The news of Adam Yauch’s death felt like a punch to the stomach. It wasn’t just because I was a fan. (Though it should tell you something about the level of my love for this band that on the day of Yauch’s death I got an e-mail from an ex I had parted ways with ten years ago checking in on me.) It wasn’t just because—like a lot of people who grew up during a certain time in New York City—the Beastie Boys felt like a cultural touchstone.
For a female hip hop fan—for this female hip hop fan, at least—the Beastie Boys meant so much more.
Much has been made of Yauch’s Buddhism and dedication to philanthropy. Pieces have even acknowledged the Beastie Boys’ explicit move towards feminism by noting, in passing, MCA’s famous line from “Sure Shot”:
I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has to got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect till the end
It’s a great line, and it does say a lot—but Yauch’s and the Beastie Boys’ commitment to women went beyond one rhyme. They apologized for past homophobic lyrics in a letter to Time Out New York, writing that “time has healed our stupidity.” During a joint gig with the Prodigy, the Beastie Boys asked the band not to play “Smack My Bitch Up.” (They played it anyway.) Yauch reportedly said, “We just wanted to let the Prodigy know that we felt like that song had a real meaning, has a definite meaning with those lyrics.… we were kinda more going to them saying, ‘We’ve been through this and we feel weird about this stuff and we’d like to suggest or ask you guys not to play it.’ ”
In the Beastie Boys’ anthology The Sounds of Science, Adam Horovitz wrote about “Song for the Man,” and how it was inspired by men he saw harassing a woman on the subway: “Sexism is deeply rooted in our history and society that waking up and stepping outside of it is like I’m watching ‘Night of the Living Dead Part Two’ all day every day. Listening to the lyrics of this song, one might say that the Beastie Boy ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ guy is a hypocrite. Well, maybe; but in this fucked up world all you can hope for is change, and I’d rather be a hypocrite to you than a zombie forever.”
When the band won an award for “Intergalactic” at the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards, Horovitz used the opportunity to talk about the rapes at Woodstock, urging muscians and promoters to priortize women’s safety. (The year prior, Yauch spoke out against anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.)