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Obituary: Adam 'MCA' Yauch

image captionYauch once rapped: "I've got more rhymes than I've got grey hairs/And that's a lot, because I've got my share"

Adam Yauch, who was known as MCA when he co-founded and starred in New York's seminal rap group the Beastie Boys, has died at the age of 47, after a three-year struggle with cancer of the salivary gland.

The first white rap group of any renown, the Beastie Boys played a significant role in pushing rap out of the urban centres of the US North-East and into the suburbs.

Winners of three Grammys, they emerged out of middle class neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan to become one of the first rap groups to cross over into pop music.

For Yauch, a Brooklyn native who with his collaborators invoked New York City as both muse and backdrop for their blockbuster records, he later shed the bad-boy image of his youth, directing music videos and a documentary film and forming an independent film distribution company.

He also promoted causes as diverse as Tibetan independence and disaster relief.

Yauch formed the Beastie Boys along with high school friends Ad-rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike D (Michael Diamond), initially as a hardcore band on New York City's punk circuit.

By 1986, the group had signed with Russell Simmons' pioneering Def Jam label.

Parents of the group's young fans were mystified, and many early critics didn't get it either.

"Monotonous, unspirited and, frankly, they gave me a headache," wrote one Miami critic after watching a May 1985 performance.

media captionBeastie Boys: Fight For Your Right to Party

They were dismissed as a fad, an act that would fail to cross over into the mainstream, unlike Def Jam labelmates Run DMC and LL Cool J.

The Beasties' antics won them the disapproval of parents who objected to their obscenities and rebellious lyrics - and the giant phallus they incorporated into their stage show.

In 1988 they were sued by a freelance rock critic who said they had broken into his hotel room while he was sleeping and poured water over his head as a prank filmed for a video.

They irritated authorities on both sides of the Atlantic: in 1987, British Conservative MP Harry Greenway urged Home Secretary Douglas Hurd to deport them after a melee following a concert at Liverpool's Royal Court Theater.

Party rappers

The group's first album, 1986's Licensed to Ill, featured on its cover an illustration of a jet plane crashing straight down into the ground. Stardom followed almost immediately.

The Beastie Boys were among the presenters at the February 1987 Grammy Awards, and Licensed to Ill hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart the following month - the first hip-hop album ever to top the list.

Produced by Rick Rubin, the early Beastie Boys records combined clever, goofy party raps over metal-inflected guitar licks and the heavy drum machines and record-scratching that became staples of New York's hip-hop sound.

They rapped about beer and fast food, parents and high school teachers, vandalism, girls, and darker themes: carrying weapons, robberies and violence, jail, drugs.

New York City was present in many of their songs - save, perhaps, the Western-themed Paul Revere single from Licensed to Ill.

In their rhymes, the Beastie Boys proudly proclaimed their origins in Brooklyn and Manhattan ("MCA's from Brooklyn/'Cause that's where I'm from"); they named a 2004 studio album To the 5 Boroughs, and a 1989 album Paul's Boutique, after a small shop, the location of which has long been debated by fans.

In an early video for the single Fight For Your Right, Adrock can be seen wearing a tee-shirt for Stuyvesant High School, to the eternal delight of the prestigious public school's alumni.

Role models

Mr Yauch (pronounced like the part of an egg) had a performance voice that was remarkably gravely even in his early 20s. He was a gritty foil to Ad-rock's nasally vocals and Mike D's adolescent timbre.

An early reviewer, Jon Pareles of the New York Times, called the trio "a comedy act" compared to other early rappers emerging out of the New York scene.

"Yet for the moment, the Beastie Boys' crafty backup tracks and personal bravado promise to put sheer obnoxiousness back in the rock-and-roll spotlight," he wrote.

image captionThe group plotted a path from angry rappers to accomplished musicians

Adam Yauch was born in Brooklyn in 1965. He attended Edward R Murrow High School in Brooklyn's Midwood section. While still in school, he taught himself to play bass. He marked his 17th birthday by forming the band that would later become the Beastie Boys and go on to sell more than 40 million records.

The Beastie Boys mellowed their bad-boy image in their later years.

In the 1990s, the Beastie Boys traded their obnoxious, party-rap image for vintage samples and skinny suits and ties and high-concept music videos.

Their 2004 album To the Five Boroughs was praised for its good intentions and earnest social and political commentary ("We've got a president we didn't elect/The Kyoto Treaty he decided to neglect", Mr Yauch rapped).

After the Beastie Boys' recording successes, Mr Yauch branched out into film. Under the alias Nathanial Hornblower, he directed many of the Beastie Boys music videos and a 2006 concert film.

In 2008 he formed Oscilloscope Laboratories, a film production and distribution company that aimed to back independent films "with the same artistic integrity with which they were made".

That year he directed his first feature-length film, Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, about high school basketball players.

In July 2009, the band announced he had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour on his left salivary gland, and the group cancelled a concert tour and the subsequent release of a studio album.

They backed out of an appearance at the All Points West Music and Arts Festival in New Jersey the following month. In a tribute, hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, also a New Yorker, filled in for them on the set list and performed their blockbuster No Sleep Till Brooklyn.

The prognosis initially seemed positive, with the Beastie Boys telling fans they expected no impact on Mr Yauch's vocal chords. But the group never performed again.

Last month, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - only the third hip-hop act to be honoured that way.

Yauch was absent and unable to accept the award.

He is survived by his wife Dechen, his daughter Tenzin Losel and his parents Frances and Noel Yauch.

More on this story

  • Beastie Boys star Adam Yauch dies aged 47