By Allan Kupersmith, AWP Development Intern
This May 4 marked six years since Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys died of salivary cancer. Six years might seem like a weird time for a retrospective piece. However, in addition to his music, Yauch’s place as an advocate, and ally is worth revisiting. Yauch was an important voice in Tibetan Independence Movement, a staunch feminist, and an opponent of Islamophobia. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t always the case:
The following paragraphs contain offensive language. Potential triggers include domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault.
The group’s debut album Licensed to Ill was originally titled Don’t Be a F*****t, and the content of the album’s hit singles Girls(Girls-to do the dishes/ Girls-to clean up my room/ Girls-to do my laundry, Brass Monkey:
This girl walked by she gave me the eye/ I reached in the locker grabbed the Spanish Fly/ I put it with the Monkey mixed it in the cup/ Went over to the girl, “Yo baby, what’s up?”/I offered her a sip (sip) the girl she gave me lip (lip) /It did begin the stuff wore in and now she’s on my tip,
and Paul Revere (I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a wiffleball bat) can be described as grossly misogynistic. Behavior that matched the lyrics would follow on the album’s ensuing tour. In the memorial piece The Many Lives of Adam Yauch Rolling Stone’s Brian Hiatt describes the tour for Licensed to Ill as full of “the kind of behavior that Yauch would spend years putting behind him”:
“He hurls full cans of beer against a dressing-room wall, and gets grabby with one fan after signing her torso (Hiatt).”
The Licensed to Ill tour was incredibly debauched with Yauch using infamous Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods as a backstage decadence instruction manual (Hiatt), and the band having female crowd members dance in cages onstage. The wheels began to quickly fall off. Their tour of England devolved into a scandal ridden horror show and Yauch quickly began to see the group’s fans as eerily similar to the meatheads who bullied him in high school. After nearly falling apart due to their own decadence and bad behavior, the Beasties were able to reconvene and go on to critical and commercial success.
The musical revival would come with a denouncement of their previous lyrics and behavior. In the lyrics for 1994’s Sure Shot Yauch rapped:
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end”
This is coming a from a man who once squalled that “The girlies I like are underage.” With the lyrical change came an active promotion of feminist causes. After the Beasties won the 1999 MTV Video Music Award for Best Hip Hop Video Yauch’s bandmate Adam “A-Rock” Horovitz, used their awards speech to decry the rapes and sexual assaults which took place at Woodstock ’99 :
“I read in the news and heard from my friends all about sexual assaults and the rapes that went down at Woodstock ’99 in July, and it made me feel really sad and angry… We can talk to the promoters and make sure that they’re doing something about the safety of all the girls and the women who come to our shows… I think we can talk to the security people to make sure they know and understand about sexual harassment and rape and they know how to handle these situations.”
Horovitz would also apologize for the Licensed to Ill era’s homophobia with an open letter to Time Out New York where he stated that:
“I would like to formally apologize to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record. There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity…. We have learned and sincerely changed since the ’80s…. We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology.”
What makes Yauch and company’s atonement significant isn’t merely the fact that they apologized. Yauch, Horovitz, and Michael “Mike D” Diamond knew that they couldn’t just say sorry and walk away from the issue. They had to use their privilege as straight, white, men and their platform as famous musicians to confront sexism, racism, and homophobia. Even if this meant alienating fans, and annoying other artists. This is something that the Beasties largely stand alone in doing.
An encounter between the Beastie Boys and British electronic group the Prodigy at the Reading Festival in 1998 provides a case study. The Beasties had asked the Prodigy not to perform their hit song Smack My Bitch Up stating that:
The request was refused, and the Beasties were attacked as hypocrites for having caged dancing girls on the Licensed to Ill tour. The fact that the Beastie’s opposition to Smack My Bitch Up came from trying to redeem their earlier behavior was ignored and forgotten.
Years later the Prodigy would dismiss the Beastie’s concerns as Americans failing to understand the Prodigy’s Britishness while talking down to them. The fact that the title lyrics obviously promote violence against women remained lost to the group in 1998 and continues to do so today. The Prodigy are not the only ones. In terms of musical acts which have tried to atone for past sexism and misogyny the Beasties remain largely alone. While receiving praise for acknowledging his privilege as a white man in rap, Eminem remains unrepentant for his longstanding sexism and misogyny. Despite his stinging criticism of the president’s words and policies involving race, Eminem has managed to find common ground with him. From 2017’s Heat:
“Grab you by the (meow) / Hope it’s not a problem / In fact, about the only thing I agree on with Donald is that / So when I put this palm on your cat, don’t snap / It’s supposed to get grabbed / Why do you think they call it a snatch?”
The Outlook’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot summed it up by saying that:
“Lines like this make it seem that the two might have a lot to chuckle about over a taco bowl at the Trump Tower Grill” (Gaillot).”
Ultimately, the same angry, anti-PC, white men who idolized Eminem would later align themselves with the alt-right. While Eminem may chafe at this idea, as the Ringer’s Justin Charity stated:
“The alt-right is a loose, amorphous movement defined largely by young, white men for whom trolling is art, recreation, and ideology altogether; young, white men whose greatest societal contribution is shitposting. These reactionary trolls would abhor Eminem’s anti-GOP politics, and they would never profess to love any bit of black culture as much as Eminem loves hip-hop. But, otherwise, the imageboard Nazis are all somewhat indebted to Eminem; their neo-shock jock, anti-PC razzing is a language they learned, eagerly or unwittingly, from Eminem (Charity).”
Ad-Rock, Mike-D, and MCA realized their word’s and action’s toxicity, their own privilege, and the repercussions of their fan’s meat headed and gross behavior, Eminem did not. He happily encouraged them, showed no remorse for his own behavior, and when he finally took action, much of the damage had already been done. While Eminem deserves praise for risking his fan’s wrath, according to streaming data his fan base is stronger areas that are white and rural, there is still a sense that a lot more could be done. Because of his race, Eminem could appeal to certain audiences in a way that non-white rappers couldn’t. Being a man, he would be given more time than a female rapper or singer. Likewise, Eminem never acknowledged his own sexism and misogyny and his own role in his fan’s willingness to embrace offensive figures.
When looking back at Yauch’s role as an activist and ally you can’t help but feel sad. Much of the dialogue around issues and causes he championed has turned toxic, and a new breed of hate, violence, and discrimination would rise after his passing. Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims would rise after 9/11, three years after he made Anti-Islamophobia speech at the 1998 VMA’s. A similar increase in would follow after the 2016 election which would be coupled by the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment with anti-Muslim policies following suit. A man who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women would become President of the United States. It’s rather telling that Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn was vandalized in November 2016.
However, people should not stop fighting and should continue stand up for causes that they believe in. If anything, Adam Yauch’s memory should continue to inspire activism, and personal enlightenment. Looking back and acknowledging past problematic and unenlightened behavior can be a way of moving forward, and become a method of preventing others from following past mistakes.
“If you’re able to volunteer, volunteer…if you’re a musician, write that anthem. If you’re a writer, write. Take what you’re good at, and what you truly enjoy, and lend your services to the causes you care most about. ‘Cause we can’t, and we won’t, and we don’t stop.”
 While there are, several drinks called a Brass Monkey, the lyrics refer to Club’s premixed Brass Monkey Cocktail
 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/opinion/what-makes-eminems-anti-trump-rap-different.html Streaming data is mentioned towards the end of the article.