Editors note, August 5, 2014: Today would have been Adam Yauch’s 50th birthday. To mark the occassion, read Dave Zirin’s moving obituary to Yauch, from 2012.
“Born and bred Brooklyn U.S.A. They call me Adam Yauch but I’m M.C.A.”
In the ’60s they said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” When it comes to remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch, who died on May 4, I don’t trust anyone under 30. Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys stood for more than just hip hop and their personal “sounds of science.” They repped the soul of a city that no longer exists.
The Beasties were global ambassadors from a lost New York City since smothered under the weight of police violence and gentrification. It was a city that churned out hip hop and basketball legends with arrogant ease. It was a city where the question “what do you do” was less about your job than what you did after work. It was a city where the clubs you could get into were less important than the neighborhoods you could get into—and out of. It was a city where if you could see over the counter, you were getting served. It was a city where a scuffle on 42nd and Broadway might spark and you would not even blink.
It was a city that’s remembered as being “divided,” and those divisions were real. Few realized at the time that these divisions comprised two competing visions of the city’s future, particularly who would live, work and die in its borders. Not even the Beasties realized that "you have to fight for your right to party" would become Giuliani-era prophesy.
Those of us on our side of the barricades might not have gotten the seismic shifts about to take place, but we were never less alienated, never closer. We ran from the police, drank and smoked on corners, and slept on each other’s floors in rent-controlled apartments. (Younger readers can use Google to learn what “rent control” means.)
We stood together because the city was breaking apart and we were clutching each other on the same piece of floating earth. There were the names we all knew: Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers, Yusef Hawkins. Places like Howard Beach. Bensonhurst and Crown Heights weren’t neighborhoods. They were crime scenes.
This was my New York. I was the 12-year-old Jewish kid on the Upper West Side who played basketball, listened to Kurtis Blow, UTFO and Whodini and was called a “rap nerd” in my overwhelmingly white school. My teachers told my parents that my music, my awkward anger, my awful grades, were just a phase. For me, the Beasties were like a sonic liberation army playing the Battle Hymn of the Misfits.
From the first time I saw them, in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, it was clear: They were Brooklyn, but they were Jewish. They were outsiders, but they were down. If you got the Beastie Boys, it meant you could get underground hip hop, get anti-racism as more than a pose and, f-ck it, get some damn friends. They taught us that you could fit in just by being true to yourself.