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Friday, May 4, 2012

Pass the Mic: RIP MCA


NOTE:  This originally appeared on PopMatters, so click here if you want to see it all gussied up.  Otherwise, read below. 


My mom was admitted to the hospital on the day that MCA announced he had cancer.  I’m tempted to say that it was nothing serious, but did I mention that she was admitted to the hospital?  She had been sick for a week, but she felt like she was on the mend.  Her appointment with her doctor that morning was supposed to be a check-in.  I live in New York, she in Missouri.  When I spoke to her on the phone, she was going through the admissions process.  She said, “I’m OK, Kirb.  Don’t worry about me.  Gotta go”.  And she hung up.

An hour later I received an email from BeastieBoys.com.  The subject read, “HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM”.  The body said, “hey all, there’s been a change in plans.  please click this link to see a statement from me.  thanks, yauch”.  I clicked the link.  There was MCA, sitting to the left of a bearded Ad Rock.  It took me a minute to identify Ad Rock.  In the video, they are in a studio, but in front of the soundboard rather than behind it.  Something seems amiss from the beginning.  They aren’t clowning.  “OK.  Um.  So”, they start.  Then they laugh.  “It’s not funny”.  “It’s not”.  MCA starts by preparing us for “some pretty heavy news”.  They have to cancel their upcoming shows, delay the release of their new album.  But that’s not the heavy part.  The heavy part is that two months ago he felt a lump in his neck, MCA did.  Thought nothing of it.  A swollen gland like when you have a cold.  But it persisted, so he had it checked out.  Turns out it’s a form of cancer in a gland over here….  He points with his index finger just below his left ear.  He’ll have surgery the following week, radiation treatment to follow.  But it’s localized, not in the rest of his body.  They checked.  His voice should be fine.  Ad Rock keeps his head bowed during most of the announcement, pipes in with a “that’s good” at the part about his voice.  Ad Rock says that Yauch didn’t tell him why he was coming down and that he’s usually dressed real tight.  “It’s a little bit of a setback and a pain in the ass”, MCA says.  And to all of you who were looking forward to seeing us this summer, “I apologize”.

I was at work.  I sent the link to my friend Mike.  I said, “Everything about this is weird”.

Then I IM’d my wife:  “This day is not going very well”.

*****

There’s a version of this discussion that says I was more moved by MCA’s announcement than I was about my mom being admitted to the hospital.  The Beastie Boys are more like family to me than my own family and that kind of thing.  But don’t worry.  This is not that conversation.  Line up my mother and Adam Yauch and tell me to choose and that’s no choice at all.  If the situation were reversed, he’d do the same.  You would too.  You should.

This is more about the surprise I felt when an hour after my heart ached for my own mother it ached again in a similar way for someone whom I have never actually met.  So I’ve spent days probably months listening to his music.  So what?  This gives me the right?  The short answer is “Yes.  Yes, it does”.

I admit the distinction is fine, but it’s the difference between knowing how important someone is in your life and realizing it.

The real surprise is that I was surprised at all.  When I was 12 years old, I stepped into Blue Meanie Records in El Cajon, California.  I’ve known the importance of pop culture in my life since that day.  It’s why I’ve spent a lifetime underlining passages in books, insisting that an album’s first listen is uninterrupted, and crying during the movie when I know how it’s going to end.

But my reaction to MCA felt different.  In those other instances, the emotion is inspired by a phrase, a tune, an image, and in many cases all three.  It’s a goddamned conspiracy of influences, and it’s no wonder I respond the way I do.  I can’t help it.

With MCA, though, it was so stripped down, so emotionally open.  There were no production values; there was no manipulation; he didn’t hide behind a press release. 

It was one take.  Lights up, lights down.

With MCA it felt personal.  Just me and his millions of fans.

*****

The Beastie Boys have long been a fan-friendly act.  The Criterion release of a DVD of their greatest video hits (through <i>Hello, Nasty</i>) includes enough goodies to more than justify the $29.95 sticker price.  Their Web site maintains a truly communal space, one that not only connects fans but also encourages them to create and share remixes of their favorite songs.  They recently released two free audio recordings of them listening and commenting on <i>Paul’s Boutique</i> and <i>Check Your Head</i> (think of them as kind of DVD commentary tracks for CD’s or I guess now MP3’s). 

Of course, their most famous and ambitious foray into fan involvement occurred when they distributed cameras to 50 lucky fans and asked them to film their triumphant concert at Madison Square Garden in 2006.  The result was a feature-length concert film, <i>Awesome, I Fucking Shot That</i>, which was ostensibly “directed” by “Nathan Hornblower”, AKA MCA, AKA Adam Yauch.

In recent years, their relationship with their fans has been conducted primarily over electronic mail.  They’ll send out information about upcoming (re)releases or presales for shows.  Granted, email is tricky.  A name like “Nine Inch Nails” or “The Strokes” under the “sender” column doesn’t necessarily mean that you are corresponding with Nine Inch Nails or The Strokes.  In all likelihood, you are corresponding with their representatives.  Not so with “BeastieBoys.com”, or at least I think not so.  The emails from BeastieBoys.com feel authentic.  I would come home from work and say to my wife, “Guess who I got an email from today?”  She’d say, “Who?”  I’d say, “The Beastie Boys”.  She’d say, “Yeah, right.  And I got an evite from Eminem”.  I’d say, “I’m serious”. 

Yauch seems to be more involved than the others with these messages, probably because he has more to plug.  He’ll see a movie like <i>The 11th Hour</i> and then send out a message urging everyone else to go.  Or he’ll remind us all to see <i>Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot</i>, a movie he directed about high-school basketball players and their spot in the NBA draft.  In fact, the message about <i>Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot</i> was one of his more memorable missives.  Tell me this isn’t Yauch himself:  this friday i'll be at a couple of the screenings at the AMC Loews Village 7 to do Q and A's, so if yr into that kind of [sic], thing, come and hang out with me. and if you are one of those turrets people that screams out things at a Q and A like ‘i love you dude, remember when we smoked a bowl up on the roof of the defjam building?’ that's ok too. see you there!”

At the beginning of the summer they sent out a message that outlined their five-point plan for world domination.  It included a reissue of <i>Ill Communication</i>; festival shows at Bonnaroo, All Points West, Lollapalooza, and Outside Lands; the release of their new album, <i>Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1</i>; and a culminating concert in September at the Hollywood Bowl.  A subsequent email suggested that the plan was well under way.  It was the Summer of the Beastie Boys.

Then, on July 20th, 12:12 PM:  “HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM”.

*****

I’ve had the opportunity (and fortunately the money) to see the Beastie Boys four times in the past two maybe three years.  For a band whose individual members are pretty much indistinguishable from one another in the public consciousness, I’m amazed at how their distinct personalities emerge onstage.

Ad Rock is clearly the leader of the band; he plays guitar when they switch to their instruments.  Mike D and his ‘fro bouncing behind the drum kit are by far the coolest of the three.  And MCA watches his fingers when he plays bass.  He’s the least ostentatious.  With his salt and pepper hair (mainly salt) he looks like the oldest of the three (which is just as well because he is).  Just like Dylan’s voice shot itself out sometime before <i>Time Out of Mind</i> (and many would say long before), MCA’s voice went before they recorded <i>To the 5 Boroughs</i>.  But like Dylan, he uses it to great effect.  He features rather than hides that raspiness.  It’s a perfect complement to Ad Rock’s nasal and Mike D’s bravado flows.

When MCA takes the mic, he’s low the ground, his arms loose at the elbows and the wrists.  He looks like he’s perpetually on the verge of falling down.  A standing-eight count.  Yet he keeps on going.

*****

At All Points West, Jay-Z filled in for the Beastie Boys as the headliner.  I had a hunch that he might throw an homage their way.  He did not disappoint. 

He and his full band opened with “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”.  He didn’t even change the lyrics.  “Born and bred Brooklyn in the USA”, he rapped.   “They call me Adam Yauch but I’m MCA”. 

I wasn’t there.  I sought it out the following morning.  The YouTube clip is grainy as shit.  It gave me chills.

*****

Here’s what I know I know about MCA:  He likes Bad Brains and the Knicks, he supports a Free Tibet, and he’s got no love for George W. Bush.

Here’s what I think I know about MCA:  I think he had a traditional Buddhist wedding, complete with a parade down the streets of Brooklyn.  I think he stopped doing drugs.  I think am pretty sure that I used to see him in Soho when I was walking from my apartment in Chelsea to my job in the Financial District.  He had a beard, a longboard, and a kid.  I saw him at the same place every morning.  I figured his kid went to school somewhere around there and that he walked him/her to school and then skated home.  We made eye contact once.  The eye contact said, Yeah, I’m who you think I am.  Or so I thought.  I didn’t push it.  My friend said he—MCA—lives in Brooklyn, but I think he—my friend—was just jealous.

It doesn’t really matter which of this is true and which isn’t.  It all informed my reaction when I saw him on the clip announcing his heavy news.  “What must his wife and school-age child think?  When will he skate again?”

*****

The hard part about this whole thing—the part that nearly prevented me from going down this road in the first place—is that the story doesn’t really have an ending.  Not yet, anyway, and hopefully not for a long, long time.  I’m already mindful of a last-remembrances tone.  I certainly don’t want to be accused of burying someone before he is gone.

Things are going better for my mother.  She was released a week after she was admitted.  Longer than she thought; longer than any of us wanted.  But she’s better.  The intravenous antibiotics did what the oral ones could not.  She’s back at work next week.  We all think it’s too soon.

Things seem to be going reasonably well for MCA.  There was an email last week.  This one titled “what i did over my summer vacation”.  It’s worth quoting in full.  It reads:

aug 5 2009 

hey all,  

hope you are doing well.  

so i'm about a week and a half out of surgery now and rapidly recovering from it. i haven't taken any of the pain meds, which supposedly speeds along the healing process, or should i say, taking them slows it down. anyway, i spent 1 night at the hospital after the surgery. the hospital was too crazy to get any rest so i headed home to relax, have home cooked food and hang out with the family.  

i'm pretty well detoxed from the anesthesia that they pumped me up with to keep me under for all that time. that took several days to get out of my system. my neck and jaw are still pretty stiff from the surgery, but it gets better everyday. had the stitches out this past monday... so things are moving along. 

but no sooner am i on the mend from this first torture than are they lining up the next one. the next line of treatment will be radiation. that involves blasting you with some kind of beam for a few minutes a day, 5 days a week, for about 7 weeks. that will start in a few weeks... 

saw the jay-z cover of no sleep, and the coldplay one of fight for your right from APW on youtube. good shit. and i heard karen o wore a "get well MCA" armband, and that q-tip gave a shout out too..... very kind of them. 

just wanted to thank them and everyone else who sent positive thoughts my way. i do think that all of the well wishes have contributed to the fact that my treatment and recovery are going well. 

much love back at all of you! 

adam

*****

In lieu of a new album a new single has emerged.  A song called “Too Many Rappers” that they made with Nas.  They debuted it at Bonnaroo.  There’s a quality audio version of the song on YouTube.

Ad Rock gets the best line when he says “Oh my god just look at me / Grandpa been rapping since ‘83”.  That made me laugh. 

But the most poignant lines belong to Yauch.  He’s the first of the Boys to solo on the song.  He rasps, “Yo, I been in the game since before you was born / I might still be emceein' even after you're gone / Strange thought, I know, but my skills still grow /
The 80's, the 90's, 2000's and so / On and on until the crack of dawn / Until the year 3000 and beyond / Stay up all night and I M.C / and never die, cuz death is the cousin of sleep”.

I admit that I don’t really know what that last part means, but the part before—the part about rapping until “the year 3000 and beyond”—that part got to me.

It’s a great lead single.  The beat is a little <i>Check Your Head</i>-ish, but the song is definitely its own thing.  Something both familiar and new.

I can’t wait to see them play it live.

*****

A final word:  Since the original version of this essay was written, MCA has sent out another message to his fans.  This one is called “post india update”.  Apparently he went to India to see some Tibetan doctors (and, as it worked out, to drop in on some class that the Dalai Lama was teaching).  He says, “i'm feeling healthy, strong and hopeful that i've beaten this thing, but of course time will tell”.

The Tibetan doctors told him to eat vegan/organic.  He says that this is easier to do here than there.  This surprises him.

He then talks about a nunnery that he visited and he provides a link.  “[I]t's about $350 a year to sponsor a nun if you are interested”, he writes.  I’m not sure how I feel about this.

He wraps up with a final update about the new record and his health:  “we have not set a new release date for the record yet, but i'm hoping it'll be in the first half of next year. looking forward to that, but in the meantime, i'm just enjoying a little downtime in massachusetts, taking walks in the woods and hanging out with the family”.

Just yesterday—the day on which I received the latest MCA update—my mom was back in and out of the hospital.  It sounds like I’m making this up, but I’m not.  This visit was completely unrelated to the other.

She’s fine.  A minor thing.  But did I mention that she was in and out of the hospital?  I talked to her earlier today, in fact.  She sounds tired.

There’s something to be said here in the end about family:  MCA hanging out with his; me being far away from mine; all of us getting older and experiencing some variation of the same thing.

Family, immediate and otherwise.

I’ve read and re-read this piece some dozen times over the past two months, and, despite my initial insistence to the contrary, I’m just now realizing that this is what it was about all along.


3 comments:

  1. Amen, and well said.

    BTW, I meant to say this a couple of years ago, but way beyond Nas, the cousin/sleep line is actually from Thomas Sackville ("By him, lay heavy Sleep, the cousin of Death, / Flat on the ground, and still as any stone..."), which itself is a riff off the sleep-is-the-brother-of-death trope that goes back, at least in historical record, to Homer and Hesiod.

    And thanks to historical records, Yauch, too, does indeed get to go on until 3000 and beyond.

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  2. Thanks for the context, Kellie. I found it very interesting that the song pretty much stayed intact when it was finally released a year later, with that line being substituted for with another, less loaded verse.

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  3. Yes, resulting in a very different tone indeed. I do wonder how that change came about.

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