The Beastie Boys were a big part of my DJ career through the late 80s. Three cool dudes who not only made music…
Adam Yauch, a rapper and founder of the pioneering and multimillion-selling hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 47.
His mother, Frances Yauch, confirmed his death. He had been treated for cancer of the salivary gland for the last three years.
With a scratchy voice that grew scratchier through the years, Mr. Yauch rapped as MCA in the Beastie Boys, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. They offered many listeners in the 1980s their first exposure to hip-hop. They were vanguard white rappers who helped extend the art of sampling and gained the respect of their African-American peers.
While many hip-hop careers are brief, the Beastie Boys appealed not only to the fans they reached in the 1980s but to successive generations, making million-selling albums into the 2000s. They grew up without losing their sense of humor or their ear for a party beat.
Mr. Yauch (pronounced yowk) 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 — championing the cause of freedom in Tibet — and as keepers of old-school hip-hop memories. The Beastie Boys became an institution — one that could have arisen only amid the artistic, social and accidental connections of New York City.
In the history of hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were both improbable and perhaps inevitable: appreciators, popularizers and extrapolators of a culture they weren’t born into.
“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” said Rick Rubin, who produced the group’s 1986 debut album, in a recent interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”
The rapper Eminem said in a statement, “I think it’s obvious to anyone how big of an influence the Beastie Boys were on me and so many others.”
The Beastie Boys started their major-label career with two pivotal albums: “Licensed to Ill” (1986), a cornerstone of rap-rock that became the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard chart, and “Paul’s Boutique” (1989), a wildly eclectic, sample-based production that became a template for experimental hip-hop.
The Beasties brand expanded well beyond music: with their own magazine and record label, Grand Royal; with the social activism of Mr. Yauch’s Milarepa Foundation, which produced an international series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts; and with work in film, as Mr. Yauch (calling himself Nathanial Hörnblowér) directed Beastie Boys videos and went on to start Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film production and distribution company.
The Beastie Boys’ appeal endured. Into the 2000s they could headline large events like theCoachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Each of their albums up to “To the Five Boroughs” in 2004 has sold at least a million copies, and many of them have sold in the multimillions, in the United States alone.
“I burn the competition like a flame thrower/My rhymes they age like wine as I get older,” Mr. Yauch rapped on the Beastie Boys’ 2011 album, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.”
When they started rapping in 1983, the Beastie Boys — Mr. Yauch, Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D) — were greeted by some hip-hop purists as a novelty act. They were Jewish bohemians, not ghetto survivors; they were jokers, not battlers. Yet the Beastie Boys recorded for a label that was a bastion of New York hip-hop, Def Jam, and they toured alongside Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J.
They went on to garner admiration and influence with productions that kept coming up with surprises — including, eventually, the rappers’ playing instruments again — and with rhymes that would mingle humor, boasting and an increasing idealism. Even when the Beastie Boys were treated as a joke, it was a joke they would be in on for decades to come.
Adam Nathaniel Yauch was born on Aug. 5, 1964, in Brooklyn. Playing bass, he and Mr. Diamond started the Beastie Boys in 1981 as a hard-core punk band. The group’s original drummer, Kate Schellenbach, has said, “Whereas other bands, just as awful as the Beastie Boys, would actually believe they were good, for Mike and Adam the whole point was to be terrible and admit it.”
That group broke up after releasing an eight-song, seven-inch EP, “Polly Wog Stew.” The Beastie Boys reappeared in 1983 with Mr. Horovitz on guitar, and made “Cooky Puss,” a 12-inch single of prank phone call recordings over a rock guitar riff and hip-hop scratching. The group had been listening to New York hip-hop since the late 1970s.
Mr. Yauch once said that the Beasties had started rapping as a joke, but found that audiences liked it better than their punk-rock. Mr. Rubin, then a student at New York University, joined the group as a disc jockey. He also brought them to the attention of Russell Simmons, the manager of Run-D.M.C. and other leading hip-hop acts of the era. He added the Beasties to his roster.
When Mr. Rubin and Mr. Simmons started Def Jam, the Beastie Boys were one of the label’s first signings: catalog number DJ 002, in 1984, was the Beastie Boys’ single “Rock Hard.” The Beastie Boys toured with Madonna in 1985, to the confusion of pop audiences.
But with the 1986 release of “Licensed To Ill,” hip-hop pushed its way onto rock radio. The songs blasted rock guitar riffs from bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin behind the Beastie Boys’ cartoon-voiced rhymes about girls, drunken escapades, vandalism and guns. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” became a Top 10 single, and “Licensed to Ill” went on to sell more than nine million copies in the United States. The group toured with a stage set including caged go-go dancers and a 20-foot hydraulic penis.
The Beasties parted ways with Mr. Rubin and Def Jam amid a lawsuit over royalties. On “Paul’s Boutique,” their first album for Capitol, they worked with the Dust Brothers production team. The results were innovative, densely packed tracks that quick-cut amid rock, funk, jazz and more; meanwhile, the rappers shared the lyrics so thoroughly that all three might rap a word or two in a single line. The album went on to sell two million copies, and musicians inside and outside hip-hop have praised it as a landmark.
In 1992, the Beastie Boys expanded their ambitions as tastemakers by starting a label, Grand Royal, in association with Capitol. The label released music by, among others, At the Drive-In, Sean Lennon, Atari Teenage Riot and Jimmy Eat World. They also started Grand Royal magazine, which delved into fashion and movies as well as music. But those efforts lost money, and shut down in 2001.
With their album “Check Your Head” in 1992, the Beastie Boys began featuring their own instruments. They would go on to make an instrumental album, “The Mix-Up,” in 2007, which won a Grammy Award.
While the Beastie Boys’ music continued to offer a crunching, squealing good time during the 1990s, the rhymes it carried grew more mature. Vandalism was replaced by constructive thoughts, and offhand sexism was replaced by explicit respect for women. After travels in Tibet and Nepal, Mr. Yauch became a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. On the Beastie Boys’ 1994 album, “Ill Communication,” he rapped “Bodhisattva Vow,” a version of a pledge taken by devout Buddhists, over a hip-hop drumbeat mixed with the deep chanting of Buddhist monks. The Beasties also brought Buddhist monks to perform ceremonies at the 1994 Lollapalooza Festival.
In 1994 Mr. Yauch started the nonprofit Milarepa Fund, which presented the Tibetan Freedom Concert series to raise awareness of Chinese control of Tibet. The first one, in 1996, drew more than 100,000 people to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; concerts followed in New York, Washington, Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, Taipei and elsewhere. After Sept. 11, 2001, Milarepa organized New Yorkers Against Violence, offering relief efforts for victims of violence.
In 1998 he married Dechen Wangdu, who survives him along with their daughter, Tenzin Losel; and his parents, Frances and Noel Yauch.
Yet onstage and on albums, the Beastie Boys never grew overly serious. Mr. Yauch directed Beastie Boys videos, including “So Whatcha Want,” “Intergalactic,” “Body Movin’ ” and “Ch-Check It Out,” with a deft touch for slapstick and retro references. He also directed a 2006 documentary made from footage shot by Beasties fans, and a 2008 basketball documentary, “Gunnin’ for That No. 1 Spot.”
Mr. Yauch moved into film distribution and production with Oscilloscope Laboratories, operating it like an independent record label where everything was done in-house. Oscilloscope’s first releases, small indie films and documentaries, were modest in critical reception and box office, but the company quickly scaled up.
In 2009 Oscilloscope drew recognition for Oren Moverman’s military drama “The Messenger,” including Oscar nominations for best original screenplay and best supporting actor (Woody Harrelson). Another Oscar nomination, for the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” followed.
Oscilloscope has continued to release films that often do not shy away from difficult topics, like a Columbine-style killing in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the documentary “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” It also kept a hand in music with documentaries like “Shut Up and Play the Hits,” about the band LCD Soundsystem. In his brief film career, Mr. Yauch had the respect of many veteran industry players, earning a reputation for nurturing films and filmmakers that others wouldn’t touch.
After his cancer diagnosis in 2009, Mr. Yauch went under extensive treatment. But he was eventually able to participate in the recording of “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,” which is full of songs celebrating the sound and bygone figures of the 1980s New York City — uptown and downtown — that had nurtured the Beastie Boys.
Son of Neckbone by Beastie Boys from the album The In Sound From Way Out! (Capitol Records 1996)