Rockin’ His Rhymes All the Way to Hell’s Gate: Why Part of Me Died with the Beastie Boys’ MCA

Let me clear my throat. OK. Now, know that I speak in the most literal sense when I say that I listened to three—and only three albums—in the sixth grade: Blink 182’s Enema of the State (1999), Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill (1986).

I was allowed to own Enema, despite the fact that the cover model was a porn star (who would later go to prison and lose custody of her daughter to Jesse “I-cheated-on-Sandra-Bullock-with-a-tattoo-model” James) and the band being famous for running naked in a music video (they would later outdo themselves with the punderful album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (2001)). This was long before Tom DeLonge wanted to be Bono.

I wasn’t allowed to own Marshall Mathers because Enimen swore a lot and rapped about killing his wife. My parents thought this was bad for some reason. So listening to Eminem was a matter of rule-breaking. We went to record stores and listened to him with rebellious fascination.

I was also allowed to own Licensed to Ill—it’s unclear if my parents knew what “ill” meant or that the Beasties were here to murder the middle class and give all the fried chicken to dirty lowlifes (“My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker / Deliver Colenel Sanders down to Davy Jones’ locker”).

I’m still not too sure what “ill” means, and in sixth grade, I had no idea what a “posse” was, what Brass Monkey was (I now know that it’s delicious), or even where Brooklyn was. I had no idea that I liked rap, that rap-rock would later be ruined by Limp Bizkit, or what I was singing along to. I just knew that it was awesome.

His real name was Adam Yauch, but he was MCA. Anything that can be said about his overall legacy in the history of hip-hop, his political activism, and his filmmaking will be said by minds greater than mine. I’m not concerned with any of that. I’m not even concerned with Paul’s Boutique (1989). This is about Licensed to Ill, what it was, and what it was to a twelve-year-old suburban kid, who lived in the South fourteen years after its release.

See, back then, we kids were taught that rappers were bad people who did drugs, shot people, and, on top of that, couldn’t even write their own music or sing. Never mind the poetry of a good flow or the absolutely insane amount of hard work that goes into producing an album. We wanted some motherfucking shredding on the guitar.

Somehow, though, the Beastie Boys got a pass. They yelled into the mic at the top of their lungs and had the kind of swagger, danger, and party-first attitude that made you believe that they would stick a shotgun in your face and then offer you a beer. They introduced me to a war that I didn’t know existed: the “Fight For Your Right (To Party).”

The Beastie Boys were so brash and badass that you barely even realized the ridiculousness of what they rapped about: piracy (no seriously: “Because Mutiny on the Bounty‘s what we’re all about” is the first line of their discography), the old west, and castles in Brooklyn. Their “how we got together song” is basically this: Ad-Rock rides a horse around while drinking a quart of beer. MCA comes along and puts a gun to his head until he gives him a sip of beer. Bonding over the fact that they’re on the run, they ride together (presumably still on the horse). They meet Mike D at a “fly spots where they got the champagne,” and he proceeds to put two bullets in the ceiling before robbing the whole place and shooting two kids (Tarantino would later steal this verse for Pulp Fiction (1994)). Mike D grabs the money, MCA snatches the gold, Ad-Rock grabs two girlies and a beer that’s cold, and the Beastie Boys are formed. No word on why the origin story happens on the ninth track of the album, but AWESOME.

Through all the ridiculousness, though, was a sincere idea of “we’re white and we play heavy rock, but we’re not some cheesy glam band. We’re rappers, and damn good ones at that, and we’re not going away.” The Beastie Boys had arrived, and you weren’t allowed not to know it: “some voices got treble, some voices got bass, we got the kind of voices that are in your face.”

The video to “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” best illustrates their arrival: the bouncer doesn’t believe they’re the night’s band and asks where their instruments are. When Ad-Rock hands him a record, he smashes it over his head and slams the door. They knock a second time, now wearing stupid teased-up wigs and carrying guitars, and the bouncer admits them readily. The world didn’t know the Beasties could exist, so the Beasties announced their presence by screaming cartoonish-yet-sincere anti-establishment anthems and pouring beer on women in cages until the world knew that it couldn’t live without the Most Illinest B-Boys from Brooklyn.

But you already knew how important the Beasties were. You didn’t ask that. You asked, “Chris, why are you so torn up about MCA’s passing?” Yes, you asked that when you clicked on this article.

Being a white kid in the suburban south and growing up mostly after 1999, I knew the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Californication (1999) is basically the reason that I started playing guitar. So I liked rock. I liked punk. My parents taught me to love classical music. My high school’s jazz band taught me to love jazz, funk, soul, and bossa nova. But I had to find hip-hop on my own. It took me a long time, until college (in the late-2000s), to really find it—slowly at first: Jay-Z and by extension of a feud, Nas. Same with Tupac and Biggie. Black Star. Common. Kanye. Pharcyde. N.W.A. But it all goes back to 1999 and the Beasties.

My best friend, Brendan, was actually the one to introduce them to me. We spent an entire summer doing nothing but listening to Licensed to Ill. We learned all the words and especially loved rapping “Paul Revere.” He was Mike D, and I was MCA. How we arrived at those distinctions (or how we functioned without an Ad-Rock) is either completely arbitrary or beyond my memory. But it stuck.

Being suburban white kids, we started a garage band in high school. It was pop-punk: blisteringly fast and lyrically stupid. But we had an appreciation for a lot of other kinds of music, so we ambitiously tried incorporating any genre we could think of into our songs. One song, our set-closer, ended on this big beat-dropping breakdown with a slap bass part. Somehow, I think at a pool party, Brendan and I decided to throw down our guitars, let our bassist and drummer lay down this funk-ish groove, and rapped “Paul Revere.” In its entirety. Both of us basically did the Ad-Rock part, but we never stepped on each other’s parts, boldly announcing our names periodically in the song: “Get ready, ’cause this ain’t funny, my name is Mike D and I’m about to get money.” or “My name is MCA, I got a license to kill. I think you know what time it is: it’s time to get ill.” This wasn’t hipster racism—we weren’t pretending to have hip-hop identities because we were so far from thug life that it was “funny.” We really actually wanted to be the Beasties.

That duality is best represented by MCA’s line in “No Sleep Til Brooklyn,” in which he says, “They call me Adam Yauch, but I’m MCA / Like a lemon to a lime, a lime to lemon / I sip the def ale with all the fly women.” Adam Yauch was a man involved in many things, and while the Beasties continued to release albums until his death, MCA became more of Adam Yauch as their hip-hop heyday waned.

It was Adam Yauch the man, the political activist, filmmaker, and probably responsible fruit consumer who died on May 4, 2012. But it was MCA—the brash, rebellious, smoke-voiced gateway drug into hip-hop who sipped def ale with fly women—whom the world lost.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply