05.04.12

Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, the Beastie Boy Who Transcended Rap, Dead at 47

Music fans around the world are mourning the death of Adam Yauch, the Beastie Boy who went beyond hip-hop to become a film pioneer and a devout Tibetan Buddhist.

Adam Yauch, the gravelly voiced rapper known as MCA from the hip-hop trio the Beastie Boys, passed away Friday after a three-year battle with cancer, according to media reports. The multi-instrumentalist/film director—who also functioned as chief executive of the indie movie-production company Oscilloscope Laboratories—was diagnosed in 2009 after discovering a tumor in a salivary gland in his neck.

Last month, Yauch missed the Beastie Boys’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame due to complications from the disease. And the release date of the group’s final album, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1, was delayed from September 2009 to April 2011 (under the revised name Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2) due to the rapper’s health battle. 

Paroxysms of grief rippled through Twitter immediately following the announcement of his passing.

“God bless the soul of Adam Yauch,” the rapper Common tweeted Friday while Fred Durst, frontman of the nu-metal group Limp Bizkit remarked, “A very sad day indeed. Adam Yauch RIP.” Billy CQ-Tip, lead MC from A Tribe Called Quest and frequent Beastie Boys collaborator, praised Yauch as a “humanitarian and a tru friend.” Billy Corgan, lead singer for the alt-rock group Smashing Pumpkins, tweeted: “Sad news about Adam Yauch's passing, a man of dignity + spiritual conviction. I always had great respect for him in times we met and talked.”

Brooklyn native Yauch co-founded the Beasties in New York 1979 with Adam “Adrock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond, transitioning from their bratty punk-rock origins to conjure a sneering iteration of hip-hop that attracted fans of all races. The three catapulted to international superstardom on the strength of License to Ill—with its platinum breakout single “(You Gotta Fight) For Your Right (To Party!)”—but traded the frat-boy posturing of that album for a more freewheeling—and thoughtful—approach on later recordings. In particular, the Grammy-winning trio stunned detractors by demonstrating a sophisticated grasp of musicianship on the follow-ups Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, and Ill Communication, now considered classic albums by hip-hop heads. 

Although Yauch staked his initial claim to to the genre as a PCP-smoking, pistol-packing, stripper-worshipping sybarite, he evolved away from that persona. Embracing sobriety and dedicating himself to nonviolence, the rapper became a dedicated adherent to Tibetan Buddhism and was personally acquainted with the Dalai Lama. From 1996 to 2001, the performer helped organize the Tibetan Freedom Concert, a series of rock festivals held in North America, Europe, and Asia supporting the cause of Tibetan independence.

Acclaimed mashup DJ and producer Z-Trip, a longtime Beasties fan and casual acquaintance of Yauch’s, recalled being impressed by the rapper’s dramatic about-face—changing from the grizzled MC rhyming about “skeezing whores” to recording a song that apologizes to women and tirelessly supporting charities, such as the Milarepa Foundation. “The turnaround was so awesome,” Z-Trip said Friday. “He made a point to be better, to be a humble person, to be fearless about it and make sure he left a positive mark. That dude lived an incredible life.”

The hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who co-founded Def Jam Records in 1986, in part to release the Beastie Boys’s debut album License to Ill and helped launch Yauch’s musical career, remembered the performer fondly. “Adam was incredibly sweet and the most sensitive artist who l loved dearly,” Simmons said in a statement. “I was always inspired by his work. He will be missed by all of us.”

Embracing sobriety and dedicating himself to nonviolence, the rapper became a dedicated adherent to Tibetan Buddhism and was personally acquainted with the Dalai Lama.

Outside music, Yauch was also an accomplished—and impulsively quirky—filmmaker who shot movies and videos under the moniker Nathanial Hörnblowér. He founded Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2008, which distributed Yauch’s directorial debut, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot, a documentary about New York schoolyard basketball players. And in 2006, he directed the Beastie Boys’s concert film, Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That!

“We are deeply, deeply saddened by the passing of Adam Yauch—an amazing leader, a dear friend, and an incredible human being,” Oscilloscope executives Dan Berger, David Fenkel, and David Laub said in a statement. “Adam's legacy will remain a driving force at Oscilloscope—his indomitable spirit and his great passion for film, people, and hard work—always with a sense of humor and a lot of heart.”

Yauch is survived by his wife Dechen Wengdu and their daughter, Losel.