The May 4 death of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, one-third of the groundbreaking hip-hop/rock outfit The Beastie Boys, after a protracted battle with cancer at the age of 47, throws into stark relief the dichotomy that was his band's long career.
On the one hand, the Beasties -- with their best-known tracks like "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)," "No Sleep Til Brooklyn," and "Brass Monkey" -- celebrated the crassest aspects of youth culture with a sly nod and inebriated wink. But dig beneath the cartoonish, b-boy/fratboy surface, the trio -- which also includes Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) -- was actually a very sober and mature concern.
Not only did they produce albums -- "Paul's Boutique" (1989), "Check Your Head" (1992), "Ill Communication" (1994), "The Mix-Up" (2007) -- that were often dizzying in the way they helped expand hip-hop's boundaries but the band branched out into running their own label and magazine (both called Grand Royal) and even film production.
In 2008, Yauch directed a well-reviewed documentary about high-school basketball, "Gunnin' for that No. 1 Spot." He also directed some of the band's videos and helped set up Osciolloscope Laboratories, a film distribution company that handled such honored indie movies as "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop." Yauch also became known for his Buddhism and interests in the cause of Tibetan independence.
Yet, for most casual listeners who only knew the Beastie Boys from the radio, they were just a bunch of goofy white, Jewish rappers, making a name for themselves in a black genre through the force of sheer novelty. But that's not how their fellow hip-hop performers viewed them.
"The Beastie Boys are indeed three bad brothers who made history," said rapper Chuck D from the group Public Enemy at the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in which the Beastie Boys were inducted. "They brought a whole new look to rap and hip-hop. They proved that rap could come from any street -- not just a few."
Much of the credit for that goes to Yauch who gave the Beastie Boys' music an aggressively urban edge. Unlike the whiny Horovitz and the quiet Diamond, Yauch possessed a soulfulness and swagger in his voice that belied the group's comic persona.
I remember seeing the Beastie Boys open for Madonna in L.A. in the mid-80s -- well before their breakthrough 1986 "Licensed to Ill" album which became the first hip-hop album to hit No. 1 on Billboard's top 200 albums chart -- and much of the crowd treated them with derision, as a joke without a punchline.
But there was something about the performance, still redolent of the band's early, ragged roots in New York's hardcore punk scene, that suggested that this group -- and especially the compelling Yauch -- would see better days ahead.
And they certainly did.
Conceived in 1978 while the guys were still in high school, the Beastie Boys are still a going and successful concern. The band's most recent album, "Hot Sauce Commitee Part II" (2011), was not only greeted with generally swooning reviews but it hit No. 1 on Billboard's Rock, R&B, Modern Rock/Alternative, and Rap Albums charts while climbing to No. 2 on the Top 200.
Still, the shadow of Yauch's illness -- which delayed the recording of "Hot Sauce" -- hung over the group like a shroud. Yauch was diagnosed with cancer in his parotid gland and lymph nodes in 2009. He was unable to appear for the Hall of Fame ceremony April 14.
But Yauch -- who is survived by his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and his daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch -- will be remembered as one of the architects of a unique sound, a hybrid that was both popular and pioneering, silly and serious. And its reverberations are still with us today.
No sleep til Brooklyn, indeed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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