Adam "MCA" Yauch, one of the founding members of the Beastie Boys, died Friday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 47.
With his raspy voice, Yauch started making music with Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) when they were all teenagers in New York City in the early 1980s. The Beastie Boys started out as a punk band, but in 1987, the group released Licensed to Ill, the first hop-hop album to reach No. 1 on the pop charts.
Over the next 25 years, MCA, Mike D and Ad-Rock continued to win over fans and critics for their inventive, layered sampling and clever, playful lyrics, which occasionally referenced their earlier tracks. A line from Yauch's "Sure Shot" from Ill Communication, for example, addressed concerns about the group's misogynistic lyrics from its early days: "I want to say 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."
Over the years, Yauch diversified his career interests. Under the pseudonym Nathanial Hornblower, he directed a number of Beastie Boys videos, including "Whatcha Want," "Intergalactic" and "Make Some Noise," which was released in 2011. He also directed two feature films, the 2006 Beastie Boys concert movie Awesome; I ... Shot That and Gunning for That #1 Spot, a film about high-school basketball players. His strong interest in film later inspired Yauch to create the independent film distribution and production company Oscilloscope, which has released films such as The Messenger, Wendy and Lucy and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
In 2006, Yauch joined his bandmates on Fresh Air for an in-depth conversation with Terry Gross about The Beastie Boys and their music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURE SHOT")
BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) 'Cause you can't, you won't, and you don't stop. Because you can't, you won't, and you don't stop. Well, you can't, you won't...
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
We were saddened by the news last Friday that Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys had lost his battle with cancer. He was 47. Yauch, with his signature raspy voice, started making music with Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz when they were all teenagers in New York City in the early 1980s. The Beastie Boys started out as a punk band, and then incorporated hip hop into their music when they began collaborating with Def Jam Records co-founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.
In 1987, they released "Licensed to Ill," the first hop-hop album to reach number one on the pop charts. In 25 years since, MCA, Mike D and Ad-Rock, as they're better known, won critical acclaim for their clever, playful lyrics and inventive, layered sampling. Last month, the band was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. Yauch was too sick to attend the ceremony.
In his New York Times obituary, Jon Pareles wrote, quote, "Mr. Yauch was a major factor in the Beastie Boys' evolution from their early incarnation as testosterone-driven pranksters to their later years as sonic experimenters, as socially conscious rappers, and as keepers of old school hip-hop memories," unquote.
Yauch was the first member of the group to actually apologize on record for the misogyny of their early lyrics. Under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower, Yauch directed a number of Beastie Boys videos and a concert film. He founded Oscilloscope, a distribution and production company that released the films "The Messenger," "Wendy and Lucy," and "Exit Through the Gift Shop."
I spoke with the Beastie Boys in 2006 right before the release of their concert film. Let's start with their most famous record, "Fight For Your Right."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT")
BOYS: (Rapping) Kick it. You wake up late for school, man, you don't wanna go. You ask your mom please but she still says no. You missed two classes and no homework. But your teacher teaches class like he's some kind of jerk. You got to fight for your right to party.
GROSS: Your first hit was "Fight for Your Right" and Adam Yauch, in the liner notes of the "Best Of" collection you write that song began as a goof and that it started as a satire of "I Want to Rock" kind of songs. So what did you have in mind when you wrote that?
ADAM YAUCH: Yeah, basically that. I think you summed it up. It was just kind of like just one of those like "Smoking in the Boys Room" type things. Just thought it was kind of funny. But I don't think we realized that it was going to be sort of the main focus of the album, that it was going to - like, I think the way we were looking at it, we were just kind of making this dumb song that it'd sit somewhere on the album.
But I think that CBS and Rick saw it as being able to be something much larger than what we imagined. And they kind of made it the main focus of the album.
GROSS: Did your fans misunderstand who you were?
YAUCH: I think maybe we just ended up with a different bunch of fans than we expected. Like, I think if we could have picked at the time - like if I could have known how much that song would have informed everyone about the album, I probably - my choice would have been more to pick, like, a different song to be the main single, like "Hold It Now" or "Slow and Low" or "Posse In Effect" or one of the other cuts.
But anyway, that song was the one that informed everyone. And so, the next thing you knew, we would go out and play shows and the whole place would just be full of, like, frat boys, like drunken frat boys. And so it was - and so there we were.
GROSS: I don't imagine you had a big, you know, frat-boy audience for your band when you were playing punk.
MICHAEL DIAMOND: We never did when we were punk and then also when we were playing hip-hop, like, what we came out of by hooking up with Russell, we got like a really good education in terms of going on tour and opening up for Run-DMC. Like, we were on a tour opening for Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J. So that was like a completely hip-hop audience.
YAUCH: To then all of a sudden go into this world of, like, kind of like, I don't know, I guess a more pop audience and, like, kind of college kids wanting to party and drink beer and go see a Beastie Boys show, that was completely foreign to us and beyond anything we ever imagined.
GROSS: Adam, in those liner notes, you write: By drinking so much beer and acting like sexist, macho jerks, we actually became just that. So did you feel like...
YAUCH: I never said that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Did you feel like you were becoming the image that you created?
YAUCH: I think so, yeah. I think in a way, you know, it's almost like we started out kind of like goofing on it but then just sort of became it, in a way.
ADAM HOROWITZ: It's the become-what-you-hate syndrome. It happens.
DIAMOND: Yeah. You set out with an agenda of parody, and a certain amount of time goes by, and you kind of cross that line.
YAUCH: Yeah, like you parody something enough, you know.
HOROWITZ: It's kind of like when you go to England, and you do a British accent the whole time, and then you come home and you have a fake British accent.
GROSS: When you started sampling records, you know, after you started rapping, did you start listening to music differently knowing that if you really loved a rhythm...
YAUCH: Oh, yeah. You definitely hear things differently.
GROSS: ...that you could use it? Mm-hmm.
HOROWITZ: Everybody in America and damn near everybody in the world, since they've heard the new form of rap music with sampling listens to music differently.
DIAMOND: Yeah. Like, because you hear, like, a little beat or a break or a something like that.
HOROWITZ: Or a car horn.
DIAMOND: And you start thinking about - yeah. You start thinking about looping right away way.
GROSS: Now I think it's "Super Fly" that you sample on "Egg Man"?
YAUCH: Yup. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: It must've been kind of cool to take that soundtrack and make it your soundtrack. Do you know what I mean? Like, who wouldn't want a soundtrack like that? Do you know what I mean?
HOROWITZ: I mean, to me when...
DIAMOND: When we were making "Paul's Boutique" like part of what was sometimes amazing to me in terms of the sampling was that, yeah, you know, you kind of can put together whatever all-star group of people you want. You can have a Jimi Hendrix guitar line, Miles Davis playing a horn, and then a drum loop from a James Brown record or whatever. You know what I mean? You can have any kind of juxtaposition or Funky Four Plus One More.
You can have, like, this crazy combination of whomever and whatever and whenever all together however you like. To me that's what's so unique about sampling. It completely defies, like, what you could do in terms of getting people together and actually making music.
YAUCH: Yeah. Like there's a moment I love in a remix that we put together of we got Black Flagg guitar playing on top of a funky drummer James Brown beat. It's just cool that you have these different musicians playing together from these completely different styles of music and, you know, creating this other thing.
GROSS: Adam Yauch, your father's an architect? Do I have that right?
YAUCH: Yeah, but he's actually more of a painter. He went to art school for painting for a long time, and then he switched over to architecture. And he was - he did that for a while, and now he's gone back to painting, and I think he's...
HOROWITZ: Google him.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: What influence has that had on you?
YAUCH: Well, you know, I went to college for a couple years, and I remember I was mostly signing up for, like, music classes and, like, art classes and all kinds of things. And I remember my mom kind of being like: What are you doing? Like, if you're going to go to school, you've got to take some more academics. This is ridiculous. And my dad just kind of said to me, like: Do whatever you want. If you want to take art classes, just take art classes. I wouldn't worry about it.
GROSS: The Beastie Boys recorded in 2006. Adam Yauch died of cancer Friday at the age of 47. You can hear that entire 2006 interview on our website freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF CREDIT)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.