Adam Yauch, aka MCA, one of the three emcees from seminal hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, died today of cancer at the age of 47. Part New York City legend, part musical pioneer, Yauch is already dearly missed if Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media sites are any indication. For a moment this morning, Beastie Boys references made up all 10 top trending topics on Twitter. Music moguls like Russell Simmons, whose Def Jam label released the first Beastie Boys record, Licensed to Ill, in 1986, have also expressed their condolences. But while lots of people are mourning the loss of one of their favorite musicians and activists (Yauch's dedication to causes like freeing Tibet were nearly as famous as his music), I mourn a different loss, one of an unintentional civil rights advocate.
Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, urban culture was sometimes hard for me to come by. I started listening to hip-hop early because I had two music-obsessed older brothers who had sought out rap LPs on vinyl for years. Were it not for them, however, my exposure to the genre would have been close to nil. Big rap shows never came through my hometown, and the one time I got tickets to see the Wu-Tang Clan in Phoenix, the show ended up falling on a day I had to go to a soccer tournament in California (only five of the notoriously unreliable Clan ended up showing, so it wasn't a major loss). Years later, when I went away to college, I'd get jealous listening to stories from my friends who grew up in Manhattan or Boston, places where there were serious rap talents, and serious rap-music record stores.
Exacerbating and precipitating the lack of a real hip-hop scene in Tucson was that only a handful of my friends cared about rap music as deeply as I did. Influenced by surf and punk culture wafting in from the California coast, most of my friends usually listened to Pinback or NOFX or Blink-182—all bands that I loved, but decidedly not hip-hop. "Who cares about rap anyway?" I remember a friend saying in 6th grade. "It's just idiots talking." I was surprised at how hurt I was when he said that, as if he'd just insulted me or my family. In a way, rap music started to feel like that: a sibling I had to stand up for when the other kids picked on him, calling him stupid and simple while wearing their baggy Nirvana t-shirts.
On January 28, 1994, everything changed. That's the day the Beastie Boys single "Sabotage" was released, and that's the day rap music became cool to all my rock-obsessed friends in Tucson. The song itself was catchy, with the kind of punk bent that inflected most of the Beasties' songs, and the kind of easy-to-scream hook adolescent boys love. Beyond that, the music video, a Spike Jonze send-up of old '70s cop shows, was basically a mini-action movie, full of car chases and people tackling each other into garbage. It was no surprise when "the Sabotage cops" were the most popular costume among my friends on Halloween that year.
Like someone who nibbles a bit of bacon and then wonders what the rest of the pig tastes like, soon, dozens of kids I grew up with who loved the Beastie Boys began trekking to Sam Goody (remember those?) to check out what this rap thing was all about. There they found artists like the Beasties' label-mates (LL Cool J, Run-DMC) and other rap groups with whom they were friendly (Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest). It wasn't until I was older that I realized the racial implications of what had happened there.
My friend and colleague Dylan said today that the Beastie Boys were a kind of racial Trojan horse, which is probably the best term for it. Though they didn't like to talk about their whiteness much, Yauch and his band mates, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, were middle-class Jewish kids who received great educations (Yauch dropped out of Bard after his sophomore year). They were not cut from the same cloth as the poverty-stricken black dudes who launched the hip-hop scene in the South Bronx. My friends in Tucson couldn't relate to people like KRS-One or Chuck D, angry black men who served as some of the first flag-bearers for rap. But they could relate to the Beastie Boys, a few white guys from good homes who liked to drink beer and have fun. They even had youth in their name. They were boys, just like us.
I'm not sure if Yauch and his group ever considered what they were accomplishing just by being themselves and playing the music they wanted to play. Sometimes people who do important things have no idea how important they are; they're just doing what they feel they were made to do. In my hometown, the Beastie Boys opened up countless kids' eyes to a musical genre they might otherwise have gone their whole lives ignoring. To be frank, I was never a fan of the Beasties—I found their beats a bit grating, and their rhymes a bit simplistic—but I love them in the way that I love anyone who's able to smack some sense into people and make them realize that what a person does is vastly more important than what their skin looks like.
Perhaps tonight you'll drink a beer and remember the first Beastie Boys show you attended. I'll drink a beer and remember the time I nodded politely along to the robotic chorus of "Intergalactic" with my friend who years before had said nobody should care about rap. I'll toast to bridging racial divides, and caring about everything you initially thought you shouldn't.