Everyone who has ever waved their arms in the air and jumped around like an idiot to a Beastie Boys song felt the shock of the news. On May 4th, Adam Yauch, aka MCA, succumbed to a three-year battle with cancer.
For lovers of the Beastie Boys, MCA provided a rough and aggressive rumble that roared through the speakers, offering an antidote to the high-pitched exuberance of fellow bandmates Adrock and Mike D. But his Beastie persona obscured the person who spent the last 20 years as a committed Buddhist and helped make “Free Tibet” a rallying cry.
What a change from a guy who made a memorably obnoxious entrance to center stage in the iconic video for “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Party).” In the video, he struts into a party, grabs a guy’s beer, takes a swig and then spits it in someone’s face. Ewww!
By the mid-90’s, however, Yauch had completely shed the self-centered party boy image (although he never lost his sense of humor; more on that later), a transformation that would find its purpose in the 1996 Tibetan Freedom Concert, which Yauch organized.
In this remembrance, his friend Josh Schrei talks about how Yauch helped bring the Tibetan cause to a generation of cynical Gen X-ers:
“Yauch’s transformation from hard-partying bad boy rock-rapper to a practicing Buddhist and human rights champion could have left him open to much scorn in an industry that revels in calling out hypocrisy. But Adam neutralized such scorn by truly living his words. Buddhism was not, for him, a fad, or a passing interest. It became the focal point of his life. He gave up many of the trappings of the rock star life in favor of meditation. He genuinely sought to follow the words and teachings of the Dalai Lama, for whom he held a reverence that was beautiful to behold.
“As happens with those rare souls whose presence in this life is as a true center point of centrifugal force — he drew others into his orbit and made them better for it.”
Here’s a video of the Beastie Boys performing at the inaugural Tibetan Freedom Concert:
Yauch sat down several times with the Dalai Lama, including for this interview in the Beastie Boy’s magazine Grand Royal. In the piece, Yauch writes about hiking in Nepal and coming across a group of young Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation of their home country with little more than the clothes on their backs. They were traveling to India to meet with the Dalai Lama. He writes that despite the hardships, “they carried themselves with love and compassion. There was something powerful about these people.”
In the long interview with the Dalai Lama, Yauch delves deep and reveals just how serious he was about incorporating Buddhist principles into his life, especially the concept of “interdependence,” both as a way of life and a way of solving international conflicts. He tells the Dalai Lama, “By being around you, I really felt that true power lies in compassion.”
He carried his belief in nonviolence to other conflicts as well. Al Jazeera ran a column this week titled “Adam Yauch was a Muslim Hero,” which talked about his efforts as early as 1998 to find a alternative to bombing the Middle East to retaliate against terrorism. He said, “I think that another thing America needs to think about is our racism, racism that comes from the United States towards Muslim people and towards Arabic people. And that’s something that has to stop, and the United States has to start respecting people in the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that’s been building up over the years.”
Although Yauch will be remembered as a rapper, he was a talented film director and producer as well. Under the pseudonym Nathanial Hörnblowér, he directed several of the Beastie Boys’ iconic videos, including the zany and exuberant video for “So What Cha Want?”
Yauch would go on to found Oscilloscope Pictures, which distributed everything from indie narrative films to documentaries. Despite the seriousness and dedication that Yauch brought to the causes he believed in and to the music he made, he never disowned the wild early days of the Beasties. Last year, he directed a half-hour sequel to the video that started it all. It’s called “Fight for Your Right Revisited,” which features an all-star cast including Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Seth Rogin and others.
Further proof that Yauch didn’t take himself too seriously, even as he went about trying to make the world a better place.