I had a bad feeling when Adam Yauch was a no-show for the Beastie Boys‘ induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall o’ Fame in April. So, while I was not surprised, I was saddened to learn of his death from cancer at the age of 47.
The Beastie Boys were not my favorite band growing up. (That would be The Police.) They had an impact on my generation (X), however, that is worth acknowledging. Only a few years older than me, the Beasties burst onto the national scene when I was still in high school. As girl from the suburbs of a small Southern city, whose first album was REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity and first concert was the J. Geils Band (with Hall & Oates!), I found the Beastie Boys to be something of a breath of fresh air. For me, they symbolized New York and the urban, East Coast, post-racial America that I had yet to experience.
I did see the Beastie Boys once, when they toured with Madonna in 1985 on the Virgin Tour, but that was purely by accident since I was going for Madonna and didn’t even know who was opening. Quite honestly, I couldn’t really tell Beastie Boys apart. They all had dark hair and, what with the VW gold chains and sunglasses and baseball caps and hats and all, they weren’t that distinguishable. They were named either “Mike” or “Adam”, so take your pick. Sure, they had nicknames – “MCA” was Adam Yauch and “Ad-Rock” was Adam Horovitz – but unlike Sting and The Police, it didn’t really matter too much to me who was who in the Beastie Boys.
“Enough of this hip hop! Bring on the Material Girl!” That’s what I mostly remember thinking during their set.
License to Ill came out in 1986. I didn’t own it on cassette or LP but plenty of people at my college must have, because (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party) was de rigueur for dorm room parties. Along with UB40’s Red, Red Wine and Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, it was the soundtrack for my early college social life. I can still close my eyes and flashback through the entire MTV video, complete with the nerds saying, “We’ll invite all our friends and have soda and pie!” and “I hope no bad people come!” The Beasties’ exuberant “KICK IT!” still echoes in my head 25 years later.
Never what you would call a fan, I pretty much lost interest in the Beastie Boys after License to Ill. Frankly, pulling stunts like having girls dancing around in cages at their concerts didn’t help much.
I came back to the Beasties in the mid-1990s. But not really because of their music.
Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (MCA a.k.a. Nathanial Hörnblowér) had become a human rights activist. He started a non-profit called the Milarepa Fund in 1994 to support Tibetan independence from China. Royalties from the Beastie Boys’ 1994 songs Shambala and Bodhisattva Vow (from the Ill Communication album) were dedicated to the Milarepa Fund and the fight for freedom for Tibet. They sponsored an information tent on Tibetan human rights at Lollapalooza and performed concerts to raise money for the cause. In 1996, Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert. The largest benefit concert in the US since 1985’s Live Aid, it attracted 100,000 people and raise more than $800,000. Additional Tibetan Freedom Concerts were held on four continents in 1999.
It turns out that the Beastie Boys had principles and they were not afraid to use them. Shortly after the bombings at US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Adam Yauch used his time at the microphone at the 1998 MTV Music Awards ceremony to talk about stereotyping Muslims as terrorists. “It’s kind of a rare opportunity that we get to speak to this many people at once,” he said. “So, if you guys will forgive me I just want to speak my mind for a while.” He went on – prophetically, it seems now – to speak about the U.S. government’s military aggression in the Middle East and the growing climate of racism towards Muslims and Arabic people. “The United States has to start respecting people from the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that’s been building up over many years.
Another issue that the Beastie Boys took on directly was the rights of women. They’ve been rapping against domestic violence (“Why you got to treat your girl like that?”) at least since Paul’s Boutique. When it was announced that Adam Yauch had died, my friends on Twitter lit up the night with lyrics like “I’m gonna say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect of women has got to be through/ To all our mothers and our sisters and our wives and friends/ I want to offer my love and respect to the end” (from Sure Shot). Song For The Man was written after Adam Horovitz observed the overt sexism – and blatant harassment of a woman – by a couple of guys on a train. If more men spoke out like the Beasties, the world would be a better place.
At the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, when the Beastie Boys won the award for Best Hip Hop Video for Intergalactic, Adam Horovitz spoke about the problem of sexual assaults and rapes at Woodstock 99. He made the pitch for bands and concert venues to provide more security to better protect women.
The Beastie Boys have continued their political activism into the 2000s. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, for example, they organized and headlined the New Yorkers Against Violence Concert in October 2001. The concert proceeds went to the New York Women’s Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Association for New Americans.
Adam Yauch with his daughter at an Amnesty International Event
I’ve been thinking about the life of Adam Yauch, which ended far too soon, and have come to realize that the Beastie Boys not only helped define the formative experiences of my generation but they are also representative of many of the traits of Generation X. Wikipedia has this to say about us: “When compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more heterogeneous generation, exhibiting great variety of diversity in such aspects as race, class, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.” The Beasties, in freely crossing music boundaries between punk and hip hop and alternative, certainly are illustrative of this heterogeneity and diversity.
But I think that another of our generational traits is the ability to change. (I love this quote from Wikipedia: “Change is more the rule for the people of Generation X than the exception.“) The Beastie Boys were no different from many of us who were, in our youth, racist, sexist, and/or homophobic dorks. America was just a less tolerant place when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s. Not that that is an excuse for the many of us who stayed silent and went along with the crowd rather than speaking up for what was right.
Like the Beasties, however, most of us have grown up and figured out that our actions – and our inactions -have consequences. As Adam Yauch once pointed out, “Every one of us affects the world constantly through our actions.” To not take advantage of second chances would be a mistake. Like Adam Yauch and the Beasties, we should take advantage of every opportunity to take action for good.
Most of the Gen Xers I know will, like the Beastie Boys, freely acknowledge our past immaturity, our arrogance and stupidity, and accept it without embarassment. Most of us embrace change as the only way forward, even though it sometimes means also accepting criticism. Adam Horovitz has a great quote that pretty much sums up this point:
“… (Y)ou might say that the Beastie Boy ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’ guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but in this f***ed up world all you can hope for is change, and I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.”
That’s a pretty good lesson for anyone, regardless of what generation you come from.
The other thing that I think that Adam Yauch and the Beasties symbolize for my generation is the ability to age with nimble good humor and some small modicum of coolness. To acknowledge we are aging, to joke about it, but to still be self-confident enough to hang with the young ‘uns – this I see as a generational shift. (Nothing, by the way, in the definition of Generation X on Wikipedia mentions this particular trait.) Maybe this is just another aspect of our ability to change, but the first minute or so of this video of the Beasties playing POW and Shambala live will give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
I’m sorry that Adam Yauch, a.k.a.MCA, a.k.a. Nathaniel Hornblower, won’t be continuing this Gen X journey with the rest of us. I hope he knows that he left a legacy here on Earth that is bigger than his music. Wherever his soul resides now, I hope that Adam Yauch is still kickin’ it.