“My man MCA’s got a beard like a billy goat”: MCA, the Beastie Boys, and Identity

I looked out the window and seen his bald head
I ran to the fridge and pulled out an egg
Scoped him with my scopes he had no hair
Launched that shot and he was caught out there
Saw the convertible driving by
Loaded up the slingshot and let one fly
He went for his to find he didn’t have one
Put him in check correct with my egg gun
The egg a symbol of life
Go inside your house and bust out your wife
Pulled out the jammy he thought it was a joke
The trigger I pulled his face the yoke
Reached in his pocket took all his cash
Left my man standing with an egg moustache

— Egg Man, Paul’s Boutique

“Beginning with Paul’s Boutique, part of their appeal has been that they’ve built a little clubhouse in their G-Son studio and invited everyone inside. They’ve gone off on their own trip, returning to the same pop culture obsessions and building their own context rather than integrating into the musical world around them.”

Mark Richardson, May 4, 2001

When a friend of mine texted me, “MCA is dead! Long Live Paul’s Boutique!” I experienced both sadness and pride: sadness over MCA’s passing, but pride that MCA left behind over two decades music and cultural influence. Was there a band more representative of late Generation Xers than the Beastie Boys? From their obnoxious, sexist debut to their pop culture masterpiece Paul’s Boutique to their punk-funk-rap mash ups of the mid to late 1990s, few bands traversed the kind of sonic territory of the B-Boys.   Yet as important as they were musically, MCA, “the King” Ad Rock, and Mike D proved equally important in terms of identity.  Their music, politics and style enabled thousands of suburban/urban white kids find their pop culture footing.  For suburban kids wanting in on 1990s hip-hop, but hoping to maintain a connection to punk and metal, the Beasties provided a third way.

Public Enemy, Goodie Mob, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Rakim, NWA, and other burgeoning rap outfits of the period undoubtedly shook the music industry and pop culture to the ground and proved to harbingers of better things to come.  However, as great as P.E. was, over identifying with Public Enemy  as a white kid from the suburbs left some uncomfortable.  Not because they disagreed with Chuck D’s politics, but because no one wants to be seen as a poseur or inserting themselves into a movement incongruously. After all, a middle class white kid shouting black nationalist slogans does raise eyebrows, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Using a somewhat parallel example, take Franklin Foer’s argument regarding the Dutch football club Ajax’s affinity for Jewish culture. During the 1960s, Ajax pushed football further than anyone, playing a wide-open style known as Total Football, which seemed congruous with the social change of the time.  Total Football “[rubbished] traditional rigid formations and [embraced] a more creative approach that eschewed assigning stringent positions,” writes Foer. (Foer, How Soccer Explains the World, 81) Ajax’s leader the famous Johann Cruyff promoted this style but oddly, though not Jewish himself, had the club adopt numerous Jewish customs. Kosher salami delivered to the club regularly, “locker room banter self consciously peppered with Yiddish phrases,” and other examples led the team’s Jewish physio to comment, “The players liked to be Jewish even though they weren’t.” (81) The team’s philo-Semitism reflected wider reverberations in Dutch culture. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Dutch openly supported Israel. During the 1973 oil debacle, their prime minister even rode a bicycle for television cameras as a symbol of solidarity.  Surely, no one means to condemn Ajax for its openness to Judaism, but as Foer points out that’s not really the point. At the time, the Dutch had rediscovered and celebrated their apparent history of resistance toward the Nazis and their aid to Jewish refugees, Anne Frank obviously being the most notable. However, as Foer suggests, the Dutch hadn’t discovered this history, they had fabricated it: “As historians have pointed out tirelessly in recent years, the Dutch did a better job collaborating with the Nazi’s than stopping them.” (82)  The kind of emulation exhibited by Cryuff and Ajax still treated Jews “as bizarre curiosities, reducing them to alien symbols – yarmulkes, sideburns, a Star of David.” (83) In a similar way, some suburban white kids loved rap and hip-hop, but remained aware that suburbanization drove many of the problems that their favorite rappers described. In the context of youth, few things appear worse than overly zealous, no matter how well meaning, interlopers. In the punk/hardcore scene of the early 1990s, authenticity meant everything, so swapping one identity for another was not so easy.

The always reductionist NY Post everybody!

Add to this the social and political context of 1990s identity politics.  If racial tensions in the 1980s could be described as bad, the early 1990s seemed awash in racial antipathy.   The LA and Crown Heights Riots, the Clarence Thomas hearings (throw in a healthy dash of sexism too), the Amadou Diallo shooting (and others like it), Giuliani’s “broken windows” policy, and numerous other examples hinted at the racial troubles of America.  Public debates about race and racism seemed shot through with tension no matter the intentions. Though rap and hip -hop had begun to course through the veins of white suburbanites, these public conflicts over race sometimes threatened to overwhelm this simultaneous cultural crossover.  Even when one could identify with the struggles of black and brown Americans, to pretend that you were in the same boat economically and politically just didn’t seem right.

Everyone forgets that following License to Ill’ s popularity, the Beasties fell off the cultural map.  They decamped to Los Angeles to make Paul’s Boutique (For great footage of this period in the Beasties career arc see The Skills to Pay the Bills).  Very little needs to be said about Paul’s.  Though it sold terribly out of the gate, since its release artists from all walks of life have cited its influence.  Ironically, its impact on the rap community might have been crippled by copyright laws passed since its release, which now make the kind of sampling featured on the album prohibitively expensive.   Still, Paul’s served as a template for an ironic, referential, anti-racist and oddly subversive urban identity.  “Egg Man,” “High Plains Drifter,” “Hey Ladies,” “Shadrach,” “Shake Your Rump” and others were playful with an undercurrent of menace and politics.

While Paul’s crawled through the back of America’s collective pop culture mind, the Beasties regrouped and put out the massive Check Your Head in 1992, the strong Ill Communication in 1994, and the excellent Hello Nasty in 1998.  Along the way, they established a music label and what might be described as the hipster magazine, Grand Royal.   Again, though Rap Rock (ugh) like Limp Biscuit and others became annoyingly common in the mid to late 1990s, the Beasties distilled the formula earlier and with greater purity.   MCA, Ad Rock, and Mike D added their punk upbringing to the sounds emanating from the Bronx and Brooklyn.   Instead of Blondie’s odd appropriation “Rapture,” the Beasties leaned more toward the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven,” sonically and politically. No songs about “doing it all for the nookie”; instead they talked about rank commercialism on “Pass the Mic”  – “Everybody’s Rapping Like It’s A Commercial/ Actin’ Like Life Is A Big Commercial” – or affirming living on “Gratitude”:

What You Think That The World Owes You
What’s Gonna Set You Free
Look Inside And You’ll See
When You’ve Got So Much To Say
It’s Called Gratitude, And That’s Right

As a kid who had grown up in the hardcore/metal scene around Chicago, rap sounded new and exciting but also a bit daunting. I didn’t dig Easy E’s solo album like some of my other friends, black and white, did. I didn’t know as much about the scene at the time.  If I knew the entire history of an obscure hardcore act like the Cro-Mags, I knew very little about Public Enemy, except what the media reported, which we all know frequently proved inaccurate. The Beasties knew about these things, and they provided a style and aesthetic that gave kids like me a way in without feeling like some kind of interloper.  What followed? I worshiped Tupac, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Public Enemy, Run DMC, and the list goes on.  The Beasties gave me a key, I only had to use it.

During the first two years of college, myself and two of my closest friends, obsessed over Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head and Ill Communications. We spun their records and those of Pharcyde, De La Soul,Biggie and Tupac at house parties.   We each adopted one of the Beasties as a reflection of our own personality.  Ad Roc’s hyperkinetic obnoxious thrift store irony, MCA’s cool spiritual calm, and Mike D’s entrepreneurial pragmatism provided each of us with our own particular model.  Me? For better or worse, I was Ad Rock. I loved it.

This writer counts himself fortunate enough to have caught the Beastie Boys three times in their lifetime.  Pretty unlikely that a reunion tour with a hologrammed MCA will be popping up anytime soon, so these shows will be my last live connection with them.   Despite the diversity of their musical interests and their own friendships, Beastie Boy shows, in terms of race, weren’t a rainbow.  I remember seeing them at the UIC pavilion in 1999, looking around and realizing just how white their fan base was.  Undoubtedly, people of all colors and ethnicities enjoyed their music, but when you saw them live, it was mostly white kids.

While they retained their personalities, the members of the band seemed to shift identities with each album.  The frat rock-rap of the debut, the sample heavy in-joke LA vibe of the second, punk-funk-rap stews of the 1990s, and the more electronic old school albums of their later years  (spanning from Hello Nasty to To the 5 Boroughs), represented not only their aesthetic and artistic tastes, but natural human maturity.  When MCA turned to Buddhism and the band seemed to implicitly condemn the message of its License to Ill in the 1990s (yeah I know they have been quoted as calling it “satire,” yet they played so few songs from it live; it remains a real question), some people called them out on it, hypocrisy they cried.  Yet, if we’ve learned anything since the rise of reality television and social media it might be that to be trapped by who you are at 30 by who you were at 20 seems a fate worse than death.   In 2006, Ad Rock married Riot Grrrl and noted feminist Kathleen Hanna.  Could anyone have predicted that in 1986?  While MCA’s Buddhism never appealed to me, it had more to do with my own religious upbringing.  Twelve years of parochial Catholic school, for all its positives, generally dulled my attraction to religion.

The Beastie Boys released their last album, the Hot Sauce Committee Part II in 2011.  Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson gave the album a respectable review that placed its merits somewhere between Hello Nasty and To the 5 Boroughs, but well behind their first four releases. Still, Richardson pointed to a reality regarding the group that the album demonstrated. “And listening to Hot Sauce Committee, it’s hard not to reflect on how long the Beastie Boys have been together and how, unusually, their musical partnership still seems grounded in friendship rather than just business,” he noted. “There’s still something inspiring in the idea of the Beastie Boys that transcends any single release.”  The idea of the Beasties, a group that welcomed everyone in and provided a bridge between different backgrounds, music, aesthetics, lifestyles and beliefs without fetishization will continue even if MCA can’t.  Long live the Beasties, long live MCA.