A tribute to MCA, the Beastie Boys, and the power of music and sports

This morning, Doug referenced the death of Adam Yauch, otherwise known as MCA, of the legendary rap trio, The Beastie Boys.

This event, of course, has nothing directly to do with the Denver Broncos and football.  And yet, on some level, it does.  That's because it provides the ability to reflect on those rare spaces--the crevices, if you will--of American culture in which America really is greater than the sum of its parts.

A brief explanation is in order.  Since the 1960s there have been two particular areas of American culture in which race (however we choose to define this term), class, and all other manner of categorical classifications blend and morph into the America we all puport we want and export across the world--a true melting pot.  This was never more true than in the 1980s.  This was the era in which we saw the emergence of the black quarterback in the NFL; further, we began seeing the fusion of music that had traditionally been considered black (hip-hop and rap) with music that had been considered white (rock). You saw the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, blending funk and rock, but also the collaboration of diverse groups like Aerosmith and Run DMC, with the insanely popular remake of the Aerosmith song Walk This Way. This continued when Public Enemy (Fight the Goodell) and Anthrax combined to remake Public Enemy's Bring The Noise.

The Beastie Boys were a huge part of this fusion.  They started as a punk band, morphed into a rap trio, and sold millions of records fueled with songs that seemed perfect for white frat boys (is there any other kind?) holding plastic cups, getting hammered off cheap beer, and grab-assing into the night--all while being able to dip their toes into the rap genre.  As Rick Rubin said in the New York Times: "As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

If there ever was a song that describes this perfectly, it was this Beastie Boys classic from 1986:

For their second album, Paul's Boutique, this fusion became even more evident through the intensive use of sampling (setting the stage for other bands in the late 90s). Here's an example that clearly demonstrates as many layers as you'll ever hope for (including a cowbell):

As the Beasties got older, their sound changed numerous times.  Yauch's voice, however, was unmistakable.  Of the three Beasties, his voice was always the deepest and the most like sandpaper.  It carried weight. It was never clearer than in this video, So What'cha Want from the Beasties in 1992:

This video, which Yauch directed, is also a personal favorite of mine becaue of its allusion to the infrared horror classic, Wolfen.  You just can't get enough Gregory Hines and werewolves.

As they matured, the Beasties also grew up, and in the mid-1990s, Yauch became a Buddhist.  He was active in the movement for an independent and free Tibet.  He was also as much of an indie-film buff as he was a rapper.

In the end, however, Yauch and The Beastie Boys will be forever linked to the fusion of musical genres, the lowering of racial stereotypes (sorry, Vanilla Ice, you can't claim this mantle), and the biggest melting pot in the world: New York City.  They'll also have done what only music and sports seem to be able to do with any consistency--remove the barriers (political, socioeconomic, or racial) that separate us without us noticing.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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