Gen Y super fan recalls stumbling upon Beastie Boys’ ‘So What’Cha Want’ and falling for ‘three men from New York who rapped and rocked.’
By Rya Backer
On Friday (May 4), news broke that Adam “MCA” Yauch had died at age 47 and I found myself working on what is easily the most difficult piece I’ve ever had to write. Because it’s something I’ve never wanted nor intended to write.
You see, the Beastie Boys are my favorite band of all time. I stumbled upon the “So What’Cha Want” video when I was very young and impressionable and maybe a little too mature for my age, and remained steadfastly obsessed with the three men from New York who rapped, rocked and sometimes just played their instruments.
They were my band, and I related to them, perhaps at the most base level: We’re all New York City Jews who would’ve been described as “eccentric” growing up — Ad-Rock and I had even shared a history teacher, which was a really big deal to my 6th grade self. Needless to say, my devotion to them soon became a part of my identity.
And while they’ve now been woven into the fabric of our country’s pop-cultural identity, to me, the Beastie Boys are also quintessentially the Great American Band. Yes, they helped bring hip-hop to the suburbs with their debut, Licensed to Ill, you’ve heard that part before. But their body of work was incomparable, often cited and never replicated. Moreover, they never broke up, even after more than 30 years together (their first gig was at Yauch’s 17th birthday), a rare feat for most any popular act. And their influence was absolutely singular.
I’m certain I’m not the only one who loves Sonic Youth, Beck, Bad Brains or Tribe Called Quest because of the Beasties’ seal of approval. They were the cool, older brothers you didn’t have, serving as barometers of what was hip and why you should care. I guess what I’m trying to say is — like Yauch — I’m an only child, and I don’t know what kind of person I would’ve become if it weren’t for the Beastie Boys’ direction. I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t be here working at MTV News.
“Charity” is an interesting word when it comes to the Beasties, and especially when it comes to Yauch, because he gave so much to others. (At one point, he expressed a desire to relinquish his royalties to the cause of a free Tibet.) I remember being devastated when my bat mitzvah fell on the exact date of the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert, where the trio was performing. Three years later, I was devastated for a very different reason, when our city was under attack. I attended the New Yorkers Against Violence concert with my mother, who wanted to finally see for herself just what it was about the Beastie Boys that was so vital to me. We posted up against the railing that separated us from the the VIP area, and while I rocked out to the likes of Rival Schools and Cibo Matto, my mother took to playing with an adorable baby who was being held by her mother in VIP.
At one point, the baby’s father came out and my mother’s jaw dropped. She grabbed my wrist: It was MCA. In a moment that would be forever etched in my memory, I registered seeing him for the first time as a man with a family. My mother (as only a sweet Jewish mother could do) tapped him on the shoulder and assured him that his #1 fan was but inches away. I honestly don’t remember much of what I told him, except how incredibly grateful I was for his work … and I’m pretty sure I cried.
I saw MCA again just last year at a screening of “Fight for Your Right Revisited.” He looked frail but, once again, he was there with his wife and daughter. He looked whole and happy in their company, and that’s all that mattered.
When I first joined MTV News in January 2008, my only goal was to interview the Beastie Boys. Nearly four-and-a-half years later, I assisted in writing his obituary. Later, I’d even work on a live MTV tribute show dedicated to him, “Adam Yauch: Remembering a Beastie Boy.” I wish that wasn’t the case, but these things happen, right? So what can we learn from this? Yes, Cancer is a horrible disease capable of cutting through no matter what sort of lifestyle you’ve adopted. But I also hope we’ve learned that people need to be enjoyed and appreciated while they’re still here.
I’ve made a point to listen to a Beastie Boys album every week, even when, let’s face it, it wasn’t that hip to like them. I particularly made sure, following his 2009 diagnosis, because I knew this day might come. You’re never ready for it but, like I said, these things happen. And I’m sure Yauch would assure us that this lesson applies to so much more beyond his band.
When I first heard the news of Yauch’s passing, I cried a different set of tears. I was sad that a part of myself that I’d so long been connected to is gone and I can never get it back. I was sad that I didn’t see them that one last time at a 2008 fundraiser, and sad, too, that we’ll never hear anything else from a group that has already given us so much. Mostly though, I was sad because I know that Yauch’s daughter will never again have that moment of familial bliss between a daughter and her dad.
Share your condolences for MCA’s family, friends and fans in the comments below.