The Beastie Boys and the Segregation of American Music

The outpouring from my Twitter stream yesterday on the news of the death of Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys, surprised me.

The outpouring from my Twitter stream yesterday on the news of the death of Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys, surprised me. To be sure, the death of anyone at 47 is sad news. Yauch was just a year older than me. But my familiarity with the Beasties began and ended in 1986, with “Fight for Your Right (To Party).” I was in college, rap was just going mainstream, and I didn’t like it.  Still don’t. Have you ever tried to hum rap?

It seems that the Beasties continued to have a very influential run and that Yauch had a productive life even apart from his music.

NYT (“Rapper Conquered Music World in ’80s With Beastie Boys“):

Adam Yauch, a rapper and founder of the pioneering and multimillion-selling hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 47.

His mother, Frances Yauch, confirmed his death. He had been treated for cancer of the salivary gland for the last three years.

With a scratchy voice that grew scratchier through the years, Mr. Yauch rapped as MCA in the Beastie Boys, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. They offered many listeners in the 1980s their first exposure to hip-hop. They were vanguard white rappers who helped extend the art of sampling and gained the respect of their African-American peers.

While many hip-hop careers are brief, the Beastie Boys appealed not only to the fans they reached in the 1980s but to successive generations, making million-selling albums into the 2000s. They grew up without losing their sense of humor or their ear for a party beat.

Mr. Yauch (pronounced yowk) was a major factor in the Beastie Boys’ evolution from their early incarnation, as testosterone-driven pranksters, to their later years as sonic experimenters, as socially conscious rappers — championing the cause of freedom in Tibet — and as keepers of old-school hip-hop memories. The Beastie Boys became an institution — one that could have arisen only amid the artistic, social and accidental connections of New York City.

In the history of hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were both improbable and perhaps inevitable: appreciators, popularizers and extrapolators of a culture they weren’t born into.

“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” said Rick Rubin, who produced the group’s 1986 debut album, in a recent interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

The rapper Eminem said in a statement, “I think it’s obvious to anyone how big of an influence the Beastie Boys were on me and so many others.”

The Beastie Boys started their major-label career with two pivotal albums: “Licensed to Ill” (1986), a cornerstone of rap-rock that became the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard chart, and “Paul’s Boutique” (1989), a wildly eclectic, sample-based production that became a template for experimental hip-hop.

The Beasties brand expanded well beyond music: with their own magazine and record label, Grand Royal; with the social activism of Mr. Yauch’s Milarepa Foundation, which produced an international series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts; and with work in film, as Mr. Yauch (calling himself Nathanial Hörnblowér) directed Beastie Boys videos and went on to start Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film production and distribution company.

The Beastie Boys’ appeal endured. Into the 2000s they could headline large events like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Each of their albums up to “To the Five Boroughs” in 2004 has sold at least a million copies, and many of them have sold in the multimillions, in the United States alone.

Rolling Stone (“Beastie Boys Co-Founder Adam Yauch Dead at 47“) adds:

Yauch co-founded the Beastie Boys with Mike “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz in 1979. The band started off as a hardcore punk group, but soon began experimenting with hip-hop. The band broke huge with their first proper album, Licensed to Ill, in 1986; it was the biggest-selling rap album of the decade and the first to reach Number One on the Billboard chart. Further albums Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head and Ill Communication cemented the Beasties as a true superstar act.

In addition to his career with the Beastie Boys, Yauch was heavily involved in the movement to free Tibet. A founder of the Milarepa Fund, Yauch was instrumental in the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park 1996, which drew 100,000 people – the largest U.S. benefit concert since 1985’s Live Aid. After 9/11, Yauch and the Beastie Boys organized New Yorkers Against Violence, a concert benefit for some of the victims least likely to receive help from elsewhere.

Yauch also directed many of the Beastie Boys’ music videos under the pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower. In 2002, he launched the film production company Oscilloscope Laboratories. As a filmmaker, he directed the 2006 Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! and the 2008 basketball  documentary Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, and his production company released the acclaimed Banksy movie Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Ironically, while Rauch contributed to the racial integration of American popular music, he was also part of its segregation along the lines of musical genre.

The Beastie Boys, comprised of three men about my age who became famous at the height of my musical awareness, made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet I can name precisely one of their songs. That concept would have seemed incredible in 1986, which was both the year the Beasties broke out and the Hall inducted its inaugural class.

That first group, of course, will never be topped: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. All were household names with very, very wide appeal; only Brown among them was arguably a genre-specific artist. Subsequent classes got a bit sketchier, largely because of an attempt to recognize “influencers” who weren’t necessarily major artists in their own right and to recognize people outside of rock and roll proper.

Still, jump to the 10th class, 1995, and it’s still household names: The Allman Brothers, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Martha and the Vandellas, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Gladys Night & the Pips, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, The Shirelles, and The Velvet Underground. (The only outlier was Little Willie John, an R&B artist whose recording career spanned six years and had precisely two top 20 pop songs, none of which cracked the top 10, before dying in prison.)

Jump ahead a bit, though, and you start to see a segregation along stylistic lines. Parliament-Funkadelic and Grandmaster Flash were indicted ten years apart, in 1997 and 2007, respectively. They’re the iconic funk bands, but not exactly staples on rock radio. Or look at the 2009 class: Jeff Beck, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Metallica, Run-DMC, and Bobby Womack. There’s not a helluva lot of cross-over in the audiences for those acts.

Andrew Sullivan cites an essay by Brayden King written before Yauch’s passing to answer in the negative “Do Music Genres Exist?” But, while there may be more hybridization and cross-breeding than ever, I’d argue that there’s also more segregation. While it’s impossible to avoid rap and its variants–it’s everywhere, from movies to shopping venues–we can tailor our music listening experience more than ever before.

Rock radio still existed in those days although, thanks to the phenomenal success of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” was amalgamating into a pop mish-mash guaranteed to please no one. If you wanted to hear Metallica, you probably didn’t want to hear Whitney Houston. If you wanted to hear Run-DMC, you probably didn’t want to hear REM. So, people gravitated to either niche stations or, increasingly, to the self-selection of their Walkmans and iPods.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Peacewood says:

    You seriously can’t name a Beastie Boys song other than their first attempt?

    It could be that music is getting segregated, but…

    You could just be gettin’ old, my dear James.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Peacewood: Oh, I don’t doubt that age is part of it. But I wasn’t old in 1987, when their second album came out. Even scanning their discography, none of the other songs jump out by title–although I may well have heard a handful.

    Partly, I drifted into country during that genre’s renaissance that started around 1989. But I can also name singles–and bought CDs featuring–several of the more traditional rock-style bands that debuted in the 1990s, from Hootie and the Blowfish to Blues Traveler. And even some of the rock that made it into the adult contemporary/AOR scene in the 2000s, including Train, John Mayer, Five for Fighting, and others. Hell, I can even name a handful of songs by Enimem and Insane Clown Posse, which are of the white boy rapper genre.

  3. Just to mention, people keep bringing up “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” while talking about Yauch’s death, which is really ironic because the Beastie Boys al HATE this song. They actualy wrote it to mock “party rock” and were very annoyed it became popular with the very same people they were trying to make fun of. They hate the song so much that, despite it being one of their most well known songs, they haven’t performed it in concert in 25 years.

  4. Herb says:

    License to Ill was the first record I ever owned and I scratched the damn thing….

    The weird thing about the Beastie Boys, at least in my local radio market, is that they didn’t get any love from the hip-hop community, but the rock stations play them all the time. I’ve always wondered….is it because they’re white? Maybe…

    But then how does one account for Eminem, who had almost the opposite experience?

    I should write a letter to Clear Channel.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:

    Have you ever tried to hum rap?

    James, I’m older than you are, probably by a decade, and there is some rap that is easily ‘hum-able’. Ice Cube’s “It was a good day” (sampled from the Isley Brothers’ Footsteps In the Dark) and Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” (sampled from Parliament Funkadelic’s classic Mothership Connection album) come to mind.

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    If you can’t come up with “No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn” then you didn’t watch too much MTV in the mid-1980’s. If you can’t remember “Sabotage” you didn’t listen to too much radio in the mid-1990’s.

    Music for generations has been segregated. If you were a Buddy Holly fan in the 1950’s you probably didn’t spend too much time listening to Mario Lanza. Steppenwolf fans in the 1960’s didn’t go to all that many Dusty Springfield concerts. Black Sabbath fans in the 1970’s weren’t all too keen on KC and the Sunshine Band. So on, so forth.

    Regarding the Beastie Boys, their legacy is tied to the urban-suburban-exurban phenomenon and to the fusion between rap/hip hop and rock.

    The Beastie Boys were pure urban youth. You can’t get more urban than Brooklyn, N.Y. in the early to mid-1980’s. The kids who drank themselves blind on college campuses while listening to their music, however, were suburban WASPs. Rich kids. Private schools.

    The first band who fused rap with rock was Run DMC. Listen to “King of Rock.” Keep in mind that was a couple of years prior to “Licensed to ‘Ill.” Thing is, however, RUN DMC were black. Not too accessible to white kids from the burbs or especially to their parents. The Beastie Boys were white. Three Jewish kids.

    So all of of sudden you had rich white kids from the burbs listening to “black” music. Which in turn allowed the commercialization of black rap/hip hop and the ensuing combination of rap and rock. Aerosmith’s duet with Run DMC on “Walk This Way” in that respect was another milestone.

    Were if not for the Beastie Boys a whole host of black artists — from Dr. Dre, to Snoop Dogg to 50 Cent — would have sold a lot fewer records.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    The younger generation of teens is actually appreciating some of the old guys — Beatles, Stones, Hendrix — so there is some generational cross-over now which happened less, I think, in my day.

  8. Herb says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    “Black Sabbath fans in the 1970′s weren’t all too keen on KC and the Sunshine Band.”

    Well, that’s because Sabbath rulez and KC and the Sunshine Band….doesn’t.

    I actually just discovered Sabbath’s Never Say Die, their last record with Ozzy. It came out when I was 2, but man, I love that band.

    Also…

    Not too accessible to white kids from the burbs or especially to their parents. The Beastie Boys were white.

    This white kid from the burb can attest to this experience, although my folks were cool with all rap until 2 Live Crew and NWA. But by then I was listening to Guns N Roses, so it didn’t matter. Same problem, different genre.

    The Beastie Boys were also one of the first (only?) hip hop groups cool with the “alternative” scene of the 90s.

  9. Hello World! says:

    What about Brass Monkey? My senior year of high school that’s all anyone would listen too. I hated it but love Sabatage.

  10. Brainster says:

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to put it bluntly, is a joke. It’s always been more of a pop music Hall of Fame, but when the Beastie Boys are in and Yes, Rush, and the Moody Blues are out it becomes pretty transparently ludicrous.

    As for rap music, I remember a conversation with a friend of mine around 1980, about what kind of music our kids would love. He said that they would like the same kind of stuff we did. I said no, they’d find something that we would absolutely despise and make it their own. Hoo-boy, do I wish I was wrong on that score.

  11. I’ve actually been listening to more rap lately, thanks to the emergence of the “nerdcore” subgenre:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3w1_E1V46M

    Which in someways you could argue the Beastie Boys had some hand in initiating, via songs like “Intergalactic”.

  12. mattb says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    If you can’t remember “Sabotage” you didn’t listen to too much radio in the mid-1990′s.

    Or “Intergalatic” in the early 2000’s. And both of those were played on “Top 40 Radio” — which is what took over from traditional Rock Radio.

    The first band who fused rap with rock was Run DMC. Listen to “King of Rock.” Keep in mind that was a couple of years prior to “Licensed to ‘Ill.” Thing is, however, RUN DMC were black. Not too accessible to white kids from the burbs or especially to their parents. The Beastie Boys were white. Three Jewish kids…. Aerosmith’s duet with Run DMC on “Walk This Way” in that respect was another milestone.

    Good music history (and analysis… though at least in the NYC area there were a lot of Suburban White Kids following DMC). As far as “Walk this way”, an argument could be made that it was Run DMC that led to the Aerosmith rebirth — at that point they really had not been doing anything in years. And I believe that the “Walk this way” video was the first directed video that Tyler and Perry had ever appeared in.

    BTW, without Run DMC there probably wouldn’t have been Kid Rock either.

  13. @Brainster:

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to put it bluntly, is a joke.

    I know I’m weird, but in my mind, the biggest evidence of how lame the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is is the failure to induct Weird Al and Spinal Tap. Both had far more influence on Rock than many of the current inductees, but are ignored because the hall takes itself way too seriously, underlining the chief problem with the hall: the absurdity of the establishment paying honor to an anti-establishment music genre.

  14. mattb says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    underlining the chief problem with the hall: the absurdity of the establishment paying honor to an anti-establishment music genre.

    Bingo. Though when was the last time that Rock was anti-establishment? The early 70’s?

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Punk has remained anti-establishment. You don’t see a lot of cross-promotions or sponsorships there.

  16. @mattb:

    It still is. You can usually identify the anti-establishment parts as the groups not getting inducted despite deserving to by any reasonable objective quality. Instead it’s mostly based on how much time the band spent fellating Jann Wenner.

  17. mattb says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m with Michael. Rock is completely establishment, and started being so after the end of Glam Rock. Other upstart music genres became anti establishment — the counters to rock. Most of them have ended up becoming part of the establishment (I’m looking at you Alternative).

    But, for the most part, Punk remains the most consistently anti-establishment form out there.

    And to a lesser degree there’s Alt.Rock as well (and I’m using Alt.Rock here like Alt.Country — I’m definitely NOT using it to refer to Alternative).

  18. Davebo says:

    But I can also name singles–and bought CDs featuring–several of the more traditional rock-style bands that debuted in the 1990s, from Hootie and the Blowfish to Blues Traveler.

    In my opinion neither of these bands qualify as rock but instead, good old fashioned pop.

  19. sam says:

    As I may have mentioned before, I was around for the birth of rock and roll in the 50s. Prior to that time, music, as much of America, was thoroughly segregated. We used to listen to what was then called, I kid you not, “race music” — music by black artists that was never, ever played on the mainstream radio stations. (Johhny Otis’s show was a favorite.) But white musicians listened and incorporated the tropes of that music into their own. And rock and roll was born. I’ve always thought that rock and roll was the union of country and western and rythm and blues. As for the prevelance of rap and hip hop, since I started learning Spanish, I listen almost exclusively to Spanish language pop stations (some of those artists are really good, eg, Reik and Sharkira). Hip hop is an intergral part of a lot of latin pop. It’s an interesting fusion.

  20. Neil Hudelson says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m just out of being considered part of the “younger generation” now that I’m closer to 30 than 20. (As with all of my cultural comments I know and enjoy that this makes you feel old.) What I’ve been amazed re: music tastes of the current teen set is how varied their interests are. When I was a teen, I liked some classic rock, but mostly I liked what was on the radio–what was considered young and hip.

    Teens nowadays listen to modern crap, but also classic rock, blues, bluegrass based country (see: avett brothers, trampled by turtles), jazz and jazz influenced pop, hip hop, rap that borders on poetry (blue scholars), and a host of other music.

    The 2000s was a wasteland for music, with few exceptions. For the last few years what has been popular and marketable music has been improving by leaps and bounds. Teens right now give me hope that this trend continues.

  21. Wil Smith says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Nerd rock sounds DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince,

  22. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: I know who some of those people are but don’t really know their music–in the sense that I’m sure I’ve heard it but couldn’t identify who’s who. (The same is true of the genre I call Whiny White Chick.) But, yes, that was a great line based on the music of a certain period. “Rap” has been around so long now that it’s a whole lot of different sub-genres, many of which I wouldn’t identify from the beat structure as “rap.” There’s certainly some urban music that’s actually melodic, rather than the angst that was early rap or the “gangsta” stuff of the 1990s. Even some of the early stuff, from Pet Shop Boys to Tone Loc was hummable, even if I wasn’t the target audience.

    @Tsar Nicholas: I came to MTV a bit late but didn’t really watch all that much of it. By the time we had cable, there was so much crap on MTV that I wasn’t that interested. And by the 1990s I was listening to country radio, which was good for maybe eight or nine years and then got boring. Now, I mostly listen to sports and non-partisan talk.

    “If you were a Buddy Holly fan in the 1950′s you probably didn’t spend too much time listening to Mario Lanza” – I think this is a category error. Most people who listen to rock don’t listen to bluegrass,either.

    “Steppenwolf fans in the 1960′s didn’t go to all that many Dusty Springfield concerts. Black Sabbath fans in the 1970′s weren’t all too keen on KC and the Sunshine Band. So on, so forth.” I’m sure that’s right. The difference, though, is that back in the day the radio stations played both of them and people who listened to popular music were well acquainted with all those bands.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    I don’t resent your youth and am so happy to see you and your generation stepping up to pay for the Medicare I intend to exploit the hell out of in a few years. (I’m pretty sure daily massages should be considered medical necessity.)

    Yeah, I really like this generation, and not just because they buy my books. They’ve moved beyond a number of prejudices, including what was my generation’s tiresome belief in its own wonderfulness.

    Although, on the other hand, I just a few minutes ago realized why my 15 year-old chose a movie theater for us to see The Avengers that is far from his school. And why he’d prefer to buy his shoes online rather than going to the mall with his father.

  24. KansasMom says:

    @mattb: I finally have something to hold against RunDMC.

  25. John Cole says:

    You could just be gettin’ old, my dear James.

    Age has nothing to do with it. James and I are roughly the same age, and I have ever Beastie Boys album ever made, and could not only give you titles but lyrics all day long.

    My guess is James just didn’t like the style of music, they didn’t appeal to them, and so he doesn’t know anything about them. I’m not sure how that N of 1 gets James to his wider opinion about society and music as a whole.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @John Cole: My point is that, once upon a time, it was pretty much impossible to ignore pop subgenres that didn’t appeal to you. The Beasties arrived on the scene just as that was changing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, even, you pretty much listened to whatever came on the radio. It was next to impossible for a fan of, say, Billy Joel, not to also be pretty familiar with REO Speedwagon, Led Zeppelin, and AC-DC. If they were popular, you just heard them. But I was easily able to keep up with developments in post-Beasties pop while almost completely ignoring major rap artists.

  27. John Cole says:

    @James Joyner: I wasn’t trying to be confrontational, and were you talking about other artists, I would definitely agree. But the only way you could avoid the Beastie Boys in the 80’s and 90’s was to not own a radio at all. They were omnipresent. Even Intergalactic received widespread radio play on a wide variety of radio stations, and that was nowhere as widely played as licensed to ill, paul’s boutique, or ill communication.

    As to your larger point, though, I would tend to agree. I’d bet there are going to be a number of acts entering the hall of fame that I definitely could not name one song. I just don’t think the Beastie Boys is one of them- they were widely played in a variety of formats.

  28. James Joyner says:

    @John Cole: It’s really weird. Even when people have pointed me to a handful of other Beasties songs from the late 1980s and I’ve YouTubed them, they’re unfamiliar to me. And I’m familiar with several rap songs from that era. You couldn’t avoid, for example, Funky Cold Medina. Not sure how Beasties evaded my radar. I found “Fight For Your Right” silly–which I now gather was the hoped for response, if not the common one–but obviously heard it a ton. Not so their other big hits.