In April the Beastie Boys — whose landmark albums include the 9 million-selling License To Ill (1986), the groundbreaking masterpiece Paul’s Boutique (1989), and Check Your Head (1992), on which they stunned detractors by playing their own instruments — were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, in a ceremony Mr. Yauch did not attend.
That night, Chuck D. of Public Enemy said, “There’s no adequate measure of the impact that the Beastie Boys had on rap music,” and he singled out Mr. Yauch, who “belongs here with the greatest.”
Mr. Yauch, who played bass guitar, formed the band that would become the Beasties to play his own birthday party along with Mike Diamond (Mike D.) in 1981. Two years later Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock) joined the punk-rock group. They moved onto rap after hooking up with producer Rick Rubin and were considered a scourge of society when, as an opening act for Madonna in 1985, they performed with a giant inflatable penis on stage.
The next year, the hard-slamming License To Ill became the first rap album to top the Billboard charts, thanks to “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” which cast the Beasties as obnoxious Three Stooges descendants who seemed hell-bent on brashly exploiting an African American art form.
But there turned out to be more than that to the Beastie Boys, and to Yauch in particular. The Dust Brothers-produced Paul’s Boutique was a commercial failure but an artistic triumph, densely weaving samples with visionary elan. And in the 1990s, the Beastie Boys were reborn as relevant hit makers with songs like “Intergalactic,“ “Ch-Check It Out” and “So What’cha Want.”
All those songs benefited from clever videos directed by Mr. Yauch, who formed his own film production company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, through which he helmed the band’s 2006 concert film Awesome: I F — in’ Shot That and the 2008 high school basketball documentary Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot. Oscilloscope also distributed acclaimed art house movies such as Kelly Reichardt’sWendy and Lucy and Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.
In the early ‘90s, Mr. Yauch became a practicing Buddhist and cofounded the Milarepa Fund, aiming to fight abuse of Tibetans by the Chinese government. He was a principal force behind the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, annual events designed to support the cause of Tibetan independence.
After being found to have cancer in 2009, Mr. Yauch had surgery and was treated with radiation. He switched to a vegan diet and met with Tibetan doctors and the Dalai Lama. In 2010, he told Entertainment Weekly, “It was touch and go for a while, but I am finally getting my energy back.”
Mr. Yauch commanded respect in the hip-hop community and beyond. Yesterday, DJ-producer Diplo tweeted: “Flying the flag half mast today” and called Mr. Yauch a “rap/punk hero, philanthropist, legend.”
Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots, simply wrote, “Yauch is gone,” followed by an expletive. And rapper Talib Kweli’s tweet echoed the sentiments of a generation of fans who came of age in the ’80s: “The Beastie Boys changed my life. For real.”
Except when making moody instrumental music, as on 2007‘s The Mix-Up, the Beastie Boys were always funny. In 1986 on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Mr. Yauch rhymed: “Born and bred, Brooklyn, U.S.A., they call me Adam Yauch, but I’m MCA/Like a lemon to a lime to a lime to a lemon, I sip the def ale with all the fly women.“
As the years passed, Mr. Yauch’s hair turned gray, and the group grew into the role of unlikely elder statesmen and enlightened political activists. “Too sweet to be sour too nice to be mean,” he rapped on “Intergalactic.” “On the tough guy style I’m not too keen/To try to change the world I will plot and scheme.”
The Beasties’ 2004 album To The Five Boroughs expresses grief in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Through Milarepa, the group supported aid organizations such as the New York Women’s Foundation Disaster Relief Fund.
On last year’s song “Make Some Noise,” Mr. Yauch showed disdain for those who complain: “Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision, I’ll cut off the part of your brain that does the bitching/Put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf, and you can show it to your friends and say, ‘That’s my old self.’”
Mr. Yauch is survived by his wife, Dechen; daughter, Tenzen Losel; and parents, Frances and Noel Yauch.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, “In the Mix,” at www.philly.com/inthemix.