Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death today leaves a Beastie-size hole in pop music. Though the trio were not the most prolific legends on the landscape (over the course of 25 years, they released only seven proper albums), their impact has been gigantic. Starting with 1986’s Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys rewrote the rules for commercial hip-hop, the mainstreaming of hardcore punk, the state of sampling, and the treatment of the old school.
Licensed to Ill, one of the early full-lengths released by influential hip-hop label Def Jam Records, is often referred to as the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. That title is a little unfair, as those sales were powered by the wildfire success of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” — a track that many at the time considered more rock than rap.
The remainder of Licensed to Ill is pure mid-’80s hip-hop: grimy, tricky, and funny. The rhyme trading on “Fight for Your Right” was child’s play compared to the exchanges on “Hold It, Now Hit It,” “She’s Crafty,” and “Paul Revere.” Though it is hard to believe now, the Beastie Boys’ race rarely came up — in part because hip-hop was a new genre, but also because they had the legitimate skills to counter criticism.
It helped that they kept pushing the form forward on subsequent releases. Though 1989’s Paul’s Boutique was a commercial failure at the time, it is now held up as a brilliant piece of art way ahead of its time. Working with the Dust Brothers, the Boys constructed a pastiche that flowed so deftly that it became common for owners of the vinyl to play “Spot the Sample.” For DJs and genre-bending artists like Beck, Paul’s Boutique was a keystone holding up a cathedral of sonic possibilities.
Though hip-hop had always incorporated rock samples and toyed with live instrumentation (Afrika Bambaataa liked to toss Rolling Stones records into his break beats), Licensed to Ill also essentially invented rap-rock. “Fight for Your Right” is the obvious example, but Slayer’s Kerry King (another signee of Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin) also lent some shredding guitar to “No Sleep Til Brooklyn.” “Rhymin’ and Stealin'” is built around samples from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and the Clash.
Yauch’s first love was hardcore punk — the early Beastie Boys were a speedy, noisy act who opened for Black Flag and Bad Brains. Those fixations ran through Licensed to Ill through the group’s two peak albums, 1992’s Check Your Head and 1994’s Ill Communication. It wasn’t so much that they brought punk attitude to hip-hop (Public Enemy figured out that trick at the end of the ’80s), but it was about the fact that traditional rock music — and later, jazz — could coexist next to traditional rap.
Over the course of their last three albums — 1998’s Hello Nasty, 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, and last year’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two — the Beasties looked to be returning to everyone else’s old school, tapping into elements of classic hip-hop that had disappeared as the style became the preeminent movement on pop radio. Hello Nasty sounds like a reaction to the Diddy-fication of rap in the late ’90s, with its focus on breaking down hip-hop into core sonic elements and executing them with breathtaking precision.
It’s most evident on the classic call to arms “Three MCs and One DJ,” but it’s also plastered across tracks like the funky “Super Disco Breakin’,” the minimalist “Instant Death,” and the neck-snapping single “Intergalactic.” To the 5 Boroughs and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two both work to preserve hip-hop’s past rather than trying to innovate, but the trio’s curatorial minds are so sharp that they both act as a living tribute to the New York streets that birthed rap. They are reflective, thoughtful albums that leave room for fun.
You can hear the Beastie Boys’ influence all over the place, from Rage Against the Machine’s sonic firebombs to OutKast’s playful genre-bending to the Odd Future crew’s open-minded mix of the serious and the absurd. Even if Adam Yauch hadn’t become an excellent video director, launched an influential film company, created the Milarepa Fund, and worked to assist victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he would still be regarded as a legend who deserves serious accolades not just for his musical and cultural impact but for the trails he blazed.
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