1987. I’ve just moved to Brockville Ontario from Greensboro North Carolina. It’s winter, and I’ve been settling in for a few months when one night while doing homework I hear “Fight for your Right” on the radio. Homework for that moment is forgotten. I don’t know who the “Beastie Boys” are but to a 13 year old’s ears, it’s the greatest song I’ve ever heard. The fact it pisses off your parents makes it even better. At a talent show later that spring, three schoolmates perform the entire song a capella. It’s one of the funniest things the town has ever witnessed.
1989. You cannot escape “Hey Ladies”. Not on radio, not on Much Music – the video helps kick off the late 80s/early 90s nostalgia for all things 1970s. I’m in Toronto on one of many visits to a friend and he’s just picked up Paul’s Boutique. It’s nothing like Licensed to Ill – it’s better, deeper, more complex. “Shadrach” is my favorite track. My friend calls it “their Sgt. Pepper” – a line I will re-use in Mixtape #3 some 23 years later. Thing is, he’s right – it is their Sgt. Pepper, and a landmark album for the genre. Naturally it underperforms. It’s too ahead of its time.
1992. Careening towards high school graduation and an uncertain future, the Boys check back in with “Check Your Head”. They pick up instruments and lay down some of the most ferocious grooves you’re to hear in a world where the radio is blasting Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Nirvana. Blasting “Gratitude” on my car stereo nearly blows out the speakers it’s so heavy. White suburban kids who claim to hate rap (“it’s crap minus the c”) become converts to the Temple of the Beasties. College starts in the fall and you can’t escape this album. It blasts from dorms everywhere.
1994. Alternative Nation has been wounded by the suicide of Kurt Cobain and a cloud has settled over the scene, and over that year’s Lollapalooza tour. The Toronto date is blanketed with rain, and for the first four sets everyone’s miserable. Then the PA plays “All Apologies” and soon the crowd is singing along. The sun breaks through the clouds and a mighty roar pushes the rest of them off. Then, The Beastie Boys take to the stage, and somehow manage to blow the roof off an open-air show. They’re the shot in the arm a sodden and soggy crowd needs, and of everyone the Beasties look like they’re having more fun than anyone else. It’s my first time seeing them.
1998. Music has occupied a smaller portion of my life. Focus is on work, on movies, on keeping a roof over my head, but there’s still room for the Beastie Boys. The giant monster vs. giant robot video for “Intergalactic” even impresses my roommate, who’s not a fan of the Beasties or popular music in general. Followed by their brilliant song and video for “Body Movin’” (channeling Maria Bava’s Danger: Diabolik — both directed by Adam “MCA” Yauch as Nathanial Hornblower), a lot of people like him realize that the Beasties are legitimate goddamn artists. You don’t have to look far for someone who claims they “don’t like Hip-Hop” and still like the Beastie Boys.
2004. My second time seeing the Beastie Boys, as they tour “To the 5 Boroughs”. Once again, the Beasties bring it and then some. They come around again a couple years later, and I see them again, and again, they look like they’re having more fun than any of us.
2008. I live in one of those five boroughs. So does a college friend of mine. She offhandedly mentions she works in the same building that houses Oscilloscope Labs, the Beasties’ company, and she occasionally sees them – MCA, usually, arriving at work on his bike. I am insanely jealous and plot to hang around there one day to have a Beastie sighting, but I never do. I mean, what am I going to say? “You guys rule? You’re ‘ill’?” They already know that.
And now it’s over.
In a way we knew it was over when only two of them showed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, having had to cancel plans to perform because MCA was too sick. We hoped it was a minor setback, but it was not. You won’t see the Beasties perform again, and they have too much integrity to open the vaults and keep that money machine going. You can’t have the Beastie Boys with only two. You need three MCs and one DJ. Otherwise it’s not them.
That morning a storm rolled through the area. Lightning crashed and thunder boomed, and rains fell for a short time. Then, the storm moved off and the sun came out, like it did eighteen years earlier in a muddy field outside Toronto. Then we heard Adam Yauch had gone.
In the Buddist tradition the moment of death is marked by raucous noise, to usher their spirit to the next journey. I like to think that was that storm’s purpose; to tell Adam how much a generation appreciated everything his music did for them. It wasn’t really a storm or rain though; it was MCA showing New York how to rock a block party ’til your hair turns grey.