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Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys: love and respect to final end
I try to make my every action for that highest good
With the altruistic wish to achieve Buddhahood
So I pledge here before everyone who's listening
To make my every action for the good of all beings.
— MCA and Beastie Boys, “Bodhisattva Vow”
Adam Yauch helped turn Beastie Boys into men, and for Beastie fans of a certain age, he was the example. The first time most people saw MCA, he beat himself in the head with his own shoe, kicked down the door to a nerd party, grabbed a beer out of a random partyer's hand, drank it, bounced the can off the guy's head, turned around and spit the beer into the next guy's face. That's the starting point for one of the great evolution stories in modern music.
My first copy of Beastie Boys' “Licensed to Ill” was a counterfeit cassette that sounded like it was about six generations removed from the original master and had been run over by a jitney on its way to the bogus tape store in the Philippines where I bought it. That was my pre-Napster, Pacific Fleet way of testing the waters: it was January 1987 and “Fight for Your Right” was blowing up back home. I needed to know, and two bucks was two bucks.
And I'm certain that every centavo went to some criminal in Manila running dual decks 24 hours a day, but I made it up to the Yauch, who died May 4 at age 47, and his bandmates, Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz, by purchasing four distinct and legitimate copies of “Licensed to Ill,” including a digital version last year.
Each track on “Licensed to Ill” was designed to horrify authority, whether it was a parent, an early hip-hop purist or some uptight Led Zeppelin fan screaming, “Apostasy!” No other album in 1987 was played more at parties, and while “Licensed to Ill” is considered a fun but slight album compared to the ones that followed and the Beasties looked like the poster boys for future late-1980s nostalgia, with beer in one hand and a hot ticket to oblivion in the other. But the combination of tightly crafted smart stupidity and Rick Rubin's go-for-broke melding of classic rock with breakbeats makes it a classic.
Although my first “Licensed” was unlicensed, it became the foundation for rabid fandom — the foundation, but not the cornerstone. That status belongs to “Paul's Boutique,” a 1989 album that was such a colossal artistic leap beyond the bash-and-sneer punk-hop of “Licensed to Ill” that it still feels like a superhuman feat. Much is said and written about how the Dust Brothers' production created a kind of aural mosaic so brilliantly constructed from bites of vinyl that the form was practically outlawed within two years, but “Paul's Boutique” is a masterpiece largely because Yauch pushed his group to think bigger and deeper. It was like going from “Meet the Beatles” to “Abbey Road” in one move. They lost a lot of fans that they would have lost anyway, but they traded them in for loyal ones.