Most of us, I imagine, would wish to eventually receive obituaries far different from the ones we’d have had if we’d died at age 22 — not just because we’d accomplished different things in the years since, but because we’d turned out to be completely different people. Better ones, preferably. Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boys’ MCA, started off lending the crew the gravity of his hangdog look and rough scrape of a voice, which kept them from seeming like full-on jokers; he went on to give them the gravity of moral purpose and spiritual curiosity, which kept them from seeming aimlessly hip; and he wound up, this weekend, with obituaries marveling at precisely that capacity for growth. It’s not a superpower, by any stretch, but it’s not a small thing, either: Success in the entertainment industry does seem to have a way of sucking that capacity right out of people. And in music, especially, it is very easy to make life seem fun when you are young and a goon and the list of things you care about is still short and tenuous, but it gets trickier as you go along.
To get perspective on this, it helps to remind yourself of the extent to which someone might have looked on the early Beasties, untouched by nostalgia, as horrible little pricks. Dan Charnas over at Spin has written some well-deserved praise for the sub-generation of New Yorkers the group came out of — teenagers at a point when both punk and hip-hop still had a wide-open freshness, and the streets and buildings of downtown Manhattan could be a candy store for a certain kind of kid. A different time, he says: “They picked the fashions before you could order them from a catalog or buy them from a boutique.” (Though if you want a sense of how crucial these folks might have been to the revitalization of American cities, consider the part where they start the catalogues, boutiques, and labels. In 1994, a Beastie Boys profile in this magazine described an X-Girl fashion show as “ski caps, old-school suede Pumas, corduroy jackets, skateboards, and midriff tops as far as the eye can see,” and suggested that “anyone under 35 who is doing anything creative in New York or L.A. is at some point sucked into the Beasties’ vortex.”) “They weren’t ‘ironically racist,’” Charnas says. “They were humble.” Except people very frequently described the Beastie Boys as superlatively arrogant kids, and they did drop an N-bomb at the Apollo (despite black associates warning them not to), and their giggly sexism and homophobia were actually pretty similar in tone to what we now call “ironic racism.” They enjoyed riding around in a limo throwing eggs at people and were mercifully prevented from titling their debut Don’t Be a Faggot. (Sometimes major labels get things right.) They were a little trollish. Kate Schellenbach, an early member — sidelined when they put on tracksuits and started rapping about girls — blamed that attitude on the influence of producer Rick Rubin and helpfully pointed out that Rubin wasn’t one of those open, humble, curious city kids: He was from Long Island and a highly successful believer in “the entertainment value of being obnoxious.” As were the Beastie Boys, at least temporarily.
At that point, I was too young to have much sense of what the wider world made of them (also, dumb enough to stand up in front of a school gymnasium full of adults and beat-box while another kid rapped all the parts from “Paul Revere”), but today it makes for a fun intellectual exercise to imagine the modern Internet somehow getting a chance to chew on License to Ill — the kids of New York art-world types running around being gleeful trollish pranksters, rapping about “girlies” and whiffle-ball bats. I picture every bit of irritable press on Odd Future (nihilist wiseacres!) and every bit on Girls (the parents!) and every bit on Kreayshawn (parodic white rappers!), all multiplied by a No. 1 rap album, the world’s first, that might as well have been government-issued to every last adolescent American, or at least a friend with an accommodating basement.
And yet, the group was mostly adorable. (“If you don’t like the joke,” wrote critic Robert Christgau, “you might as well put your money where your funnybone is and send a check to the PMRC.”) They were protected by whiteness, which gave them a lane to occupy; they could stick to the side of hip-hop that was all mad-scientist sonic lab work and goofy youth-crew camaraderie, even as the crack era started pulling black rappers toward questions of survival. They were protected, initially, by the logic of boys-will-be-boys. But mostly there was a genuine sense that what radiated from the music was the good cheer of three friends entertaining themselves, not so much anger or aggression toward anyone else. In retrospect, the obnoxious phase sounds distinctly lovable, which might be because they dropped it fast and leapt right back into the world Charnas describes: something open-ended, gleefully creative, and still keen on the sound of kids amusing one another.
Yauch, by most reports, had the hardest, darkest time with the group’s success; he’s the one who’s said to have wound up drunk under the BQE, shooting things. His eventual spiritual awakening involved embracing Buddhism and snowboarding through Tibet. If this now scans as the most nineties-style spiritual awakening a person could possibly have, well, there’s a chicken-and-egg quality to that: When Yauch found it, it wasn’t even really the nineties yet, and his group turned out to be the kind of institution that could actually affect what the youth of America were going to spend the decade thinking of as cool. They wound up offering earnest activism, Tibetan freedom, Buddhism, thoughtful adulthood, clothes that still look far less embarrassing than what people on television were wearing at the time, videos that steered the entire course of what videos might be like (thanks in part to Nathaniel Hornblower, Yauch’s director alter ego), a magazine and label that introduced countless kids to formerly obscure bits of art and music and style (in the same spirit as that pre-boutique era of downtown Manhattan) — not to mention Oscilloscope, the film distribution company Yauch co-founded — and albums that pulled from a rich primordial stew of punk, hip-hop, and funk, samples and synths and live instruments, blurts of hardcore melting into snatches of jazz and fragments of most everything else.
Most everything they did managed to make life seem full of grand opportunities and fun, even more fun than youthful obnoxiousness.
It’s not as if this is the world’s most heroic story. Three people are born with various advantages, in an interesting time and place; their energetic youthful obnoxiousness nets them a smash record and an opportunity to do almost anything they want; and after a little while spent pulling pranks or snowboarding on acid, the three of them, with Yauch strong at the forefront, figure out a way to grow up into different men who seem decent, warm, happy, and committed to meaningful things. But it’s a great and inspiring thing to watch someone in a band be that good at developing as a human being, that good at demonstrating that the world is full of exciting things to be humble and curious about. And it’s a terrific shame to lose him at 47, because he really seemed like he’d have spent the coming years earning himself obituaries far different from ones he’s getting even now.