Adam Yauch, one of the founding members of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rap trio the Beastie Boys, died on Friday (May 4) at the age of 47 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
The news was announced on the GlobalGrind website, which is run by Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, the man who signed the Beasties to their first label deal. “GlobalGrind is confirming this very sad news,” read the post. “One of our heroes, Adam Yauch aka MCA of the Beastie Boys has passed this morning after a long bout with cancer. Our prayers go out to the family of Adam and the entire Beastie Boys crew.”
Rumors about Yauch’s ongoing battle with cancer were sparked anew last month when the rapper was not present alongside fellow band members Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond at the group’s induction into the Hall of Fame as just the third rap group to ever achieve that honor. Yauch had been off the public scene since 2009 when he was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was discovered on his salivary gland .
His treatment delayed the release of the group’s 2011 album, Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 and it had kept the normally tour-happy trio off the road for the past three years.
With his gravelly voice and laconic rapping style, Yauch stood out in the trio, whose other members tended to have faster, more nasal flows. He formed the B-Boys in 1979 while still in high school as a hardcore punk band, but their sound progressed over the years until they emerged as one of the most successful rap groups in history. After getting signed to Def Jam in 1984 they released the smash Licensed to Ill , which included such hits as “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right To Party,” “Brass Monkey,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “She’s Crafty.”
Their next album, the psychedelic 1988 release Paul’s Boutique set a new high-water mark for the art of sampling and stands today as one of the finest examples of the art.
Like their label mates and friends in Run-DMC, the B-Boys excelled at seamlessly interweaving their vocals, trading off lines and verses at lightning speed. Amid the barrage of verbal gymnastics, though, Yauch’s voice stood out for its world-weariness and unhurried cadence on tracks like “High Plains Drifter” and his tongue-twisting, double-time disco breaking showcase midway through the 12-minute Boutique epic, “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.”
Though all three Boys emerged on the national scene with snotty, party hardy attitudes, it was Yauch who grew into the most centered and serious member of the group. In addition to playing bass, he also directed many of the group’s videos under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower. Rarely seen in public, Hornblower made a legendary appearance at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, bum rushing R.E.M. as his alter ego after they took the Best Direction award over Beastie pal Spike Jonze for his landmark work in their cop-show spoofing clip “Sabotage.”
He was also instrumental in organizing a series of all-star concerts between 1996 and 2001 to raise awareness of the repression of the Tibetan people. The shows, which combined activism and music, featured sets from traditional Buddhist acts and speakers as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, De La Soul, Beck, Foo Fighters, U2, Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam.
Yauch, a practicing Buddhist who revised some of his young and wild lyrics in concert later in life, went on to direct many more video for his band, as well as the kaleidoscopic 2006 Beasties live movie, “Awesome, I F—in’ Shot That!” He also formed Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film company that distributed a number of documentaries and features, including “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” “Dark Days,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Beautiful Losers” and the Banksy doc “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
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Tune in to MTV tonight at 8 p.m. for “Adam Yauch: Remembering a Beastie Boy,” an hour-long special hosted by Sway celebrating the life and career of Adam “MCA” Yauch, including his biggest moments and remembrances from his friends and peers. Check out mtvU now for classic Beastie Boys music videos.