, except that they seemed amazingly cool and smart and with-it. By the '90s alterna-assault, the revenge of the nerds prophesied in the early '80s was complete.
The Beasties would go on to be the ur-rap group, able to please the most unpleasable rapophile while also being the only rap album in plenty of people’s record collection. Ultimately it had to do with the band’s generous spirit, a childlike reverence for sounds and rhymes and getting out there and doing it that permeated their every wax offering. Yauch, initially the louche grump of the group, became the spiritual core of the Beasties, kind of like if Ringo had become George before Revolver; amazingly, everyone went along for the ride as the band matured in every sense of the word. Their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month may seem bittersweet in retrospect, but it is indicative of the way-across-the-spectrum appeal the band was able to sustain for their entire career. If the music world seems a lot sadder this week, it is entirely due to the tragedy of seeing a heartening trio of friends reduced in number far far far too soon.