Adam “MCA” Yauch, the rapper, musician, activist, filmmaker and film distributor who founded pioneering hip-hop trio the Beastie Boys, as well as indie film production company Oscilloscope Laboratories, died on Friday in New York after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 47.
Yauch’s death was first announced by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, and was later confirmed by a statement from the band.
On behalf of Oscilloscope, Yauch’s colleagues Dan Berger, David Fenkel and David Laub issued a statement, saying: “We are deeply, deeply saddened by the passing of Adam Yauch — an amazing leader, a dear friend and an incredible human being. Today we are heartbroken at Oscilloscope as we take in this awful news and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. Adam’s legacy will remain a driving force at Oscilloscope — his indomitable spirit and his great passion for film, people and hard work — always with a sense of humor and a lot of heart.”
In a statement, Recording Academy prexy Neil Portnow called Yauch “an immense talent and a creative visionary,” as well as “a philanthropist who devoted much of his energy to his passionate support for freedom of expression.”
Yauch announced his illness in 2009, revealing that he had a cancerous parotid gland, which caused the Beastie Boys to cancel a number of scheduled appearances as he sought treatment. Yauch was absent from the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier last month.
As a founding member of the Beastie Boys, Yauch’s impact on hip-hop as both a commercially and artistically relevant genre is difficult to overstate. The group’s 1986 debut, “Licensed to Ill,” was the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and along with LL Cool J, effectively launched then-nascent label Def Jam. Later efforts from the Beasties were among the first to become equally successful on both rap and rock radio, and sophomore album “Paul’s Boutique” remains a landmark of the genre. The group has sold over 40 million albums worldwide.
In the group’s later years, Yauch would increasingly become the Beasties’ political conscience. A practicing Buddhist, Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits in the late 1990s, and was an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration.
Later venturing into filmmaking, Yauch would direct a number of musicvideos under alias Nathanial Hornblower, and later helmed full-length basketball documentary “Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot.” The latter was released through Yauch’s Oscilloscope shingle, which would go on to release Kelly Reichhardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Oscar-nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
Oscilloscope had just announced on Thursday that co-founder David Fenkel would step down as president of the four-year-old company and would move into a consulting role, while Dan Berger and David Laub were promoted to cooperatively oversee marketing, distribution and acquisitions. Though Yauch’s death came unexpectedly, there is no plan to divert from that course, insiders told Variety, and a spokeswoman said Fenkel would remain “intimately involved” with the company.
Yauch was born in Brooklyn in August of 1964, the only child of an architect father and a Jewish mother. He began playing bass guitar and formed his first band at age 17, eventually creating hardcore punk act the Beastie Boys. After some early changes, the group’s primary lineup consisted of Yauch, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Kate Schellenbach and Adam Berry. The group played the New York punk circuit and released EP “Polly Wog Stew” in 1982.
Berry would soon leave the band, replaced by Adam “King Ad-Rock” Horovitz. In 1983, the band recorded its first hip-hop song, “Cooky Puss,” which became a local novelty hit. Further experiments with hip-hop followed, and the group recruited NYU student Rick Rubin as its DJ. As Rubin and business partner Simmons began to kick their Def Jam record label into gear, the Beasties released 12″ “Rock Hard” for the label in 1985.
Schellenbach left the band that year, and the remaining trio — Yauch, Diamond and Horovitz — would become the consistent Beastie Boys lineup for the rest of the group’s career. Unlike most rap crews, which allocated whole verses to individual MCs, the Beasties functioned as a true collective, trading vocal duties from bar to bar, and frequently rapping in tandem. Yet Yauch’s gruff, growly baritone, as well as his rugged good looks, always distinguished him from his two bandmates.
After tours opening for Madonna and Run DMC, the group released the Rubin-produced, Def Jam-released “Licensed to Ill” in November of 1986, quickly spawning singles “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” “Paul Revere” and “Brass Monkey.” The album would remain at the pinnacle of the Billboard album chart for five straight weeks.
On the album, the Beasties adopted a pointedly crude, cartoonishly hedonistic approach that endeared them to young fans even as it caused alarm among critics and parental watchdog groups. (Even Rolling Stone’s positive review was published under the tagline “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece.”) The Beasties’ lyrics rarely contained anything worse than lewd schoolyard boasts, and the group’s sense of satire was clearly lost on many listeners, though their subsequent tour — which included substantial onstage beer consumption and a hydraulic penis prop — lead to a number of confrontations with local authorities.
The Beastie Boys left Def Jam following the tour and signed to Capitol Records — which they celebrated by smoking a joint atop the flagpole of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood — and began work with production duo the Dust Brothers on “Paul’s Boutique” in 1988. Compared to the runaway success of “Licensed,” “Paul’s Boutique” was a commercial disappointment, topping out at No. 14 on the charts. Yet artistically, it was viewed as a massive leap forward for the group. Containing well over 120 densely-layered samples, embracing a skewed, delirious surrealism with its lyrics, and ending with the protracted rap suite “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” the album became a critical touchstone, and left a substantial influence on such acts as De La Soul, the Pharcyde and DJ Shadow. (Even Miles Davis was reportedly a fan.)
The Beasties founded boutique imprint Grand Royal in association with Capitol in 1992 (the label’s first signing was former Beastie Schellenbach’s new band, Luscious Jackson), and released the more rock-influenced “Check Your Head” to a Top 10 berth in that same year. (The label would fold in 2001.) “Ill Communication” followed in 1994 and returned the band to the pinnacle of the charts, with lead-off single “Sabotage” becoming an MTV staple thanks to Spike Jonze’s iconic, policier-themed musicvideo. The group headlined the Lollapalooza tour that year, and Yauch founded Tibetan independence org the Milarepa Fund with activist Erin Potts, leading to a series of benefit concerts that culminated with the multi-day Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco in 1996.
1998’s “Hello Nasty” debuted at No. 1, and would fetch the group two Grammy Awards. 2004’s “To the Five Burroughs” notched the group a fourth No. 1 album, and 2008 instrumental album “The Mix-Up” earned it a third Grammy. After a two-year delay due to Yauch’s illness, “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” was released in 2011, and reached No. 2 on the charts.
Yauch was co-founder in 2008 of Gotham-based indie film and DVD distrib Oscilloscope Laboratories. The shingle, which also has a production arm, has grown in recent years into a player on the indie pic scene, particularly with documentary and music-driven fare. Yauch’s interest in the indie film biz was spurred by the 2006 docu he lensed, “Awesome I Fuckin’ Shot That!,” which was distribbed by ThinkFilm.
The Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April.
Yauch is survived by his wife Dechen and his daughter Tenzin Losel, as well as parents Frances and Noel Yauch.
Josh L. Dickey contributed to this story