RIP Adam Yauch: Eric J. Lawrence Pays Tribute

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Perhaps his absence at the Beasties’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past month should have been a serious warning. A whole album, Hot Sauce Committee, Part One, was delayed in 2009, ostensibly due to Yauch’s illness. It would be a sad and seemingly unfair conclusion to the career of one of the most innovative and consistently reliable hip-hop crews.

The Beastie Boys began as a hardcore punk band while the trio of Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA were in high school in the late 70s (Yauch was the bassist, which he continued to play throughout the Beasties’ career), but morphed into a rap act after their single, “Cookie Puss,” became an underground hit in 1983. Their 1986 debut album, Licensed to Ill, was produced by Rick Rubin (who had made a name for himself through his production of fellow hip-hop pioneers, Run-D.M.C.), and established their sound as using heavy, classic-rock-inspired beats to rap sophomoric rhymes over. Undoubtedly their presence as white kids embracing the hip-hop image helped expand rap’s exposure to a wider audience. Despite their huge commercial success with the record (it hit #1 on the Billboard album chart & sold over 9 million copies), it was their 1989 follow-up, Paul’s Boutique that defeated the notion of their being an idiot savant-like one-hit wonder and cemented their status in the hip-hop community as a true pioneering band. Their creative, almost-psychedelic use of sampling set the bar for the limitless possibilities of the genre.

Over the next two decades they continued to release dynamic (and popular) albums, including their 1999 Grammy Award-winning Hello Nasty and their 2008 instrumental album, The Mix-Up (another Grammy winner). Their 8th album, last year’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, debuted at #2 on the Billboard chart, and featured contributions from Nas and Santigold (as well as longtime contributors, keyboard player Money Mark and renowned turntablist Mix Master Mike), showing their affection for the rest of the hip-hop community, as well as keeping an eye on the future.

Yauch’s absence makes it hard to imagine that the band will continue. He was the band’s videographer, directing many of their award-winning music videos. As a practicing Buddhist, he was instrumental in helping shift the Beasties image from partying goofballs to more socially-conscious commentators, participating in and co-organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the late 90s and the New Yorkers Against Violence Concert in October 2001. But the legacy left by Yauch and the Beastie Boys lives on, with a spirit of fun, creativity and, despite their insistence on fighting for the right to party, serious intelligence.