Adam Yauch, aka MCA, 1964-2012, pt. 3

Beastie Boys on cracking form at Wembley Arena, September 2004

 The Hiatus is back off again

Last Wednesday when I posted the first of my three-part tribute to MCA and the Beastie Boys I said that parts two and three would follow by the end of the week. Clearly things haven’t quite run to plan however rather than ‘fess up I would prefer to believe I was subconsciously echoing the Beasties’ unhurried approach to their career. Anyone who remembers the half decade+ between the release of Hello Nasty and To The 5 Boroughs will know where I’m coming from.

Back to the programme, I’d like to use this last post to say thanks to MCA and the Beastie Boys for providing me with my favourite gig memory ever and to reflect on how, even after that highpoint in my fandom, the Beasties have continued to give me the confidence to approach music and life in a way that is true to me. For those of you who read the last post I promise I will try harder this time not to write so much.

To the 5 Boroughs (and Norwich)

Out on a limb: Norwich Life. Photo: DCMS

Last time I explained how during my years at university the Beasties’ music and their approach to life I gained the confidence to explore new music and not be restricted by other peoples’ notions of what’s cool or acceptable. I’m pleased to say this outlook gave me the resilience I needed to cope and subsequently thrive in the years that followed immediately after university.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced after university was adjusting to life in Norwich or as I liked to refer to it, the Eastern gulag. In the autumn of 2004 I had moved to the home of Alan Partridge to take up a place on the national graduate development programme (ngdp), a local government  graduate scheme. Knowing virtually nobody at first, I looked to the Beasties’ musical eclecticism and fearlessness and set about the task of, gulp, enjoying living in Norwich.

By pursuing the music that interested me rather than necessarily what my house mates or taste-makers at the time I listened to I was able to have a surprisingly great time in England’s Other City. I might be wrong but I have yet to meet many other people who managed to combine the glamour and glitz of an accelerated career in local government with seeing everyone from Jazzy Jeff (twice!), The Coral, Mad Professor, Goldie Lookin Chain, Ian Brown, Rufus Wainwright, Slum Village, Skinnyman, Super Furry Animals along with an (un)healthy dose of house music of variable quality. While I am happy to report over the two years I spent in Norwich I managed to meet like-minded people I still have to give thanks to MCA and the Beasties for giving me the confidence to rock up to often pretty out there gigs on my own, irrespective of whether I was likely to be a fish out of water.

Hello Wembley

It was early on in Norwich sojourn when the Beastie Boys provided me with my favourite ever live music experience. In September 2004 I travelled from Norwich to London to see the Beasties’ live at Wembley Arena, to see them them perform their latest album, the old school hip-hop inspired To the 5 Boroughs. With me at the gig were my two sisters and my brother-in-law. What we witnessed that evening confirmed to us the Beasties’ legendary status was well-deserved and hard-earned.

From the start, I was blown away by the gig the Beasties put on. In the support slot was Talib Kweli, performing, one half of backpack hip-hop legends Black Star and a passionate and articulate Brooklyn MC in his own right. Kweli’s inclusion on the bill showed the Beasties’ remained rooted in the hip-hop tradition, despite having a strong alternative following. After Kweli’s turn Mix Master Mike (the Beasties’ tour DJ and world champion scratch supremo) got things started with an unbelievable scratch routine which seamlessly carried over into an hour or so of pure hip-hop.  Throughout the set MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D traded rhymes over a combination of songs’ original musical backing and the freshest new hip-hop tracks. For an idea of what the performance was like, check out footage from the Beasties’ innovative concert film  Awesome;I… Shot That!, which was recorded one month later.

Greatest concert film of all time? Quite possibly.

After a breathless run-through of songs from every phase of the Beasties’ career none of us were quite sure what to expect when the band left the stage after about an hour. After around five minutes of talking amongst ourselves we suddenly heard the low rumble of fuzz bass, only to discover the Beasties’ had re-assembled at the other end of the hall in live instrumentation form. After a blistering performance of Sabotage we were treated to mellower numbers from the Check Your Head and Ill Communication albums. For the night’s finale the band gave an amazing performance of An Open Letter to NYC, recorded after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 .

The Mix-Up and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2

I came away from the Wembley with more respect than ever for the Beastie Boys and continued to listen avidly to the group’s music. However, by the time the Beasties’ next album, The Mix-Up, came out in 2007 I’ve got to be honest and say my fandom had somewhat waned. Perhaps it was the fact that The Mix-Up is an all-instrumental affair that made it harder for me to get excited about it than I had been for To the 5 Boroughs. Or perhaps my taste in music had changed and the Beasties hadn’t. Either way, by the I saw the Beasties perform live again in 2007 I’m sorry to say I just couldn’t get all that excited, despite the fact the group put on similarly energetic performance. As I headed home from the gig my mind drifted to thoughts of work the next day (I was up far later than was sensible for a weekday) and  I could feel my youth slipping away, and with it my love for the world the Beastie Boys inhabited.

Over the coming years I continued to appreciate the Beastie Boys but the intensity with which I had listened to their music and followed their progress had diminished. It wasn’t until 2009  when news of MCA’s cancer first broke that I gave the Beasties’ much thought. So when Hot Sauce Committee Part Two emerged in April of last year my initial response was one of mild interest and relief that it seemed MCA’s health problems were behind him than outright excitement. Luckily, I made the effort to pick up Hot Sauce Committee and I was rewarded with what I believe was the best album of 2011.

A tremendous return to form.

I’m aware of my limitations as a music critic so I’ll try to describe Hot Sauce Committee as best as I can. If you’ve ever heard and enjoyed a Beastie Boys song, chances are you’ll enjoy this album. Although the album mainly focuses on hip-hop, there are also strong elements of the band’s earlier punk/DC hardcore incarnation on tracks such as Say It and Lee Majors Come Again. Guest vocalists are also on hand, with famed ‘rapper’s rapper Nas clearly enjoying himself on Too Many Rappers while Santigold adds some contemporary pop sparkle on Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win. Throughout it all the Beasties sound hungry, with MCA in particular reminding us of his skills as an MC on Long Burn the Fire. Perhaps most striking of all, sonically the album shines, with Phoenix collaborator Philippe Zdar making sure the analogue synths fizz and gurgle as only they can. If you’ve get to get into the Beastie Boys’ music I strongly recommend you pick up Hot Sauce Committee at the same time as The Sounds of Science anthology.

You can listen to Hot Sauce Committe Part Two in its entireity via SoundCloud.

The Future Is Unwritten

It’s not clear what the future holds for the Beastie Boys as a group. It’s not even a fortnight since MCA died and it would be unseemly to speculate on what remaining members Ad-Rock and Mike D should do next. As a fan of MCA and the Beastie Boys I am just grateful to have had the good fortune to be introduced to the Beasties’ music at an important stage of my life and for all the great memories their music brings to life. The Beastie Boys music and their approach to life gave me the confidence to explore and embrace new forms of music and not worry about conforming to one easy to categorise musical tribe. Without them my life would be an infinitely duller place. I’d like to end by quoting one of my favourite rhymes from MCA on Hot Sauce Committee:

Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision
I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitchin’
Put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf
So you can show it to your friends and say “that’s my old self”
 (Beastie Boys – Make Some Noise)
 R.I.P. Adam Yauch, aka MCA. Thank you for the amazing music.

Adam Yauch, aka MCA, 1964-2012, pt. 2

Welcome back to the second part of my three-part tribute to MCA and the Beastie Boys.
Yesterday I tried to express my gratitude to MCA and the Beastie Boys for rescuing me from Indie rock and introducing me to a whole new world of music through their 1998 opus, Hello Nasty. Today I would like to explain how Hello Nasty led me not only to other music from the Beasties’ back catalogue but to have the confidence to go out and figure what music I really loved, irrespective of the vagaries of taste, fashion or musical boundaries.

Hello Nasty – The In Sound of 1999
3 MCs and 1Sardine Can. Photo: Nah Right
Nowadays a chance musical discovery would normally be followed up by a Google search to discover virtually every song that artist had ever recorded. Back in 1999 however I only had the radio, NME, word of mouth and my local record shop to help me make sense of all the wild and wonderful new music I had heard on Hello Nasty and figure out where to go next with it. Throw in the fact that I had pretty limited funds and CDs were expensive and I was a super-fan of the Beasties, looking on from the sidelines.
Luckily for me, of all the albums I could have been stuck with Hello Nasty offered rich musical nourishment. Let’s be honest, a 22 track album probably conjures up images of a bloated rap album, full to bursting point with largely unfunny between song skits and filler tracks featuring turns by lesser crew members (think some of Ghostface Killah’s solo output). But whether it was my age, my lack of purchasing power or my reluctance to lose myself again to the likes of Manic Street Preachers, I got to know each and every one of Hello Nasty’s tracks and, when I’d done that, set about reading the album’s densely printed lyrics and references to obscure music the Beasties had sampled.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I clearly had far too much time on my hands. But you know what?, when you had spent your days at a single sex grammar school and failing to chat up the girls I did have the chance to meet I can see that the Beasties’ world of remote controls, space stations and 808s offered a welcome break from my reality.
Scientists of Sound
Reassuringly well-presented. Photo:
 Luckily for me and those around me I did eventually move on from Hello Nasty. On Christmas 1999 I received the Beasties Boys’ newly released anthology, The Sounds of Science. Given the difficulty and cost of tracking down the Beasties’ music at that time, this double album retrospective presented with a great way of deepening my understanding of the Beastie Boys’ music. The lushly produced package also drew me further to the Beasties’ mystique, with what I as a teenager considered to be incredibly cool photography and partial reveals of the meaning and significance behind songs.
It was through The Sounds of Science that I discovered quite how much the Beastie Boys’ sound had evolved over the years. Not only had they been around for what to me as a 17 year old seemed like forever, they had in fact started out as a punk-rock/hardcore band before making the switch to hip-hop with Cooky Puss (though not on the anthology, sadly) , basically a recording of a crank call with excerpts from a Steve Martin comedy record. The anthology exposed me to an incredible range of music, from the cheesy ((You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), Brass Monkey), psychedelic and experimental (Something’s Got to Give, Dub The Mic) and some of the most ridiculously funky hip-hop put on wax (Sureshot, So What’cha Want).
In these times of Spotify playlists and glutinous MP3 collections it is easy to take musical eclecticism for granted but back in 1999 I knew the Beastie Boys were exposing me to sounds I would never have heard from the likes of Feeder and The Bluetones. By the way, if anyone knows of a lost dub classic or sound collage from these bands or the Britpop scene more generally please let me know and I would be happy to take back what I have just written.
Getting It Together
After binging on The Sounds of Science I was well on the way to discovering my funky side. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t ditch listening to my old friends Radiohead. And I remained partial to a bit of Underworld (check out King of Snake).  But through the Beastie Boys I felt newly confident to check out A Tribe Called Quest (thanks to Q-Tip’s stellar guest turn on Get It Together). I also tracked down Paul’s Boutique at a music festival. Around this time, a school friend introduced me to music which has somewhat unfairly maligned as ‘backpack hip-hop’. Groups like Jurassic 5 and the edgier (and, let’s face it, sometimes overly worthy) Dilated Peoples were clearly influenced by the Beasties yet had their own distinct styles. What these groups had in common, and which the Beasties taught me, was that it was possible to be funky and intelligent. And whilst I can’t lay claim to either of those qualities, it’s good to have aspiration.
South Yorkshire State of Mind
After school I headed north to attend Sheffield University, a move in large part inspired by the band Pulp. Whilst I did once catch a fleeting glimpse of Jarvis on Division Street it was the Beasties’ musical eclecticism which would continue to have the biggest influence on me throughout my university years and beyond.
I’ve got so many musical memories from this time of my life but in a token nod to brevity (it’s probably a bit late for that now, natch) I’ll try to focus on my favourites:
  • Bonding with my History tutor over RUN-DMC. I don’t know what it says about the state of higher education but my 18 year-old self was pretty impressed to find my History tutor also found the time to manage the Record Collector shop in Broomhill. Through this shop I picked up cheap second hand copies of the Beasties’ Ill Communication (such a great album) and RUN-DMC’s greatest hits. To this day I am sure I got better scores in History because my tutor respected the fact that I, unlike his other charges, had a healthy respect for all things old school.
  • Blowing my student loan at Fopp. For those of you too busy leading rich and fulfilling lives, Fopp is an independent chain of music shops. Its chief distinguishing feature was selling back catalogue CDs for a fiver. It’s now a shadow of its former self with only a couple of stores left but back in the early 2000s Fopp allowed me to slake my musical thirst. Mirroring the Beasties’ eclecticism I sampled everything on offer, from classic albums from The Beach Boys and Sly and The Family Stonethrough to more modern offerings by the Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill. Of course I can’t pretend there weren’t missteps along the way (Barry White’sGreatest Hits and a Tim Westwood compilation most immediately spring to mind), inspired by the Beasties’ sense of adventure, I was able to massively expand the soundtrack to my life.
  • Taping The Avalanches’ DJ set off of Radio 1, circa 2001. Ever since hearing Paul’s Boutique I’ve been geekily obsessed with the possibilities of sampling. This meant I was blown away by The Avalanches, an Australian collective whose debut album, Since I Left You, is made up almost entirely of 100s of fragments of charity records. Any group that can weave Beach Boys and Crosby Stills & Nash alongside rather different West Coast luminaries  Ice-Tand Dr. Dre deserves to be supported. Inspired by the DJ set I duly tracked down the CD after a length wait for it to be released in the UK and set about convincing friends and family to give the album a go.
The Next Episode  
True to my word, I’ll be back with the last part of my tribute to MCA and the Beasties Boys in the day couple of days, which will look at how even after the high point of my fandom in 2004 the Beasties continued to be a part of me and give me the / foolhardiness to try new things and be true to myself.  One week on since the news of MCA’s passing I want to say thanks once again to MCA for the music and inspiration and leave you with MCA’s opening shot from Pass TheMic:
If you can feel what I’m feeling then it’s a musical masterpiece
Hear what I’m dealing with then that’s cool at least

Adam Yauch, aka MCA, 1964-2012

Adam Yauch, aka MCA, 1964-2012. Photo

Last Friday I was deeply saddened to discover that Adam Yauch had died, aged 47, after a three-year battle with cancer. Readers in their 20s and 30s might know him better as MCA, founding member of groundbreaking hip-hop group the Beastie Boys. The Beastie Boys’ music and their approach to life in general had a profound effect on me.

I’d like to pay my respects to MCA and to express my gratitude to him and his band for making the world a better place. As I began to write this post I quickly realised I had more things I wanted to say than would fit in a regular post. To make things more digestible I have broken this post into three parts (which is kinda fitting), with parts two and three to follow later this week.
The New Style

King of Indie and gatekeeper and my one-time musical guide, Steve Lamacq. Photo: Guardian

I first became aware of the Beasties Boys in early 1999. These were the days before broadband and Radio 1’s Steve Lamacq was the (not all that) Cool Ruler of the post-Britpop Indie music scene.

The song which hooked me was Remote Control, off of the Beasties’ chart-topping 1998 album, Hello Nasty. Listening to the song again following the news of MCA’s death I can see now that it is a quintessential Beastie Boys song. Shouty delivery? Check. Obscure pop culture references? Check. Funky instrumentation, including fuzzed out basslines courtesy of MCA? Yes indeed, this song has it all. While I would go on to discover other Beastie Boys songs that I am fonder of today, Remote Control showed me that you could be true to yourself musically and still have fun. In short, the Beastie Boys led me to realise there was more to life than Indie music and its all-too-often musical conservatism.
Hello Nasty
3 MCs and 1Sardine Can. Photo: Nah Right

After hearing Remote Control on the radio I made my way to my local Our Price to pick up Hello Nasty. After stumping up paying nearly £20 for an import copy of the album, I set about getting my money’s worth by familiarising myself in all 22 of the album’s tracks.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, Hello Nasty was a revelation. Even before listening to the album I was drawn into the Beastie Boys world by the album’s sleeve. On the front cover there’s a picture of the three Beastie Boys in a sardine can, seemingly hurtling towards the sun. But it was the reverse and inner artwork which really drew me in, with the retro design representing each of the album’s 22 songs as studio sound channels and school textbook-style illustrations of the Beastie Boys’ studio/space station helping create a self-contained universe for the band.

The future of retro-inspired design, circa 1998. Photo: hhv

Out of this world music. The Beastie Boys at work/play recording Hello Nasty. Photo: Snurfer

The music didn’t disappoint either. Opening track Super Disco Breakin’ sets the template, with lyrics chiefly focused on the importance of rocking the party and dense, multi layered sounds in support. You’ve probably heard of and danced to the hit singles off the album such as Body Movin’ and Intergalactic but over the space of 67 minutes the Beasties also do a nice job of instrumental jazz, Brazilian grooves and reggae (Dr Lee, PhD featuring the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry). Re-visiting the album over the weekend, I was especially struck by the Bossa Nova homage of I don’t know, which tenderly sung by Yauch.

There’s so much more I could say about Hello Nasty and the world it opened up to me but I think I’ll take Ice Cube’s evergreen advice and check myself before I wreck myself. I would like to end by once again thanking Yauch and the Beastie Boys for opening my ears to a whole new world of music and helping me keep my teenage angst in check. MCA, you will be sorely missed.

For more information about Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys, visit the official Beastie Boys website. 

There is also a thoughtful obituary and archive materials on The Guardian.