‘Celebrity deaths’ don’t tend to have much of an effect on me; after all, I didn’t know these people and beyond a selfishness that they will no longer do whatever it is they did to entertain me, there’s no reason it should bother me. But sometimes they just do.
I’ve actually defended odd outpourings of grief for strangers in recent years (Whitney Houston, for example), mainly since the death of alternative DJ John Peel. I had met the Peel on just three occasions, if you can call it meeting – I’d nervously bimbled up to him at a couple of gigs for a quick chat and had a rock ‘n’ roll hour-or-so in his company backstage at Reading in 1991. So he never knew my name or anything, but when he died it was a real punch in the stomach as his radio show had such a big impact on my life.
It’s the same with the passing of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who tragically lost his battle with cancer at the start of May. This was a man I’d never met at all, but it didn’t stop it taking the wind out of my sails.
There are enough indirect connections for it to make sense, at least to me. An obvious one is losing my mother to cancer about five years ago, which has added an extra level of dread to the ‘C’ word ever since and has given me added empathy towards anyone else suffering this dreadful illness (directly and indirectly). But it goes a lot further than that.
I don’t remember when I first heard ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ – where I was, what I was doing etc etc. But I do know it was 1987, I was coming into myself as an ‘alternative’ music fan and album ‘Licensed To Ill’ became one of my most worn out tapes of the year.
So while Yauch (or MCA) was six years older than me, his band was discovering the blend of punk and hip hop at the same time I was channelling it through them. By the end of the 80s I was all about Pop Will Eat Itself, Gaye Bykers, Public Enemy and of course still the Beasties. I straddled that hip hop/indie divide as happily as they did.
I remember their Reading performance in 1992 really well. The same year third album ‘Check Your Head’ had come out, moving away from the straight hip hop of ‘Paul’s Boutique’ to a messy mix of punk and rap tracks. Everything at the festival was flooded, the Beasties were on stupidly early, the set was a bit of a mess, but it was one of my biggest highlights of a weekend packed with great bands (Wonderstuff, Public Enemy and Nirvana headlined).
While the Poppies were (and still are) my favourite band, the Beastie Boys nailed my favourite music genres perfectly too. For that, they will always have a special place in my heart. But it wasn’t just messing about – I think your average music fan doesn’t give them credit for what they achieved; for what they had a massive hand in pioneering. Their importance can’t be over emphasised.
Even nowadays, it’s still ‘Paul’s Boutique’ I play the most. This Dust Brothers inspired sample behemoth is as important today as it was then; there’s so much depth, it’s incredible. It shows what hip hop can be at its best – imaginative, intelligent and deep on one level but stupid, fun loving and childish at the same time. I don’t think any album before or after got that right as well as this one did.
I’ve been lucky enough to get to New York twice and both times I’ve made sure I’ve gone to Brooklyn, simply because of the Beasties. I love the “Hellooooo Brooklyn!” shout on ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’ and the bass that follows. It was kind of a pilgrimage, not that I really looked into it before the trip or went anywhere Beastie related – I’m not weird about it (well, maybe a bit). But I just wanted to have been, and that’s purely because of them.
I’ll never tire of that playfulness and humour that was always so important in their art, from the music to the videos. From the OTT and often nonsensical lyrics to the amazing visual productions for ‘Intergalactic’ and ‘Sabotage’, few artists have had a bigger glints in their eyes than MCA, Adrock and Mike D.
It’s not like I’ve got a favourite – it was the energy and synergy the three created together that was key. It’s Yauch that has passed away, but with him has gone The Beastie Boys – giving another miserable reminder of our own mortality.
But I don’t want to drag things down; Yauch’s Beastie Boys have brought me a lot of joy over the last 25 years and it’s something worth celebrating. And beyond the music, Yauch had so much to offer. He produced the ‘Intergalactic’ video for one thing, while at the other end of the scale he was a Buddhist who worked tirelessly to defend the rights of Tibetans. He made music, he made videos, but he also made an impression on the world beyond that.
To end on a positive and appropriately daft note (if this is to be a celebration), despite the elaborate Beastie Boys videos, my favourite is ‘Three MCs and One DJ’ – another one produced by Yauch himself. For me it encapsulates everything right about The Beastie Boys and why I’m going to miss the hell out of them. Whether they carry on or not, something special has ended this month. Adios, MCA.