Adam Yauch, better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys, died last week. His group was a big deal in hip-hop, not just because they were the first white act to break through, but because they helped establish both the sample-based production and rambunctious lyricism that made rap an international juggernaut.
Within the act, Yauch stood out as well, as noted by our writer Chaz Kangas, for bringing them early credibility. "[H]is grizzled voice -- between Ad-Rock and Mike D.'s higher-pitched wails -- made for their most conventional element, allowing them to connect to a more traditional hip-hop audience."
But from the string of memorials that have come out since his death, one could get the impression that a single stanza came to define his career, from the group's 1994 track "Sure Shot":
I wanna 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 wanna offer my love and respect to the end
This lyric was quoted in the majority of the high-profile obituaries and remembrances of Yauch, including here, here, here , here and here. Noting the preponderance of off-color and misogynist remarks in the group's early work, one writer said that Yauch's evolution represented "a reassuring sign of the possibility of growth and maturity in hip-hop." To another, "this is the Yauch people remember: a man who could say he was sorry and not feel lessened by it."
For sure, Yauch was a complex person. During different parts of his life he was a rapper, a director, a bassist, a basketball fan, a father, a philanthropist, and a Buddhist. At some point after the Beastie Boys blew up he began to passionately and publicly embrace a number of liberal causes.
He also disavowed his previous, virulent homophobia; in other words, he grew up -- something that is not particularly profound for rappers or anyone else. Yes, Yauch should be applauded for taking stock of himself and changing his content. (And perhaps for encouraging others to do the same thing.) But this stance and the above lyric are not Yauch's legacy. Rather, his legacy is his role in one of the most important groups in hip-hop history. And the trio's most important music is, in large measure, their early material -- the stuff they released before "Sure Shot" -- warts and all.
The desire to put Yauch into a socio-political context is understandable for obituary writers. But to imply that this lyric somehow epitomized Yauch's career -- or that his evolution will be what he is ultimately be remembered for -- is an attempt at revisionism.
If we've decided to judge rappers primarily on how delicately they treat the issue of gender relations, than we can go ahead and throw out the majority of Biggie and Tupac's greatest works, for starters.
Again, this is not a defense of misogynist lyrics in hip-hop. But to say that much of what made Yauch great was his disavowal of his randy "alpha male stuff" is to miss the point; it is not controversial to call Licensed To Ill and Paul's Boutique the group's most important works. (Ill Communication is a dope album, but it didn't change rap like those other two.)
Remember, it's okay to think albums are amazing even if you think some of the sentiments expressed on them are deplorable. That's true of hip-hop as a whole.
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